You're not alone if the thought of hunching over a bowl of hot noodle soup, the broth steaming up your glasses while shovelling noodles into your mouth, makes you actually and longingly dewy-eyed for the cold weather.
Noodles are one of the most popular foods in the world. They have a "moist, fine, satisfyingly substantial texture," says Harold McGee, who wrote On Food & Cooking, "and a neutral flavour, which makes [them] a good partner for a broad range of other ingredients", especially a full, filling broth.
When thinking of origins, all roads lead to China, the first country to develop noodle-making, sometime before 200 BCE (Before the Current Era). Evidence from this time cites different noodle shapes, and recipes using wheat flour mixed with broth, as well as rice flour. China also came up with filled pasta, the original ravioli, or dumpling soup. What began in northern China as luxury foods for the ruling class gradually became staples of the working class, and spread to southern China, to Japan, and the world.
Each country has made noodle soup their own with particular ingredients and practices. Take Japan, where ramen is more than a food. Ramen makes up about a quarter of all meals eaten outside the home, and is the subject of 20-odd theme parks like Ramen Town – a kind of mid-century Sovereign Hill of noodle soups. Dishes evolve, too, so that within each country's soup types are often dozens of regional specialities, and infinite variations from shop to shop, and family to family.
Sticking with the soups most of us know, Vietnam's pho, which has been a pop dish in Vietnam for only a hundred years, varies from north to the sweeter south – the most common style found here, where you'll have to search the suburbs to find pho thickened the traditional way, with blood. Malaysia's laksa has three broad types: the rich, creamy coconut curry laksa believed to have come from Persia, and in Singapore's more recent history, topped with earthworms for their saltiness; the assam laksa, with tamarind and mackerel; and Borneo's Sarawak laksa. Then, there are those soups that are not so widely known outside their home ground.
Speciality soup shops offer so many shades of noodle soup – from world icons to a version of a specific dish served in a town on an island in a country thousands of kilometres away – , a bowlful of soulful soup is never far away.
Spicy beef noodle soup. Photo: Luis Ascui
1. To slurp or not to slurp? Absolutely. Slurp quickly and slurp loudly in Asian soup shops. Slurping makes soup taste better in the same way wine tasters suck in air to spread the flavour through to the nasal passages.
2. How do you eat it: with noodles loaded into the spoon or from the chopsticks? There are no noodle soup police; it's pure, casual enjoyment. Eat it how you like.
3. Plastic utensils are the business: the deep, Chinese-style hook handled soup spoon stops itself from slipping under the broth, and reusable chopsticks go some way to curb the mammoth strain on the world's resources that goes into hundreds of billions of disposable chopsticks chucked out each year.
4. In English, soup means both a savoury liquid dish and to increase the power of something. Coincidence?
5. Keen to try cooking noodle soup at home? Noodler, The Noodle Soup Oracle (noodler-app.com) is an app that's a cookbook, with 3 million recipes, a dictionary, and magic eight ball.
Combination chicken stock soup at Tina's Noodle Kitchen, Preston. Photo: Supplied
Combination Chicken Stock Soup
Tina Li, from Tina's Noodle Kitchen
260g rice noodle
4 oyster mushrooms
3 pieces of black fungus
2 pieces of bok choy
2 tofu slices
½ a tomato
6 pork meatballs
4-5 pieces of beancurd skin
4 quail eggs, pickled and peeled
20g beanshoot sprouts
500g chicken stock
½ tsp ground black pepper
chopped spring onion, to serve
100g pork mince
1. Soak the rice noodles for 5 minutes in 90C hot water, and another 30 minutes in cold water. Then drain off the water.
2. Tear the oyster mushroom, black fungus, and bok choy into small pieces.
3. Slice the tofu and tomato.
4. Now, to prepare the pork meatballs; mix all ingredients together, and knead the mix into small round balls. Then cook them in boiling water for 10 minutes.
5. Place cooked pork meatballs, sliced tofu, tomato, black fungus, beancurd skin, bok choy, quail eggs, and beanshoot sprouts in a casserole dish.
6. Boil the rice noodle and all the ingredients with chicken stock in the casserole for five minutes on a high flame.
7. Serve with chopped spring onion on the top.