Looking for some unique, fun dishes to cook while we’re all hunkered down at home? Today, I’m going to share my go-to meal during this crazy Covid-19 epidemic – Asian noodle soups without recipes. They’re a truly great way to make a wide variety of quick, cheap, nourishing and ridiculously delicious meals.
Sure, you can follow exact recipes for things like a Vietnamese pho or a Thai coconut curry soup. But that requires having exact ingredients which you may not have, especially right now. It can be a lot more fun to improvise and riff off what you have on hand. And it’s even more fun to NOT have a preconceived notion of how your soup will taste.
But here’s the key point:
When you follow the simple 5-step formula below, it will ALWAYS taste good. You really can’t go wrong. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’ve struck gold and make something so unique and delicious that you’ll seriously consider opening a restaurant. Or starting a food blog. 🙂
My inspiration for this post came from my recent trip to Thailand. Though it was my third trip there and my 6th overall to Asia, I am never not in awe at the incredible variety of noodle soups. They’re just an every day part of the cuisine and every street vendor, cafe and restaurant has different interpretations. Youll never have the same noodle soup twice.
Here’s just a few pics of the different noodle soups I had on my trip:
So now that I’m in quarantine with most of the world, I’ve been using these soups as inspiration to make my own versions. I’ll make a basic foundation of a seasoned broth and vary it every time with different meats, veggies, noodles and seasonings. And I’ll just riff based on what I have in my fridge and freezer. It’s SO EASY and SO FUN. And you’d be surprised how many Asian noodle soup ingredients you can find in regular supermarkets now.
Let me show ya how to do it!
Pick any broth or stock your heart desires. Usually, this comes down to what you already have in your fridge or freezer. If you don’t have any pre-made broth, you’ll have to make one from scratch, which is not hard. Store-bought is OK too though choose a good quality one if you can such as Kettle and Fire or Bare Bones. Keep in mind that making your own broths will save you a lot of money in the long run. Choose from any of the following:
My default choice is almost always rice noodles. They’re super versatile, gluten-free and they come in many different shapes and sizes.
The most most common form though is what some call a “pad thai” or “rice stick” noodle (pictured left). It’s a basic flat medium-sized noodle that’s ideal for any type of noodle soup. You can find Asian Best brand rice noodles here.
And then there’s your wheat-based noodles, the most common varieties include the following:
You can also find glass noodles (also called “cellophane” noodles) which use starches that are neither wheat or rice-based. Common types are mung bean noodles, tapioca starch noodles and sweet potato starch noodles. They’re very thin noodles with quite stringy, soft textures. Personally, I don’t like any of them but they’re a good option for those on grain-free diets.
Choose any type of noodle you want. Try different types and you’ll find what you like.
Pairing your broth with the same meat makes sense. So chicken with a chicken broth, beef with a beef broth, etc. But you can mix and match other meats too. Pork and chicken are almost always interchangeable. Same for beef and game. You could even use chicken broth as a base for a seafood soup. The only combination I wouldn’t go for would be land-based meats in a seafood broth. Otherwise, there’s really no right or wrong. Some additional tips:
For veggies, you name it, it will work in a noodle soup – carrots, peppers, greens, broccoli, string beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc.
Aromatics are combinations of highly pungent veggies, herbs and spices. These will infuse your broth with some awesome aromas and flavors. The most basic combo for Asian noodle soups is onions (or shallots), ginger and garlic.
You can never go wrong with that.
Different ethnic cuisines have different tried and true combos, often which are a defining feature in that cuisine. For example, in Thai soups, you’ll often find what I call the “triple gem” of lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves. In Indian cooking you’ll see a lot of turmeric, coriander, cumin and cloves.
But when improvising the point is to not worry about established formulas. The point is to use what you have and improvise. Remember the key point from above: It will ALWAYS taste good.
Here’s a list of some common Asian aromatics. Try to choose at least one or two from each section for each soup you make. And of course, it’s good to have as many of these stocked as possible for more creative combinations.
Hardy herbs (to infuse the broth)
Ground red chiles
Black or white pepper
Delicate green leafy herbs (to finish soup)
Perhaps the most important step, this is where you season your soup to YOUR PERSONAL TASTE, and why it’s hard to go wrong when making Asian noodle soups. Simply adjust and balance flavors that appeal to you. Just do it slowly and incrementally.
Typically, what yo’re looking to do is to balance what’s called the “four S’s” – salty, sweet, sour and spicy – the four classic Asian flavors that are combined in myriad ways in Asian cuisine. You’ll find most of these in some simple packaged forms in your supermarket.
Let’s break it down by each S.
The overwhelming majority of time this will come down to choosing soy sauce or fish sauce. I often use both. I like soy sauce for it’s bolder flavor and then I’ll finish off my soups with fish sauce. But again, it’s totally UP TO YOU.
My preferred brand of fish sauce is Golden Boy from Thailand or Squid from Vietnam. For soy sauce I often use the San-J line of soy sauce because they have organic and gluten-free versions (including tamari).
