When I was young I was first introduced to the wonders of Asian cuisine by my mom, who would to take me to a Japanese market on her lunch breaks. There I would explore the various aisles filled with colorful packages and goodies of all shapes and sizes that sparked my curiosity. In the food court I would walk around peeking into each glass display that showcased menu items via plastic culinary imitations, which somehow still seemed to make me drool. Always ordering the same bowl of steaming ramen, with its rich noodles and punch of spice, I would leave the market more than satisfied and looking forward to the next trip when I could do it all over again.
Those routine trips were what catapulted Asian soups to the altar of my favorite foods. Beginning with ramen, I soon segued into different obsessive phases with Japanese udon, Thai tom yum, Chinese hot and sour soup, and Vietnamese pho. Udon seemed friendly enough with its fat noodles and earthy broth, while tom yum’s heat always cleared my sinuses when I was sick at home. My best friend’s mother was from Vietnam and whenever I’d sleep over she used to dish up homemade pho, infused with fresh herbs and dense fish balls.
Throughout the years my taste buds went on a journey of diverse flavors and I knew had to travel to these countries to try the real thing for myself. Twelve years and many bowls of soup later, I found myself booking a flight to Bangkok for a two-month backpacking trip into the heart of Southeast Asia. We made our way through Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, and West Java. This was a chapter I liked to call my “soup cleanse,” as I planned to fill my belly with as many different varieties as I could get my hands on.
In Vietnam we biked, trained, and boated our way from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, where were able to experience the true flavors of Vietnamese pho. Many are surprised to learn that in Vietnam, pho is actually a staple breakfast item, and the style actually changes dramatically from north to south. A typical pho has broth with your choice of your choice of beef, from tripe to tenderloin. In Hanoi the pho [pho bac] is typically more savory with thick, wide noodles, whereas in Ho Chi Minh the pho [pho nam] is on the sweeter side with slightly thinner noodles and comes with additional toppings like basil, lime, mint and cilantro. Varying spices from anise to cardamom are also incorporated. Some say the lack of toppings in pho bac is due to the north being a historically poorer region compared to the south. Either way, with so many complex flavors it’s no wonder different flavor palettes have developed within regions, and many locals seem to have their preferred type.
In Thailand my search for tom yum, a very spicy citrus broth with prawns and veggies, led me to bustling market stalls, side street restaurants, and surprisingly even the mall. From Chiang Mai to Ko Phi Phi, each bowl was more delicious than I could have imagined, and I was ecstatic when I had the opportunity to take a cooking class and learn how to craft my very own.
However, venturing through the Thai marketplace you quickly realize why the soups in Asia are so difficult to replicate back home: the sheer amount of locally grown ingredients that are unavailable elsewhere. Our chef introduced us to two different types of eggplant, three types of peppers, a special species of basil, and even different kinds of lime. While many could be substituted for other ingredients back in the U.S. it was clear that the flavor would be far from authentic – just another reason to eat as much soup as you can while you’re there!
After we had our fill of tom yum, we decided to head down a different flavor path. My friend had just finished up a round-the-world trip in Japan and was craving some ramen, so we headed into Bangkok’s Japan town. Skimming over the menu, we decided to avoid the “raw chicken sushi” (photo evidence above) and requested two heaping bowls of traditional tonkotsu ramen. My friend told me that the best ramen she had was in the subway system of Japan where you pay via a vending machine, which seemed all very Back to the Future to me. While I’m sure our ramen didn’t live up to her subway ramen, downing a liter of creamy pork marrow broth was enough to get our fix.
It’s funny how something as simple as eating soup can give you a glimpse into different cultures. I remember reading on the back of a Japanese menu, directions on the proper way to eat ramen. Unlike in the U.S. where making noise when you eat is taboo, in Japanese culture you are encouraged to slurp your noodles as a sign of enjoyment. Also slurping supposedly enhances the flavor of the noodles and broth, much like when a wine connoisseur slurps wine! Another difference is that many Southeast Asian countries spicy foods are eaten all year-round – even in the notoriously humid summers. Actually, eating spicy soup when it’s hot outside can actually cool you down by causing you to sweat, which leaves a longer cooling affect than drinking a glass of ice water. Finally I have a rational excuse to eat soup in summertime!
Soup inspired my trip to Southeast Asia, but by following it I realized how much cuisine shapes our culture. Sitting in the marketplaces in Vietnam and Thailand I could feel the pulse of people flowing through the narrow stalls, eating, talking, exchanging. Everywhere there was food you would see all walks of life gathered together from businessmen to families, all sharing local flavors. Like art, each country had their own culinary interpretation, each one blending different mediums to create their own masterpiece. While I couldn’t experience all these works of art on my trip, I know I’ll continue to add to my collection as the years go on.