Beyond ramen and pho: A beginner’s guide to Asian noodle soups
Love is the family pack of instant ramen that didn’t fit in my luggage. After seeing me off at the airport, my mom drove to the post office to send it express, so it’d arrive at my dorm by the time I landed.
As a college student in the mid-’00s — around the time serious ramen shops from Japan were opening outposts in New York City — instant ramen wasn’t just a taste of home. It was practically currency.
These days, there’s a “best Asian noodles” listicle for every major U.S. city, and though public fervor for la mian or pho may rise or fall with the times, this much is clear: Noodle soup is here to stay. It is an essential fixture of American eating.
The more noodle-lovers eat, the more they learn. There isn’t just ramen, but whole styles of it, from spare, salt-licked shio to creamy tonkotsu. And at this point, for every style of noodle, there’s a restaurant in America that specializes in it. Whether you seek northern pho in Houston or Korean ramyun in Los Angeles, it pays to be specific.
Here then is an introductory guide to East and Southeast Asia’s noodle soups — beyond the ramen and pho you likely know. Is it comprehensive? You bet your mohinga it’s not. But consider it your menu cheat sheet when deciding between boat noodles and mi xian for dinner.
Ramyun: South Korea
Instant ramen isn’t just big in Japan and the U.S.; it’s also a hit in South Korea, where Nongshim Shin brand is a packaged-food force to be reckoned with. Flavors and kitchen additions vary there as much as they do in Japan, but like much Korean cooking, ramyun tends toward bold aromatics, like garlic and black pepper and spice from kimchi or red chiles. At Jeju, a Korean ramyun bar in New York, pork ramyun gets its red hue from a fat spoonful of gochujang, and it’s garnished with daikon kimchi — not actually spicy but undoubtedly Korean.
Ramen may be Japan’s most popular noodle to eat out, but in home kitchens, udon’s the thing for meals that go beyond a flavor packet. A thick, pliant noodle made from a simple wheat dough — it doesn’t get the alkaline treatment that gives ramen its springy texture — udon is typically packaged fresh and refrigerated rather than dried. Though you can submerge udon in anything from curry to hot pot, it’s typically served in a simple broth made with dashi, light soy sauce and sweet mirin. Tempura and sliced scallions are common toppings, but at New York udon shop Raku, you can up the ante with monkfish liver or bacon.
An ancient noodle made from buckwheat flour, soba predates ramen’s arrival in Japan by hundreds of years. Though it’s often adulterated with wheat flour for easy shaping, the purest versions are only made with buckwheat, and soba chefs study the craft of noodle-making with as much intensity as their sashimi-slicing peers. In the summer, the nutty-tasting noodles are served cold — often nested on a plate to dip into shoyu — to help you cool down and best appreciate their unique grainy texture. But come winter, say if you’re making toshikoshi soba to celebrate the new year, they’re usually served hot in a dashi, soy sauce and mirin broth. You can get both styles at Suzu Noodle House, an old lion of San Francisco’s Japantown.
Lagman: Xinjiang, China
The westernmost part of China along the Tajik and Kyrgyz borders, the Xinjiang autonomous region is one of the homes of the Uyghurs, an ethnic group that also has roots in Uzbekistan and Russia. Lagman, a wheat noodle imprinted with knotty kinks from the fingers that stretch it, is the dish that ties the Uyghurs’ many nationalities together. It’s commonly thrown into hearty beef or lamb stock with anything from chickpeas to cabbage to tomatoes, along with Central Asian spices like cumin and caraway. Think hearty hibernation fare to survive the Uzbek or Russian winter. And find it in places serving food from those countries, like Traditional Russian Cuisine in Portland, Oregon.
Guo qiao mi xian: Yunnan, China
In southwestern Yunnan Province, the go-to noodle is mi xian, made from a rice-and-water batter that’s fermented before extruding to turn it bouncy and pliant. It’s sold fresh at morning markets and used for all kinds of soups, but the most famous internationally is “crossing the bridge noodles,” a dish that’s served deconstructed: light broth, fresh noodles, raw and cooked meats and vegetables and pickles and condiments arrive each in their own bowls. They are then assembled and “cooked” at the table in mere minutes. The result is an especially aromatic soup with a touch of dramatic flair. It’s been popping up a lot on Instagram recently, but Yun Chuan Garden and Spicy City in Los Angeles have been serving it for years.
Beef noodle soup: Taiwan
Taiwanese cooking is a unique fusion of multiple mainland Chinese cuisines, Japanese aesthetics and native ingredients, and many consider beef noodle soup to be the island’s national dish. The opaque, dark-brown broth has a rich beef base, ideally with lots of marrow bones, and may be seasoned with chile bean paste, tomato, Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, soy sauce, cinnamon and then some. Just as important are fat hunks of beef, rich in connective tissue and hopefully with some chewy tendon to boot, to canoodle in the bowl with round or flat wheat noodles. With its sizable Taiwanese population, Los Angeles is the beef noodle soup capital of the U.S., and Bull Demon King in the San Gabriel Valley is the new go-to spot.
