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Timeless Asian Soup BowlsTimeless Asian Soup Bowls

December 1, 2004

13 Min Read
Timeless Asian Soup Bowls

A steaming bowl of coconut green curry noodle soup makes its way across the dining room as I watch from my open kitchen perch. The customer swirls the soft egg noodles around her fork, and I can tell immediately that the intense, mingled perfume of fresh-torn basil, cilantro and mint is making its way to her nose. By now, the pungent citrus aftertaste of lemon grass surrounds her palate. I feel fulfilled as a smile and look of great satisfaction appears on her face as she glances in my direction.

This is almost always the reaction that I see -- largely because big bowls of Asian-inspired soups are pure culinary brilliance. They contain every wonderful culinary ideal chefs aspire to in one package. They represent comfort food at the finest level. Asian soups are forgiving because if the broth is good, almost any ingredient can be added with confidence. They provoke feelings of health and well-being. There is a tremendous range of flavor because with Asian cuisine, we are speaking about a broad spectrum of ethnic origins, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and even Indian influences. Each country offers unique ingredients and flavor profiles. Even when offered as an appetizer, these soups are in reality a liquid meal -- beautiful to look at, filled with radiant colors and unique shapes.

To some, eating Asian soups is a ritual, and popular movies, such as "Tampopo," have elevated Asian bowls to star status. Asian cultures, in fact, combined hot liquids with beneficial medicinal herbs and other ingredients making soup one of the original functional foods. Various soups were prescribed for everything from a weak immune system to a lackluster sex life. Perhaps there is validity to all of this. I reach for a bowl of chicken soup at first sign of an impending cold.

What goes around

We know that Asian soups are widely embraced and have made the leap from ancient, worldwide cultures to dinner tables and supermarket shelves across the country. To a chef or development specialist, this presents a unique opportunity. There are many components to take under consideration within this menu category.

Oddly enough, the vessel or bowl has to be right. The concept of "what goes around, comes around" applies here. The very birth of soups is tied to archeological discoveries indicating that stone vessels were used for soup making. One could not exist without the other. These stone crocks were used for boiling liquids, hard grains and bones together to make a nutritious food. These vessels for soup were vital to its creation and consumption then, and those tenets still hold true today.

The ultimate common denominator

The broth is the foundation of any soup, whether Asian-inspired or not. The challenge here is that Asian-soup broths are often derived from ingredients that are not traditional in our country and recipe repertoire. We are used to chicken broth, beef broth and vegetable broth.

Many Asian-soup broths are made from combinations, such as chicken and pork, organ meats and chicken bones, or oxtail bone marrow and dried mushrooms, just to name a few. Some broths contain sake while others offer a dashi broth containing bonito, or dried-tuna flakes. Many Asian broths, especially Japanese, are made with kombu, a type of kelp, while others might be simmered with different varieties of seaweed.

Anyone can plop ingredients into a bowl of liquid. However, a well-made, clear broth is indispensable to any great Asian-inspired soup. Traditional Asian broths are simmered for long periods of time over very low heat to preserve the clarity of the broth. A clear broth is the sign of quality and great care. This means production will need to take place at a controlled, low simmer of no more than 185?F.

Most Asian broths are also strained before incorporating into finished soups -- unless they are for a congee thickened with rice in the broth. The added benefit to customers is that all of the ingredients will be visible in the broth. An example of this style is traditional Vietnamese pho, now widely accepted as Asian comfort food and served in large bowls with broth derived from beef bones, tendons and sometimes a combination of beef and pork or chicken. There are also seafood versions. Another example, Szechwan hot-and-sour soup, is often made from chicken bones or a combination of chicken and pork.

Fresh flavor frontiers

Although many flavor-profile similarities exist among Asian soups, there are also some distinct differences. Throughout my three decades of cooking professionally, the "five-taste principle" has been my guide. Even though science adds a sixth taste, umami, the tastes that guide my cooking are sweet, sour, salty and bitter, as well as spicy. These categories steer the way Asian soups taste. However, hundreds of combinations and flavors affect taste within this arena.

I break these down into two major categories: fresh ingredients and shelf-stable packaged condiments. Fresh seasoning ingredients are a hallmark of Asian soups. Some of the most- common spices I use are ginger root, garlic, lemon grass and hot chiles. In place of ginger, some traditional cooks from South and Southeast Asian countries use its relative, galangal, which has a similar flavor.

