Growing up in the Yorkshire town of Sheffield, England in the ’70s and ’80s, I was of the belief that Asian food consisted of little more than the local Chinese and Indian takeaways. It wasn’t until I moved to London that I discovered the delights of that most diversely delicious of foods – the noodle soup.
If, like me, your version of TV porn is food shows, you’ll know that whenever the likes of David Chang or Anthony Bourdain get noodle soup, they don’t head for the white-tableclothed Michelin star venues – they are in some random cheap food court, or on a packed side-street restaurant at midnight, drinking beer and munching greedily on a bowl that’s often filled with all manner of exotic and unpronounceable ingredients. And it’s utterly delicious. In 2016 Anthony Bourdain famously took the then President of the United States, Barack Obama, out for noodle soup in Hanoi, with the bill amounting to a whopping US $12 – beers included.
My addiction to this sensational and incredibly adaptable dish began when I stumbled upon a noodle soup restaurant hidden in the North London suburb of Wood Green during a shopping trip. Apparently it’s no longer there, but this plastic table-covered, tiny eating house was always brimming with nationals from various Asian countries, tucking into bowls of ramen, tsukemen (noodles that are served separately to the broth, and dipped before eating), and of course the eternally-popular chicken noodle soup. The place fascinated me – I’d never eaten food like it before, and I couldn’t get enough.
It didn’t matter to me that I was almost always the only European face, or that I was on my own – like a junkie, every chance I got, I’d hot-foot it to this secret oasis of noodle nirvana, trying every flavour, every variety I could find. After a while, the menu became obsolete – whenever I went in, the chef just brought me whatever he was testing out at the time. Chicken, pork, beef, greens, rice vermicelli, egg noodles, spicy, clear, thick… the diversity was incredible. Each one had its own distinct flavour and texture, and no matter what the weather, or the ingredient options, I couldn’t get enough. Like a true addict, I was hooked.
Over the years, I’ve tried many noodle soups from lots of different countries. As well as the Chinese varieties, there’s the Vietnamese Pho, the Tibetan Thukpa, German Rindfleischsuppe, Sopa de Fideo from Mexico – the idea of putting noodles into a soup has been around for ages, with many countries believing they were the first. (This happens with a lot of food – try talking to anyone from China about pasta being Italian and you’ll see what I mean.)
In New Zealand I’ve encountered a problem however – it’s actually very hard to get a bowl of noodle soup that isn’t dripping in MSG, or that doesn’t taste utterly bland. The secret to any noodle soup is in the broth, and many restaurants simply don’t spend time on making a good stock. Whether chicken, beef, pork, fish or vegetable stock, a good stock takes time and good ingredients – and sadly, this is often ignored for the sake of speed and cost.
In desperation, I contacted one of New Zealand’s Asian food experts, former creative director of Cuisine magazine, William Chen, to see if there’s such a thing as a good noodle soup in Auckland.
“You’ve picked on a very elusive commodity,” he told me. “Many Chinese and Malaysian restaurants don’t serve it. The stumbling block is in the stock. A good chicken/pork ribs/ beef stock is time consuming and adds to the cost. That is why Chinese eateries use the dreaded MSG. You might have noticed Chinese eateries offer a clear soup with pork bones (lai thong), but no noodles. Lai thong is served at the very beginning of the meal.
“I’m not a real fan of Chinese food as such. Some Chinese restaurants still tenderise their chicken/beef/pork in sodium bicarbonate and they taste vile in soups. That and msg will put you off forever.”
But William isn’t the foremost expert for no reason, and he has shared with us a list of Auckland restaurants he has enjoyed noodle soups:
- The Kway Teow Th’ng (soup) at Angie’s Kitchen, Mount Street, City www.facebook.com/angieskitchen/. Flat rice noodles in a rich chicken stock with generous additions of chicken, fish cakes, fish balls and bok choy.
- You can request a Chicken Noodle Soup at Cinta Malaysian, 454 Dominion Road www.cintamalaysianrestaurant.co.nz. You can have the usual egg noodles, flat rice noodles or vermicelli.
- Sri Pinang, 356 Karangahape Road www.facebook.com/pages/Sri-Pinang/151613248230140 makes a Wantan Noodle Soup. A hearty flavoursome soup, the chicken wantans are made as you order them and don’t have prawn. Noodle is kway teow, mainly on their lunch menu.
- Fish Fillet Noodle Soup, from Mamak Takapuna, Sentinel Building, 6 Huron Street, Takapuna www.facebook.com/mamak.nz. The Noodle is rice vermicelli (bee hoon) and the stock is made from fish and (evaporated) milk.
- Selera Malaysian Cafe, 487 Khyber Pass Road, Newmarket www.facebook.com/pages/Selerae/170776306304420 Shredded Chicken Noodle Soup, with prawn. Clear chicken stock, kway teow (flat rice noodles). Also available at Mama Rich (sister restaurant), 205 Great South Road.
- Gu Xiang Malaysian Restaurant, 102 Pakuranga Road www.facebook.com/Guxiang-Malaysian-Restaurent-417693145076618/?rf=1515794528651728 has all manner of noodle soups. Prawn, fish head, fish ball, barbecue pork & wantan.
- Love A Duck. 302 Dominion Rd, 2 Kilham Ave, Northcote www.loveaduck.co.nz has extensive noodle soup choices. Wantan, vegetable, bean curd & roast pork, fish ball, steamed chicken, honey BBQ pork, beef brisket, crispy roast pork, beef ball, BBQ Beijing duck, deep fried pork cutlet, lemongrass pork chop. A very Cantonese style soup where the toppings (as above) are placed on top of the noodle soup.
- Happy Cafe, Shop 19, 691 Manukau Road, has a similar Cantonese soup menu to Love A Duck. They even have shredded Duck & salted cabbage vermicelli soup.
- Fu Lin, 361 Great North Road, Henderson, has the same noodle soup setup. Try the shredded duck & cabbage vermicelli soup.
Thanks to William’s list, I have a lot of research to do to discover where – if – there is a noodle soup eatery that can live up to my probably rose-tinted-glasses expectations. Until then, unable to bear watery mush, or preservative-ridden nasties that left me with digestion issues for days afterwards, I started to make my own. I always have a range of stocks in my freezer (you’ll find recipes in the Cooks section), and I use these as building blocks for a variety of soups that my daughter Jess and I love.
While nothing beats the authenticity of the real thing, a good noodle soup is a fantastic lunch option that you can make up in a matter of minutes in a work kitchen or at home. Jess is 15, and loves making her own versions when she gets home from school to tide her over until dinner. The rice vermicelli options are particularly good if she has sports practice later, as they fill her up without the stodge of wheat pasta. You can find my recipe for this simple chicken broth (above left) in Cooks/Soups.
I’m still on my quest to find a good noodle soup, and I still constantly play with ingredients to see how I can improve my own versions. Until I manage to get on a plane to one of the countries that do have a true mastery of the art of the noodle soup, this will just have to do – unless someone out there knows something I don’t! Tell me – do you know of a good noodle soup in New Zealand? If you do – share your secret. I promise I won’t tell anyone!