Happy memories meandering up the Mekong in search of noodle soup

This ever-changing weather is causing chaos with my taste buds and I find myself flitting from salad on hot days to jacket spuds on cold days to soup on humid days and in particular noodle soup, a favourite of mine from my sweaty travels in South-East Asia. Now I know that in the UK you’ve been hit with nothing but rain over the past couple of weeks but here in Italy we’re also bouncing from one thunder storm to the next with horrific humidity in between, and when I say bounce I really mean it with each thunder bolt literally causinmg the walls to shake they’ve been that strong.

So back to my noodle soup, loved by me and loathed by my husband. Whilst I fondly look back at our travels (way back in 2006!) through SE Asia remembering all the delicious things we ate (noodle soup included), my husband instead remembers being terrorised (from a food perspective) by flavourless water for breakfast, lunch and dinner! Designed as a means of getting much needed liquid and salts back into the body, noodle soup was prevalent thoughout Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos where the high humidity had us sweating incessantly. We spent 2 months en route to China meandering up and down the Mekong river and I loved that every village had their own unique version of this classic none more so than in Laos where they would accompany their noodle soup with a big plate of fresh herbs; asian basil, mint, chives, parsley and all sorts of other unidentifiable greens, that you added just before eating to infuse your soup with a cacophony of aromatic flavours.

And so as the humidity continues to creep up here in Italy I found myself pining this humble little dish as a means of rehydrating myself and adding some salts back in. I’m not going to pretend that it’s anything like the real thing because a) each version I tasted was different, some with meat, some without and b) because one can only imagine that the quality of asian ingredients that I’m able to source in Italy is a long way from those in SE Asia. No matter where we found ourselves there was always some small vendor on the river bank selling an array of colourful herbs, spices, strange liquids, fish, vegetables and more. Often they’d also have a cauldron of noodle soup on the boil out back ever-ready to make a sale.

My soup is therefore a mish mash of broken memories and experimentation which works for me but may have you running for the safety of your local Vietnamese or Thai restaurant for something more authentic! It’s more a broth than a soup with the emphasis on liquid and I prefer a vegetarian version with few ingredients but big flavours courtesy of lots of fresh herbs that I throw in just before serving. Mine is also fat free as I’m not sure why but I assume that on the Mekong that there is very little olive oil on offer!

Mekong Noodle Soup

Ingredients (serves 4): 1 litre water, 1 medium onion, 1 large garlic clove, 1-2 hot red chillies (you decide how spicy!), 2 carrots, Swiss chard (a form of spinach that I’m growing in the garden) or something similar (see picture below), Soy Sauce, 1 x 200g pack Noodles (I used canton but any will work), 1 vegetable stock cube, salt, pepper, fresh coriander, fresh basil, fresh parsley, fresh chives, fresh mint leaves.

Preparation: 10 minutes + 15 minutes cooking

Swiss Chard

1. Place the litre of water into a large ban and bring to the boil.

2. Chop the onion into slices, the garlic and chilli into small chunks and finely cut the carrot diagonally to form large oval slices and tip into the water as it heats so that they start cooking and the flavours are released into the broth. Also add in half or a whole vegetable stock cube according how strong a broth you want.

3. Whilst your soup comes to the boil, wash and prepare the Swiss Chard. You’ll need a whole head for 4 people which is approximately 10-15 leaves. In any case they boil down to next to nothing so don’t be alarmed by how much it seems when raw. Simply slice up as you would salad leaves.

4. You can also wash and prepare all the herbs ready to serve. Simply wash and take the leaves off the stalks leaving the leaves whole. If using chives then roughly chop. There are no limits on quantities as you serve on a plate alongside the soup so everyone can add as much or as little as they like.

5. Once boiled, allow to simmer for a couple of minutes to ensure the carrots are cooked and then turn up once again and throw in the noodles and cook for a couple of minutes.

6. Once the noodles have had a minute or two throw in the Swiss Chard and stir well for 1 minute to ensure they are all immersed in the water. They only need to cook for literally 1-2 minutes after which your soup is ready.

7. Before serving stir in some soy sauce, salt and pepper to flavour.

8. Serve in bowls and place your plate of herbs in the centre of the table so that each guest can add their own aromatic flavourings.

As my husband rudely commented my noodle soup “looks as murky as the Mekong” (I admit, not the best photo!) but be that as it may I find something mildly comforting in this poor mans soup.  Don’t be shy to throw in the herbs as for me the combination of mint, coriander and basil is part of what makes the soup so delicious.

And should you find yourself meandering up the Mekong some time soon then you can try the real thing which I promise is infinitely better!

2 Responses to “Happy memories meandering up the Mekong in search of noodle soup”
  1. Karen says:

    Your photos are absolutely stunning. It is an area of the world few have discovered…thanks for sharing. We had rain for weeks and soup is very comforting on a gray day.

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