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How-To

Asian Noodle Soups

Break away from the everyday without losing the comfort factor of noodle soups

Fine Cooking Issue 56
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Nothing conquers winter chills quite like a steaming bowl of soup. While old standards like chicken noodle are always reliable, I’m often in the mood to make something different but still comforting. That’s when I make these Asian noodle soups. They’re incredibly tasty—bright, zippy, big on flavor—and yet require no more ingredients than what you can find in a well-stocked supermarket. And unlike a traditional stock-based soup, they come together relatively quickly.

Create a flavorful broth in layers

These soups get their complexity from a combination of both bold and subtle flavors. Layers of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy make a full-flavored broth that defines the character of each soup.  

I start by simmering beef, chicken, or shrimp in a combination of water and canned chicken broth. (For the shrimp version, the flavorful shells are used and then strained out.) The canned broth provides a savory shortcut that doesn’t intrude on the natural flavor infused into the broth by the meat as it cooks. What you get is a rich, deep, flavorful broth without having to use whole chickens or large pieces of fatty beef that require long simmering times, straining, chilling, and defatting. The soup is almost ready to serve once the broth is completed.  

I introduce classic Asian flavors to the broth in two layers. First, I sauté the aromatic ingredients, which might include chiles, ginger, garlic, onions, lemongrass, and spices. These are highly fragrant ingredients, and cooking them in hot oil before the broth is added lets their flavors open up. Next, I enhance the broth with ingredients like soy sauce, fish sauce, chile paste, coconut milk, rice vinegar or rice wine.

Starchy Asian noodles are best cooked separately

There’s an astonishing variety of Asian noodles made from everything from buckwheat to rice. Most are fairly neutral in flavor and mainly characterized by their appearance and texture, ranging in degree of chewiness and slipperiness. They’re ideal for soups.  

In the recipes here, I’ve recommended the specific type of Asian noodle I prefer. A bit of swapping and experimenting, however, is a worthy pursuit (for suggestions, see Three versatile Asian noodles, below). But whichever  noodles you choose, don’t cook them directly in the soup or the broth will become cloudy and starchy. It’s also important to note that once the noodles are added to the soup, they absorb liquid, expand, and become quite soft. For this reason, it’s best to keep the cooked noodles aside until just before serving.

Three versatile Asian noodles

Udon noodles are a Japanese noodle made with wheat flour and water. Plump, white, and slippery, they’re most commonly used in soups and stews. They may be round, square, or flat and are sold both fresh and dried in the Asian or natural-foods section of the supermarket. You can substitute Chinese wheat-flour noodles.

Chinese egg noodles are classic Asian noodles made from wheat flour, water, and egg. Springy with a slight chew, these noodles are made in thin or thick strands. Look for fresh ones in the supermarket’s produce department; be sure they contain egg and aren’t tinted with food coloring instead. Fresh or dried pasta—angel hair, spaghetti, or linguine—can be substituted.

Rice noodles, made from rice flour and water, have a subtle flavor and an appealing chewy texture. They can be very thin, sometimes called “vermicelli,” or flat and narrow to wide. The Spicy Noodle Soup recipe calls for the latter, but another size would work just as well. Look for them in the Asian section of your grocery store.

A buyer’s guide to Asian ingredients

Lemongrass: Fresh lemongrass should be firm and pale to medium green, with a pinkish-white bulb; avoid stalks that are dry and yellow. Trim lemongrass by cutting off the spiky green top and enough of the bottom to eliminate the woody core. Peel off a few of the outer layers until you get to the tender heart of the stalk.

Soy sauce: Look for naturally brewed soy sauce, which is mellow and well balanced. (Many brands are chemically fermented, and their flavors can be sharp, acidic, bitter, and overly salty.) Kikkoman is fine and widely available.

Sesame oil: Asian sesame oil is made from toasted seeds. It ranges from golden to brown in color and has a pronounced nutty flavor. It’s primarily used for seasoning, not cooking, and a little can go a long way. A lighter version, made with untoasted seeds and sold in health-food or Middle Eastern stores, can also be used as a flavoring but is more suitable for cooking.

Fish sauce: The pungent, salty flavor of fish sauce is made by packing fish (usually anchovies) in crocks or barrels, covering with a brine, and letting the fish ferment over periods of months. Fish sauce is often labeled nuoc mam (the Vietnamese name) or nam pla (Thai).

Mirin: A Japanese rice wine with an 8% to 14% alcohol content and lots of sugar, mirin is used only in cooking. Look for hon-mirin, which is naturally brewed and sweetened. Aji-mirin may be easier to find but is made with additives, including salt and corn syrup.

Coconut milk:
Wrung from grated and water-soaked coconut flesh, coconut milk shouldn’t be confused with coconut cream, which is a heavy, sweetened product often used in Latin American cooking. (The clear, flavorful juice inside the coconut shell is called coconut water.)

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