When many people think of noodle soup, their first thought is likely to be chicken, specifically either the Campbell’s canned variety, with its little spaghetti segments and thick layer of yellow grease, or the shallow diner bowl, featuring a salty broth with never nearly enough chicken and egg noodles boiled to within an inch of their lives. But to know only chicken noodle soup is to not know noodle soup at all. It’s comforting when you’re sick, but it isn’t even the best way to consume savory chicken broth (may the matzo ball live forever on) and does a disservice the noodle itself, one of the greatest inventions in foodstuffs.
Originating in China in ancient times and adopted by Europeans as pasta, noodles are a staple across East and Southeast Asia. Where there are noodles, there is usually soup, and a quick bowl is many people’s breakfast of choice. In Asian noodle soups, the noodle is no afterthought. It’s the base, the star, a soup delivery vehicle that carries all the favors of the bowl in one bite. Here’s a brief guide to Asian noodle soups beyond the usual murderer’s row of pho and ramen to up your soup game for the rest of the winter and beyond.
For every noodle soup I mention, there are a million more combinations of noodles with different broths or toppings. But I hope this will inspire you to go out and order something you’ve never had before or cook something new at home. Go forth and bring glory to the name that is noodle soup.
The wheat noodle relies on gluten development for its signature chewy texture. Consisting of usually just flour and water (sometimes other ingredients for flavor or coloring; one of my favorites is spinach), the dough is mixed together, kneaded, and left to sit for at least an hour to develop its elasticity. From there, the dough is rolled out and either hand pulled or knife cut.
Hand-pulled noodles are found mostly in China and Taiwan and are not very common in the U.S., so I always order them whenever I can. The impreciseness of pulling noodles causes some parts to be thicker and chewier and others to be thinner and smoother, which I just think is fun!
Beef noodle soup is a dish that originated in northern China and is done best by the Taiwanese. Seriously: run, do not walk, to your nearest Taiwanese noodle joint. You’ll be rewarded with a delicious soup that is sour, spicy, and meaty, full of medium-sized noodles with enough chew to hold their own against the toppings of thinly sliced beef, salted peanuts, and fresh cilantro. It’s the perfect comfort food. And if the restaurant’s got a deli fridge of cold dishes, go for those, too. Wood ear mushroom salad and spicy pig’s ear are absolute musts.
Udon is a thick Japanese knife-cut noodle. The dough is rolled out into a sheet and sliced, creating a uniform shape. Udon noodles are soft and tender and are usually served in a light, slightly sweet dashi broth.
If a restaurant has udon on the menu, it’s all but guaranteed to serve tempura udon. This is udon at its simplest: noodles in a golden brown dashi stock with crispy tempura served on top. You can eat the tempura quickly to enjoy the variety of textures in your bowl, or let the fried coating soak up the soup.
This is where the preparation of wheat noodles starts to diverge: though technically a wheat noodle, you mian is made with eggs, lending it its signature yellow color. The noodle is thin and found mostly in Southern Chinese cuisine.
Wonton noodles are a signature dish of Hong Kong. It consists of al dente you mian in a delicate flounder broth, topped with shrimp wontons and green onions. The trick is to slurp the noodles down as quickly as possible to maintain the al dente texture.
Let’s travel a little farther geographically south and talk about rice noodles. Rice noodles are more ubiquitous than wheat in Southeast Asian countries. The ingredients are just rice flour and water, and since there is no gluten development, the mixture is usually formed into a sheet and cut into noodle strips. What results is a tender noodle with a little chew, served in lighter soups than their wheat-based counterpart.
Mi xian is a thick rice noodle originating in the Yunnan province in Southern China, which shares a border with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Mi xian can be used as a substitute in any dish with hand-pulled noodles and offers a good gluten-free alternative.
Mi xian soups are often beef based and topped with a variety of Chinese pickles called suan cai. They can often taste like pho’s sour cousin. Each restaurant that does mi xian has its own recipe, so check out your local spot and see what speaks to you on the menu.
The name of both a Vietnamese dish and a noodle, these noodles are small and square. They’re similar to the noodles used in pho but are thinner and chewier. These noodles are used widely across southern Vietnam and Cambodia.
Kuy Teav is a staple breakfast across Cambodia. Similar to pho, the soup has a pork base rather than beef and is served with a variety of toppings you can add at your own discretion. It’s a little sweet and very savory. If your new year’s resolution was to buck beef, try to find some kuy teav the next time you have a hankering for pho.
I’m sure you get the idea at this point: Starch noodles use starches like mung bean or sweet potato powder to create a bouncy, versatile noodle.
So thin that they’re sometimes used as fillings, glass noodles are small and slippery; they get their nickname from their transparency. They’re see-through and seem to disappear into the soup.
Found in both Laos and Thailand, mee kha tee is a soup that’s either chicken or pork based and fortified with ingredients that depend on who’s making it: all varieties add coconut milk, but the Lao like to add red curry paste, and in southern Thailand, the soup is made pink with the addition of ketchup! The soup’s smooth and rich coconut flavor is enhanced by the extra spice and tartness.
Naengmyeon is a Korean noodle made with buckwheat starch. It’s brown and clear with a delightfully bouncy texture. It’s usually served cold, either in mul-naengmyeon or, for those who like spice, bibim-naengmyeon. The broth of mul-naengmyeon is refreshing and crisp and delicious, especially with toppings like cucumber and Korean pear. It’s a light dish perfect for muggy, sweaty summers.