Slurping up a bowl of delicious noodle soup is, for me, a fundamental act of living, like reading a good book or having a meaningful conversation with someone, it is something that I cannot live without. As exaggerate as it sounds, for some people, it could be driving a cutting edge designer car or going on luxurious holidays, but for me, as long as there is a bowl of steaming hot noodle soup in front of me, I am content.
Noodle is an essential and staple ingredient in Chinese cuisine. When I was a child, there was (or perhaps still is) a noodle shop in every corner of every street in the old Macau city. We would eat noodle soup or ‘lo-mein’ (noodles dressed in seasoned soy sauce) with ‘won-ton’ (dumplings), braised beef brisket or vegetables (etc) as breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night supper. The noodles (usually two types: thin and thick wheat noodles or rice noodles) served in these small eateries are usually fresh rather than the dried type that we usually get in supermarkets. These fresh noodles have a beautiful ‘to the bite’ texture. I remember I loved to watch how the noodles were prepared in the noodle shop where normally has a small open kitchen: the cook would first put a net of noodles on a large mesh ladle, skillfully dipped it in a large pot of boiling water or broth, merely for a minute or so, during then noodles would be methodically tossed and stirred with a pair of long wooden chopsticks, once the noodles were al dente, the cook would transfer them into a bowl, topped with whatever you ordered, then ladled over some steaming hot broth (often made with bones) that had been cooked for many hours (or even days). Finally garnished with chopped spring onions. Although my favorite one then was thick noodles dressed in sweet sticky soy sauce served with pan-fried pork chop; blanched in the same manner, but the noodles then immediately dressed in seasoned soy sauce once they were cooked, so that the noodles could soak up the piquant sauce effortlessly, topped with a piece of perfectly cooked, tender pork chop, then wrapped in wax paper greased with sesame oil (the take out version). It was always an exciting moment when I unwrapped the pack of noodles at home, the redolence of the seasoned soy sauce and the aroma of the juicy meat escaped from the wrapper and filled up the air, then with a pair of chopsticks on one hand and a small white ceramic spoon on the other, I would indulge myself into the world of noodles slurping.
After moving to Berlin, I learned that it has the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. For me, this means there is a vast number of authentic Vietnamese restaurants mostly family runs scatter around the city. I love Vietnamese food because of the use of simple, fresh ingredients and the flavours which entail, nearly all the dishes contain fresh herbs and crunchy green salad and vegetables. I especially fond of the famous Vietnamese noodle soup ‘Pho’, slippery soft rice noodles submerge in a fragrant bone broth, topped with paper thin tender beef slices and sweet sliced onions, served on the side are crunchy beansprouts, fresh coriander, basil, chili and wedges of lime. Everything is just match made in heaven: savory, tangy, spicy and umami, it is an absolute joy to slurp up a bowl of Pho whenever I visit a Vietnamese restaurant.
However, as much as I love Pho, I haven’t yet spent hours of cooking a bone broth myself at home, since I am quite lucky to be surrounded by really good Vietnamese restaurants, I think I will leave this ‘broth cooking project’ aside for the time being, but rather create a similar version which I can cook at home when I crave for Pho, without devoting hours to cook. This recipe although simple compares to the traditional Pho recipe, but with equally fresh and tasty ingredients, which will surely make this dish shines with great flavors and perhaps it will become one of the staple dishes in the family which you will crave for from time to time.
Notes: It is worth to make the broth a few hours ahead, it only takes 30 minutes to cook but letting it sit for a while will help it developing a better flavour, but if you don’t have the time, you can of course use the broth straight away. When making broth for noodle soup, always season the broth slightly saltier (or spicier) than usual, because the vegetables and noodles will balance the taste once everything is cooked together.
Meatballs Noodle Soup with Asparagus, Courgette and Edamame – inspired by the popular Vietnamese Pho
For the broth:
- 1 onion, halved, leave the skin on
- 3 sticks of spring onion
- 1/2 bulb of garlic
- 2 large pieces of ginger
- 2 star anise
- 4 cloves
- 10 black pepper corns
- 1 small bunch of fresh coriander, stems and leaves
- 2 lemongrass, remove the top end near the bulb, make a few superficial cut near the bulb and then bend a few times to bruise the stalk
- 1 handful of dried shrimps (optional)
- 1.5 Litre of good quality Dashi or Vegetable stock
- 6 tbsp. of fish sauce (if you use vegetable stock as a base, add 4 tbsp. first depends on the vegetable stock you are using, add more when needed)
For the meat balls:
- 300g organic minced pork or beef, or a mixture of both
- 2 tbsp. of Tamari (or regular soy sauce)
- 2 tbsp. shaoxing rice wine, or Sake
- 1 tbsp. oyster sauce (gluten-free or regular)
- 1 tbsp. of corn starch (or potato starch)
- 2 tsp. of sesame oil
- freshly ground black pepper
For the noodle bowl:
- 6 green asparagus, cut into 6cm long pieces
- 1 courgette, ribboned with a vegetable peeler (or thinly sliced)
- 1 cup edamame, beans only
- 450g rice noodle
- Coriander leaves
- Mint leaves
- 1 Lime, cut into wedges
- optional: 2 hard boiled eggs, halved (1/2 egg per person)
First prepare the broth: in a cast iron casserole, or other heavy bottom pan, dry-toast the first 7 broth ingredients in medium low heat, stir from time to time. When the vegetables are slightly charred and the spices releases their aroma, carefully pour in the dashi stock or hot vegetable broth. Add the lemon grass, coriander, dried shrimps (if use) and fish sauce to the broth. Bring to boil and simmer with the lid on for at least 30 minutes, then season to taste, add more fish sauce or salt if needed. Covered (still with all vegetables and spices) and let it sit for at least an hour or best over night.
While the broth is simmering, make the meatballs: in a mixing bowl, combine all meatballs ingredients until all seasoning is evenly distrubited. Form meatballs (about 1 heaped tablespoonful) with your hands and it should make about 12 meatballs. Put them in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up or you can also cook them straight away.
When the broth is ready, drained the broth through a sieve and pour them into a big jar or bowl, set aside.
Soak the rice noodles in boiling water for about 3-4 minutes, or 2 minutes before the stated cooking time (according to the package), drain and rinse under cold running water, drain again then set aside.
Heat the same casserole or heavy bottom pan (cleaned) with a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Fry meatballs until they are golden brown and cooked, turn a few times to ensure they are evenly cooked, about 10 minutes.
Remove the cooked meatballs on a plate line with kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil. Discard the oil in the pan (if needed) but do not wash the pan as all the lovely meaty flavour will enhance the taste of the broth. Add the broth and deglaze the pan. Bring to boil and then turn the heat down to medium high. Carefully have another taste, the broth should be on a slightly salty side.
Add the meatballs and asparagus and simmer for about 2 minutes, add courgette slices, edamame and then noodles. Bring everything to boil and then removed from heat.
Divide the noodles first into warm bowls, then meat balls, vegetables and hard boiled egg. Finally ladle hot broth onto the bowls, garnished with coriander, mints leaves and a squeeze of lime juice, served immediately.