These ingredients are usually made into a spice mash, which can be puréed with canola or peanut oil. I make these in large quantities and refrigerate the mash, using it as we make the soup bowls to order. Typically, this mash is added at the beginning of the cooking process, allowing the strong flavors to permeate the broth and garnish. Any number of spice mashes, which will later become the predominant flavor profile, can be made in large quantities using vertical cutter mixers. These mashes can be frozen or dehydrated, as well. Large-scale batches of ginger, garlic, lemon grass or spice mash can contain curry paste. These combined ingredients, added to the broth mix at the end of the production process, will pack quite an intense aroma when reconstituted.

Other fresh ingredients are common to Asian soups. However, these are introduced in an entirely different way. Fresh herbs, mostly basil or Thai holy basil, pungent cilantro, fresh mint, lime zest and scallions, are commonly used in Asian-soup bowls, but must be added at the last minute before serving, allowing the heat of the warm broth to release the perfume of these delicate, volatile ingredients. In fact, traditional Vietnamese pho soup is served with a plate of basil, cilantro and mint leaves, along with lime and sliced chile peppers, for the customer to add on their own as the bowl is placed in front of them. It is both an aromatic and textural consideration. One way to incorporate this traditional flavoring in a mass-produced version would be to include a separate flavor packet, which includes the dried flavors of mint, basil, cilantro and lime, that the end user will add just before serving, allowing the hot liquid to release the flavors.

Have you ever walked into an Asian grocery store? It is honestly one of my recreational interests. I get lost among the thousands of ingredients, condiments and sauces. Again, these ingredients live in the five-taste principle world -- but there is immeasurable variety.

Thai-spice paste comes in three colors and flavors. There must be dozens of soy sauces and aged tamaris. Miso, a fermented-soybean paste, comes in several bulk-packaged flavors and styles ranging from mild white to deep red or brown types, which are the strongest in flavor. Typically, white or light-colored miso is used in Japanese cuisine and delicate broths and soups, while red or brown miso is used in hearty soups, Asian stews and strong-flavored broths containing shiitake mushrooms, beef or pork.

Dried chile peppers, sea vegetables, spice mixtures, seasonings, dried mushrooms, vinegars, regional sauces and beans are also part of the soup contingency. There are aisles just for noodles. I see no signs indicating carb counts in these wonderlands of taste and visual appeal. Most of these ingredients find their way into Asian-soup bowls of some kind.

Around the broth in 80 ways

So we know there is commonality in Asian-soup flavor profiles. There is also great diversity. How's that for Asian mystique? There are differences in both flavor profiles and added garnishes, such as vegetables, noodles and dumplings. In terms of flavor, here are some of the individual profiles to consider and include in development.

Thai. Thai-curry paste comes in green, red and yellow varieties. Each contains different ingredients and taste factors. Green curry paste contains pungent green chiles, lemon grass and spices, along with shrimp paste. Red paste contains additional spices along with a hint of sweetness from the use of ripe, red chiles. Yellow curry is the most mild and tastes more like a classic Indian curry mixture. Lemon grass, ginger, galangal, garlic, various dried and fresh Thai chile peppers, Thai holy basil, cilantro, mint, lime, coconut milk, fish sauce (nuoc mam) and straw mushrooms can all also come into play in Thai soups.

Vietnamese. Chile peppers, lime, fish sauce (nuoc mam), palm sugar, mint, basil, cilantro, saw-leaf (also known as culantro or recao), caramelized sugar and shrimp paste can all find their way into the bowls of Vietnam.

Korean. Combinations of kimchi, pickled vegetables, turnips, sweet soy, vinegar, chili powder, bean-thread noodles, ginger, garlic and shallots indicate a Korean profile.

Japanese. Miso, sesame oil, soy, tamari, rice vinegar, mirin (rice wine), kombu and other sea vegetables, scallions, ginger, garlic, sesame seeds, and dried mushrooms form the basis of authentic Japanese soups.

Chinese. Ginger, garlic, sesame oil, fresh and dried mushrooms, dried tiger-lily buds, rice vinegar, soy, hoisin sauce, chili paste, and dried, fermented black beans form the basic Chinese ingredient list.

Malaysian. Cardamom, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, shallots, tamarind, turmeric, peanuts, coconut, cumin, cloves, celery, chiles, basil, palm sugar, nutmeg, lime and lemon grass make up Malaysian profiles.

Indian. These soups might feature tamarind, curry, asafetida (a pungent resin derived from Ferula plants, with a sensory profile similar to garlic), cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric, lentils, mace, mung beans, garam masala and ghee (clarified butter).

These are the main profiles and ethnic origins. Secondary areas of food and flavor profiles come from Laos, Burma, Tibet and Pakistan, but these are generally foreign to the American palate.

