Soup-er Thirsty, Send Noodles
This post is essentially part two of 'Laos Talking, More Eating' so if you haven't read it, go do that first.
After reminiscing about that delightful meal in Luang Prabang I decided to re-create the experience in my home with some friends. This noodle soup was not intended to be a copy or exact replica, but rather an homage to that masterful creation. When it came to sitting down and writing this article I found myself more and more opposed to writing a straight forward recipe. This dish isn't about following exact steps and doing what you're told. I followed my instincts rather than a following a recipe, which felt very true to the 'choose-your-own-adventure' serving I received in Laos. So I've tried to break down my process to give you a couple of building blocks that you can use to make your very own version of noodle soup.
First up, some important notes: I want to acknowledge that I have borrowed wildly from many different wonderful and distinct Asian cuisines to create this broadly South East Asian-style dish. It is not intended to be indicative of one particular cooking style. Also: a dish like this deserves good ingredients that you may not be able to find at your local colesworths so if you haven't been to your local Asian Grocers then a) WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH YOUR LIFE!? and b) go and check one out, it is a #goodtime. This is where I got pretty much all my dry goods (noodles, dried shiitakes, fried shallots) as well as some 'specialty' products like the different kinds of tofu, and the shaoshing wine. Many will have great fresh ingredients too, so look out for lemongrass and Asian herbs.
Start With A Good Broth
Any good soup must have a solid base to it. The majority of soup is just liquid so matter how good the stuff you put into it is, your soup experience will be sub-par if your broth is rubbish. For my noodle soup I made a basic vegetable stock using a South East Asian flavour profile. YES, I know that sounds wanky and off-putting, but let me explain! A classic French/European stock will have things like carrot, onion and celery making up the base with herbs like thyme, parsley, and bay leaves adding extra flavour. Simmered with water and white wine over time, you would find yourself with a classic French style vegetable stock. So, sticking to the same stock making principles I just used different ingredients; flavours you'd associate with Asian cooking.
- Spring Onion
- Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
-Coriander stem & root
-Shaoxing Rice Wine
The dried shiitake mushrooms in particular will give your stock heaps of colour and depth; it's a well-known vegan flavour hack. Make sure you 'bruise' your lemongrass (literally just bash it up a bit around the base) to release all those delicious aromas. Once you've got a delightful simmer happening you should really only need about 45 minutes to get all those flavours into that broth.
Seasoning Makes Everything Taste Better
Once you've strained your stock it's time to season it to bring out all those wonderful flavours and add some body to your broth. Many South East Asian cuisines are built on a fine balance of Salty, Sweet, Sour, and Hot. Here's how I seasoned my broth:
Salty: dark soy, fish sauce, sea salt
Sweet: palm sugar
Sour: fresh lime juice and tamarind paste
Hot: Sambal Oeleck chilli paste
Remember that golden rule of seasoning: you can put more in but you can't take it out again! If you add each element in moderation and keep tasting as you go you should be able to improve the flavour and keep a nice balance.
I found I needed more chilli and fish sauce than I expected, and I also gave my guests extra lime wedges and fresh sliced chilli to adjust the broth to their own taste.
Variety Is The Spice Of Life And Also Of This Soup
This is, I believe, applicable to most soups but ESPECIALLY to vegetarian & vegan dishes (with the exception of a small amount of fish sauce, this dish was completely vegan). Adding a variety of flavours and textures will make every mouthful different and interesting. For example, I used both fried and silken tofu which have remarkably different textures. The silken tofu has that barely-set, almost jellylike wobble, and the fried tofu puffs soak up flavour like a sponge.
I also cooked up thick rice noodles and thin wheat egg-noodles. Like most of the other ingredients, each guest could load these into their bowl and warm them all through as the hot broth was poured over the top.
The central vegetables of the dish were beautiful mushrooms from the farmers markets. I used fresh shiitake, shimeji and enoki mushrooms. The sliced shiitake and shimejis required a short simmer in the broth to cook them through but the thin enokis wilted once the hot broth was poured over them in the bowl.
Also on the table were wedges of steamed eggplant, quartered baby bok choy, thinly sliced spring onions, and plenty of crunchy bean sprouts.
Garnishes Are The Difference Between Good and Great
A big part of what elevates good food to a professional level is the garnishes that are added. Most home cooks CBF to add those finishing touches (no judgement, you do you) but I reckon they're worth bothering with, especially for a dish like this. Fresh herbs provide so much freshness and flavour and are a big part Asian cooking. I used Vietnamese basil and coriander leaves. I also sprinkled some crunchy fried shallots on top. These crispy little bites are addictive and having that crunch on top of the soup is SO. GOOD.
So there you have it. A good broth, seasoned well, with a variety of filling ingredients and garnishes. My tiny flat is a far cry from a Laotian alleyway but I like to think that I did justice to that memorable meal.