How to Build a Better Noodle Soup, One Bowl at a Time

Recipe resident Melina Hammer shows us how it's done.

January 26, 2021
Photo by Melina Hammer

Gazing into a brothy noodle bowl always elicits delight, comfort, and anticipation to mix and match the array of textures and flavors within. I always say, especially at this time of year when it is cold out, a steaming bowl feels like the ultimate nourishment.

At a noodle bowl’s foundation is a warming, flavorful broth. Whether doctored up store-bought or homemade, both are legit, especially if you plan to add layers and hues and make your noodle bowl chock-full of eat-the-rainbow, punchy elements. If you go the route of using boxed stock, consider first adding aromatics such as garlic and ginger, chile pepper, or dried mushrooms to infuse the broth for a further hit of umami or zest. Each ingredient helps add more depth of flavor towards the dazzling end result. Think of building a broth you might enjoy drinking as an elixir all on its own (like savory, comforting tea!).

Adding on to the broth foundation is the equally important—and more broadly lusted after—noodles! Depending on the cuisine destination of your noodle bowl of the moment, there is an exciting array from which to choose. From vermicelli to capellini, wontons to ramen to soba to ditalini, there is a perfect match for chewy and slurpable noodles to go with your chosen elements.

There are a multitude of ingredients to personalize your noodle bowl: Perhaps you’re riffing to accommodate available ingredients. Maybe your bowl is a full-on curated event. As long as you keep in mind eating the rainbow and flavor and texture layers, you’re bound to have a wonderful experience.

Eating the rainbow is just what it sounds like. Foods such as carrots, sweet potato, corn, and squash fulfill the yellow-orange end of the spectrum and provide the body with carotenoids. Orangey foods supercharge our eyesight, distilling vitamin A, known as the “vision vitamin” to our systems. Orange and yellow foods also boost the immune system, so they really are good for you.

Green foods are all-around superstars. Broccoli, pea shoots, snap peas, green beans, kale (and other dark leafy greens), chard, bok choy, spinach, peas, asparagus, and more, green foods are packed with nutrients. They help various internal workings, from our bones to blood, to the overall health of our cells. It’s a good rule of thumb to incorporate as many green foods as possible given the boost they deliver.

Purple and red foods are food for the brain and heart. The nutrients in these foods hone brain function, inhibit inflammation, and help protect against heart disease and cancer. The deeper the color, the more nutrient- dense the food is. Purple foods that work great in a noodle bowl? Roasted eggplant, pickled cabbage, and steamed, roasted (or pickled!) beets.

Red foods also aid heart function—foods such as red peppers, cabbage, red onion, and tomatoes, for starters. They’re packed with phytonutrients, chemicals that help regulate our blood pressure, reduce the likelihood of contracting viruses, inflammation, and fight cancer. Obviously, that makes them an important aspect in the prism of eating the rainbow.

Now let’s talk about flavors. And textures. There really are limitless combinations, and it’s up to you as to how to prepare them. I find this approach helpful: What elements emulate the below and bring nourishment—and joy—from combining them? Try to include each category for a richly layered experience...


Sweet potatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, tofu, custardy soft cooked egg or just yolk, avocado


Umeboshi, kraut, dill or other veggie pickles, pearl onions, pickled seeds


Sliced fresh chiles, kimchi, harissa, or other chili sauce


Basil, micro shoots, radish, cilantro, scallions, mint, lime, ginger


Daikon, radishes, bell pepper, tatsoi, scallions, peanuts, carrots


Green beans, cucumber pickles, bean sprouts, tomatoes, broccoli, turnips


Fried shallots, sesame seeds, puffed buckwheat, aguashte, gomasio, nori, toasted coconut


Bonito flakes, fish roe, furikake or seaweed, chili oil, dried mushrooms, fish sauce

I don’t know about you, but now I’m hungry. Time to mix and match and make an amazing brothy bowl full of goodness. Remember, roasting or searing foods always deepens their flavor. Pickling a thing makes for an especially bright and punchy result. And if this just gives you too many choices, pack your brothy bowl with all the colors, since we all eat with our eyes first.

What's in your ideal noodle soup? Let us know in the comments.

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Melina is the author of 'A Year at Catbird Cottage' with Ten Speed Press. She grows an heirloom and pollinator garden and forages wild foods at her namesake Hudson Valley getaway, Catbird Cottage. Melina loves serving curated menus for guests from near and far seeking community amidst the hummingbirds, grosbeaks, finches, and the robust flavors of the seasons.