Japanese

The Anatomy of a Broth Bowl, From Stock to Noodles

March 11, 2016

For me, it’s easy to trace the lineage of the bowl as we currently know it to Asia, where “broth bowls” like ramen and pho, as well as rice-based ones like bibimbap, are early steps in the journey.

Yes, a broth bowl is soup, but soup is not always a broth bowl. Vichychoisse? Nope, not a broth bowl, and nor is your uncle’s prize-winning Texas chili. Chicken noodle soup? Closer, but still not quite there. Hot pot? Now we’re talking.

What defines a broth bowl is its “components,” each one an essential part of the greater whole.

Here, I’ll break down its anatomy.

Step 1: The broth.

The broth is the beating heart and healthy brain of a broth bowl. It needs to be so good you can’t stop slurping it. If you’re going the ramen route, a dashi-based broth, flavored with, say, miso, ginger, scallions, a few drops of sesame oil, will do you well. For pho, you’re looking for a full-flavored one, heady with warm spice. I discourage cutting corners here by using a store-bought broth; if there’s any place where freshness and flavor counts most, it’s the broth.

Step 2: Noodles for structure.

For ramen and pho, noodles are the skeleton. Traditionally, it’s wheat noodles for ramen and medium-width rice noodles for pho, but there are countless ways to mix it up: A whole range of rice noodles are on the market, including “forbidden” black rice noodles, which are delicious and great to serve to gluten-sensitive friends, and soba, udon, and even spaghetti noodles will work, too.

Shop the Story

For best slurpability, give them a thorough rinse after they’re cooked, to clean off excess starch. And blanched, spiralized vegetable noodles are a terrific variation, too.

Step 3: Protein.

The muscle! An egg, poached or soft-boiled, is ideal in ramen because the soft yolk also enriches the broth. Good-quality, whole-soybean tofu is also welcome—cubed if firm, scooped into bowls with a spoon if soft (and store-bought baked or smoked tofu work as well). Steamed tempeh does much the same thing.

In pho, I find these protein items to be less necessary—pho is too delicate, and a lighter affair anyway—but in ramen, protein in some form is essential.

Step 4: Veggies for bulk.

You don’t want to weigh down the bowl too much, but this is where some hearty, textural contrast comes into play. To keep up the metaphor, think of these veggies as… the clothes? A less essential organ? (Hope I didn’t lose you there.)

They’re the seasonal gems that give the bowl its character, which you’ll pluck out eagerly with chopsticks, and the possibilities are endless: Slabs of sweet, roasted winter squash, or juicy, seared mushroom caps. Blanched asparagus spears or snap peas. Colorful discs of steamed carrots, broccoli, or summer squash. Sweet raw cabbage sliced thinly or sprigs of peppery watercress. Thick, silky strands of eggplant or strips of roasted bell peppers.

And don’t forget about avocado.

Step 5: Accent veggies.

Here’s where you’ll get a pop of flavor, color, and/or texture—a little bit of personal expression like a bangs or nail art decals. Some of my favorites for both ramen and pho are wisps of radish, rings of shallot, or scallions cut steep on the bias. Shoots or sprouts like sunflower or pea shoots, or blanched mung bean sprouts. Cucumbers, radishes, carrots, and even chard stems make excellent quick pickles. Thinly sliced or minced serrano pepper brings a jolt of heat.

And pho wouldn’t be pho without copious fresh herbs, like basil, parsley, mint, chervil, or cilantro served at the table.

And for ramen, don’t forget sea vegetables: Crumble a square of toasted nori over the top, or add a little pile of reconstituted, chopped wakame.

Step 6: Condiments at the table.

This is the finishing touch, that final spritz of cologne. Vegetarian ramen really benefits from a spoonful of flavored oil to give the broth richness and body. My favorites are chili oil, garlic oil, or you can make a nubby one with from field onions, sesame seeds, and garlic. Sprinkle ramen bowls with toasted sesame seeds or togarashi, that popular Japanese spice made with nori, sesame, and dried citrus zest.

In pho, I love the zingy burst that a bit of fresh ginger mashed up with a pinch of salt brings—and don’t forget to serve the soup with lime wedges.

And now that you’re all dressed and ready to go—grab your chopsticks and eat.

Lukas Volger is the author of three cookbooks. His most recent, Bowl: Vegetarian Recipes for Ramen, Pho, Bibimbap, Dumplings, and Other One-Dish Meals, was published this week.

1 Comment

Eileen September 23, 2016
Beautiful, great tips. I'm going to certaily use them ...thanks