Freely adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's extraordinary Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. Their version starts with a whole chicken; it also uses five whole cilantro plants, roots and all. It's wonderful. This is my more casual, use-what-I-have variation. It uses the random pieces of chicken that I have in my freezer and whatever cilantro I have handy; it also adds noodles for good measure. —Nicholas Day
4, with soup left over
small chicken or whatever chicken you have frozen for stock (if you use assorted parts, you will want a couple of pounds worth)
cilantro, stalks and roots included (optional: do not scour the city for cilantro with the roots still on; feel free to make without any cilantro)
whole black peppercorns
small shallots, or 4 large shallots, peeled and halved
head of garlic, peeled and halved
large onion, finely chopped
egg noodles (straight wheat noodles are fine, though)
In a large pot, place the chicken or chicken parts, scallions, cilantro (if using), carrots, and black peppercorns, and add about three quarts of water. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer, uncovered. If you're using a whole chicken, remove it when the meat is tender, after about an hour and a half. Set the chicken aside to cool. If using chicken parts with very little meat, you can let the broth simmer for longer, if you like. When the broth is ready, strain and set aside the chicken parts. (I like to gently press the cooked carrots through the sieve, which adds some body to the broth.)
When the chicken is cool enough to handle, strip off the meat into shreds and set aside in a bowl. If using chicken parts, strip off any meat that remains. (A chicken back, for example, hides a surprising amount of meat.)
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil.
When the broth is strained, add the fish sauce and salt and taste. Bring the broth back to a simmer, add the shallots, garlic, and onions, and cook for about 15 or 20 minutes, until the alliums are soft and sweet. In the separate pot of boiling water, cook the noodles until al dente.
Serve the soup in large bowls, placing some meat and a small clump of noodles in each bowl and then pouring the soup over it. Garnish with chopped cilantro, if using.