Bún bò Hue: Vietnam
Bún = rice noodles, bò = beef, and Hue = a central Vietnamese city often overlooked for its nuanced cooking. This spicy noodle soup may be its best known export, and with its deep beef-and-pork broth, heartier noodles, floating cubes of congealed blood and tangle of fermented shrimp paste, lemongrass, and herbs, it’s just as worth getting to know as pho. While there aren’t many bún bò Hue specialists stateside, many of the pho shops in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a Vietnamese hot spot just south of Boston, also serve the dish. Try Hien Vuong on Dorchester Avenue for starters.
Boat noodle soup: Thailand
It’s not street food — it’s canal food. Historically served off boats in Bangkok canals, boat noodle soup is a quick and hearty bowl of beef or pork broth with rice noodles, slices of meat, pork skin, meatballs and often — but not always —a slurry of ferrous blood to thicken and enrich the dish. As with many Asian noodle soups, it arrives with some assembly required; restaurants typically serve the bowl relatively plain so you can dress it up with vinegar, sugar, chile paste, fried garlic and pickled chiles to your taste. At Pye Boat Noodle in New York, you can get your boat noodles with a variety of broth bases while digging into other Thai street snacks like grilled meatballs and grilled, marinated jerky-like pork.
Khao soi: Thailand
In Thailand, it’s usually the southern regions that sauce up their curries with coconut milk, but this northern soup is a noteworthy exception. Effectively a hybrid of chicken noodle soup and mild curry, Chiang Mai’s khao soi is a rich, comforting bowl featuring stewed chicken leg, pickled vegetables and preserved chiles on the side and two kinds of noodles: soft round ones in the bowl, and crispy fried ones on top as a garnish. After a contentious skirmish between dueling across-the-street khao soi shops in 2015, Ugly Baby emerged in 2017 as New York’s go-to creamy noodle soup spot.
La paz batchoy: Philippines
As with many foods in the Philippines, there’s no one way to make la paz batchoy. The broth may be based on chicken, pork, shrimp or a combination. You may get a hardboiled egg on top or a raw one that cooks in your bowl. It may get licked with chile heat or not at all. But there are two constants: soft, rich egg noodles and lots of pork offal, such as liver, intestine and kidney. It all creates a rich mineral taste bolstered by fermented shrimp paste. Crumbled pork cracklings are an essential crisp topping for the dish. At House of Inasal in New York, you can choose your egg raw or hard-cooked, but the liver is mandatory.
Laksa: Malaysia and Singapore
Like ramen, laksa is really a whole family of seafood and rice noodle soups spread across Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and even Thailand, but especially Malaysia and Singapore. The two overarching types to know are curry laksa, milder with a creamy coconut curry base, and assam laksa, which skips the coconut for a sour broth of tamarind, kokum or other souring agents. Though curry laksa sometimes comes with chicken, shrimp is the usual protein, simmered in a broth built on curry paste and brightened with cilantro. Assam laksa can get punishingly sour and funky with fermented fish in the broth, which is how Malaysian import PappaRich does it at locations in New Jersey and New York.
A typical Burmese breakfast, mohinga combines fish broth with rice noodles (sometimes the fermented kind, aka mi xian in China) and aromatics like lemongrass and ginger for a soup that balances sweet, salty, sour and funky flavors. It’s often thickened with ground, toasted rice or chickpea flour — a common Burmese technique — and stained yellow by turmeric. Though ubiquitous in Myanmar, it’s hard to find in the U.S., owing to a paucity of Burmese restaurants. But people line up around the block for mohinga and tea leaf salad at Burma Superstar in San Francisco.
Most Tibetan cuisine is hearty fare, and this is certainly the case for thenthuk, a noodle soup common in Amdo city. It’s made with thick hand-pulled wheat noodles or roughly cut squares of wheat noodle dough that simmer into pillowy dumplings. In Tibet, the vegetable additions are mainly a question of what’s available; the broth itself is made from yak or sheep, though in the U.S. beef is the more common choice. That’s how it’s done at Lhasa Fast Food in New York, where the beef broth and knife-cut noodles are joined by tender slices of beef, crunchy wood ear mushrooms and bracingly hot chili oil that you can add to your taste.
Soto ayam: Indonesia
A chicken and rice noodle soup as curative as a bowl of matzo ball, soto ayam is all about balancing the simple flavor of poached chicken with the intensity of earthy fresh turmeric, spicy ginger, fragrant herbs and oily candlenut. The broth, a rich yellow from that turmeric, also gets seasoned with makrut lime leaves and lemongrass. To bulk up the dish even further, it’s common to add cooked rice or chunks of boiled potatoes to the bowl along with the rice noodles and shredded chicken. At Kopi Kopi in New York, the soto ayam gets two not-at-all-Indonesian additions: nori, toasted sheets of seaweed and menma, Japanese fermented bamboo shoots. It’s part of a rebranding effort on the owners’ part to make the dish more accessible to the city’s noodle slurpers. They call it soto ramen.