Noodles, dumplings and proteins

We have the foundation of our Asian bowls. But what do we build the bowls with now? The options are endless, of course, and depend on whether a product designer seeks a traditional or more-creative, contemporary outlook.

Although not all Asian soups contain noodles, many do. For the most part, these are rice-flour based and come in many shapes, ranging from ultra-thin bean thread (finer than angel hair) to flat rice noodles (much like thin linguini) to large chow fun pappardelle and rice-flour coins and dumplings. In fact, many Asian soups include rice-flour-filled dumplings containing seafood, pork, beef, poultry and vegetables. Other Japanese-based soups are filled with udon, egg, buckwheat, mountain-yam or mung-bean noodles.

Depending on the method used in large-scale batch production, rice noodles can be more forgiving than flour-based types since they can be reconstituted with hot water and in many cases do not need to be precooked or blanched. Bean thread rice noodles soften easily in boiling broth. Their texture is pleasant and chewy with elastic properties that combine well with any flavor profile.

In addition to noodles, many Asian soups also contain meats of all kinds, from oxtail marrow to chicken feet. Slivers of pork, beef, chicken or lamb are common in some soups. Seafood-based soups are loaded with shrimp, scallops, fish and even fish cakes and fish sticks.

I have seen proteins in soup that I still can't identify that, come to think of it, still scare me. In an adventurous mood a while back, in an authentic Cantonese restaurant, I tried an "eight jewel treasure soup." I could only identify four of the eight jewels clearly -- even to this day I'm not entirely sure where those other "jewels" came from!

Vegetables are somewhat different, as there are many similarities within the ethnic cultures. Green onion, carrots, fresh and dried mushrooms, celery, snow peas, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, bean sprouts and peppers typically show up. For the most part, they are added at the last minute to preserve each element's color, texture and nutritional profile. It is important to note that, specifically with Japanese soups, miso is always added last as it contains active enzymes, which cannot be boiled after the hot liquid is added. This practice is part tradition and part food utility. Boiling a broth or stock after adding miso kills its live enzymes and deadens the pronounced flavor. Much like wine, miso is fermented and contains many flavor nuances, which can only be appreciated through delicate handling.

In many Asian cultures, plant-based proteins take the place of animal protein. Sheer brilliance in the diversity of such proteins exists, and these can be found to resemble every meat-based protein, from shrimp to ham and pork. Tofu and silken tofu are wonderful additions to Asian soups. Tofu now is available in many forms, including preseasoned and baked varieties, all of which add unique attributes to broth. Product developers should also consider nontraditional grilled tofu, which adds a smoky flavor. Tofu now comes in blocks flavored with cilantro, five spice or curry. These would make a welcome addition to any Asian soup. A personal favorite of mine, seitan (wheat gluten), is a tremendous Asian soup enhancement. Wheat gluten comes in a myriad of forms and flavors. Once considered a staple protein source of ancient Buddhist monks, it is now a category of produce manufactured by modern Asian food processors. I have seen wheat gluten take the form and flavor of shrimp, chicken, pork, ham, lobster and scallops. All are welcome in each spoonful of steaming broth. I am often amazed at the Asian-imported meat-protein substitutes available to us. They are greatly overlooked and underappreciated by our market.

Asian-soup bowls are a category in themselves. Hearty, yet not heavy, healthy with the underlying nuance of well-being, they offer us a fast, inexpensive, healthful alternative to fast food and run-of-the-mill alternatives. They even sound happy and upbeat. Names like Buddha's Bowl, Triple Flavor Happy Bowl, Long Life Elixir and even Emperor's Eight Jewel Treasure can often be found on many menus around the country. These gems hold unlimited potential.

I leave you with a line from my last book, "The Whole Foods Market Cookbook," published last year: "There is a bit of genius in every ladle of soup." I believe in this wholeheartedly, and it continually guides the menu in my restaurant as well as my product-development and consulting projects.


Steven Petusevsky is the former national director of creative food development for Whole Foods Market, author of the "The Whole Foods Market Cookbook" and a contributing editor to Cooking Light. His articles have appeared in several publications, including Natural Health, Fine Cooking, Food & Wine and Restaurant Hospitality. His syndicated weekly column, "Vegetarian Today," appears in hundreds of newspapers nationally. He previously plied his trade for several international hotel corporations and currently works with high-profile clients in the area of menu research, new-product development, concept ideation and natural-food marketing. Petusevsky is a graduate of Culinary Institute of America, is a culinary instructor, served on the board of overseers for the Chef's Collaborative, and is a member of the Research Chefs Association.

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