Not all soups are sweetened but you’d be surprised how many are. And when I say “sweetened” I don’t mean sickeningly sweetened. I mean just a touch of sugar. For example, Vietnamese pho is sweetened, as are many types of Thai beef noodle soups.
In Thailand, white sugar is often part of a caddy of four seasonings that’s on the table of every eating establishment. This caddy also includes chile powder (spicy), chiles in fish sauce (salty) and chiles in vinegar (sour).
The best type of sweetener for Asian noodle soups is some form of coconut sugar, the traditional sweetener of southeast Asia. Granulated coconut sugar is OK (and easiest to find in stores) but coconut palm sugar in a syrup or hardened block form (which will dissolve in hot broth) has a more caramelized, richer flavor. Eastland brand coconut palm sugar (pictured left) from Thailand is a great choice though it’s hard to find this outside of Asian markets. Regular cane sugar is OK if that’s all you have. Try at least to find an organic version.
I should mention that I don’t often sweeten my Asian noodle soups. I typically crave more of the salty and umami flavor. But richer soups, such as beef noodle soups, or super spicy soups, do well with a little sweetness to balance things out.
The sour flavor in soups usually comes from either lime (or another sour fruit) or vinegar. Hot and sour soups, such as tom yum, usually means a hefty dose of both chiles and lime juice. But just a touch of sour flavor is sometimes all that’s needed. A squeeze of lime can work wonders in some types of Asian noodle soups. So can a touch of rice vinegar, white vinegar or even apple cider vinegar. Different types of chiles in vinegar (or fish sauce) is a very common spicy seasoning sauce in most Asian countries. A simple recipe is include below.
This always comes down to three choices:
1. fresh chiles
2. dried chile flakes or powder
3. chile-based hot sauces.
If you can’t tolerate any spice or heat, that’s perfectly fine. Skip all three choices. If you want to light your mouth on fire and open the gates of your sweat glands, go for it. Add as many fresh fiery chiles or the hottest hot sauce that your tongue can tolerate.
Fresh Thai bird’s eye chiles are the quintessential chile of southeast Asia but be careful, they can be fiery hot. My tolerance is about 1-2 per bowl of soup. Anything more than that, my sinuses start flowing and I’m sucking air hard (which is not very enjoyable). Thai chiles can sometimes be hard to find in conventional supermarkets. Jalapenos and serranos are easier to find and good substitutes.
Also, know that simmering fresh chiles in broth can really ramp up the heat level. I prefer to chop them and add them separately to my bowl, like you would hot sauce, to better control the heat level.
Admittedly, using fresh chiles can be a little tricky because some are spicier than others. It’s perfectly fine to use chile powder or flakes or some type of hot sauce such as sriracha.
Instead of balancing each flavor individually, sometimes you can use seasonings and pastes that combine multiple flavors. And while you can certainly buy these things in stores (most of which are highly processed) you can also make them at home. When made with fresh, real ingredients they’ll add some incredible zing and zest to your soups.
Two of my favorites come from Thailand and they’re so easy to make that you can barely call them recipes. Both “recipes” below are from my Thai Soup Secret cookbook.
Pictured on the left is chiles-in-fish sauce and on the right is chiles-in-vinegar. I keep jars of both in my fridge at all times. They can be used for other Asian dishes too such as fried rice or fried noodles.
Nam pla means “fish sauce” and prik means “chiles.” You can play around with this and add a little lime juice, garlic and sugar for fancier versions. You can also substitute other chiles for the bird’s eye chiles.
1/2 cup fish sauce
10 – 15 bird’s eye chiles, thinly sliced into small rings
1-2 cloves garlic, optional
1/2 – 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice, optional
1/2 – 1 teaspoon coconut sugar, optional
In a medium jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the fish sauce and bird’s eye chiles. Add the garlic, lime and coconut sugar (if using) for additional flavors. If you’re using this sauce in the span of a few days, it will keep at room temperature. Otherwise, keep it in the refrigerator where it will last at least a few weeks.
Nam som means “vinegar.” White vinegar is most commonly used in Thailand but feel free to use other types of vinegar like rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar.
2 to 3 serrano or jalapeno chiles
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
Slice the chiles into approximately 1/4 inch thick rings. In a medium jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the chiles and vinegar. It will keep very well at room temperature but will also last quite a while in the fridge.
Finally, if you have an Asian market near you, check out the different types of packaged pastes and sauces. Sometimes making Asian noodle soups is as simple as dissolving one of these in a hot broth. You’ll often find a bewildering array of choices from Thai curry pastes to Indian curry pastes to Indonesian sambals to Chinese bean pastes like hoisin sauce to sweet and spicy Korean gochugang and dozens more. Fair warning – many are highly processed and full of artificial flavors and colors. But there are some gems in there. I really like the Maesri line of Thai curries. Another favorite is Annie Chun’s Korean gochujang paste. Try them out and experiment!
Although this is technically a recipe, since it’s written down, it will create a good foundation from which you can improvise on your own.
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.