In French cuisine, the ability to make soup from a rich and flavorful broth is the test and mark of a top chef. Traditional techniques develop layers of flavor while patience helps the simmer process along. Soups are the obvious answer for using leftover ingredients, and today’s hearty soups, particularly Asian ramen and new takes on Mexican classics, are becoming the go-to choice for American comfort food. These ethnic soups are also the vehicles for some pretty creative combinations of flavor and texture.
Far removed from the salty and cheap instant ramen associated with life as a college student, chefs are revisiting the classic, broth-based comfort food with their own twists and add-ins.
Chef Bill Kim, owner of Urbanbelly, Belly Shack, and BellyQ in Chicago, adds extra acidic profiles in the form of lime juice or cane vinegar to balance and brighten up his rich pork belly ramen. Though ramen originated in China, it is popular in Korea and Japan as well. While regional interpretations of ramen take different forms, they all share one important component: a flavorful broth.
Sticking to this traditional definition, Chef Kim develops his recipe with a rich stock made by simmering the pork belly in a special sea salt water bath machine for 14 temperature-controlled hours, until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. Leftover stock is made from the 10 braised pork bellies the restaurant goes through each day and makes for a gelatinous, extra-concentrated flavor intensifier in the final dish. Chef Kim also adds a dashi made using kombu, bonito, and miso, along with ginger, nubs of hot chili peppers, mushrooms, a touch of fish sauce, and lime juice for a silky, umami-driven broth with a little spice and heat.
For the other important ramen ingredient, Chef Kim cooks ramen noodles—made with eggs, alkaline, and flour—in a separate pot until just al dente enough to retain the shape and bite. The Urbanbelly ramen is topped off with the pork belly, soft-boiled egg, and chopped cilantro to finish.
Chef Kim also serves a take on classic Vietnamese pho, an aromatic rice-noodle soup, by enhancing a chicken stock with star anise, allspice, Szechuan peppercorns, and fennel seed, plus cinnamon for a little sweetness. For a vegan-friendly version, he makes an earthy mushroom broth as the base for the noodles, tofu, bean sprouts, jalapeño, and Thai basil.
At two of his Chicago restaurants, Takashi and Slurping Turtle, Japanese Chef/owner Takashi Yagihashi puts his signature stamp on ramen with a 24-hour broth made by simmering pork and chicken bones for a full day and adding bonito flakes, kombu, and dried sardines. Slurping Turtle’s popular Tonkatsu ramen showcases chunks of breaded pork and chewy, thin noodles.
“My definition of ramen has three parts: homemade noodles, a tasty broth, and fresh garnishes,” says Chef Yagihashi. “They’re all important, and all three elements need to be cohesive. Some places have a delicious broth and the noodles aren’t good. All elements need to fuse together for the perfect bowl of ramen.”
Brad Farmerie, executive chef at PUBLIC in New York City, calls upon Chinese influences for a Chinese five-spice pork and noodle soup he once developed using an aromatic broth with ginger, lemongrass, and lime leaf to balance out the richness of the meat. Pork bones are roasted until deep golden brown, then simmered with mirepoix and aromatics for three hours. Glass noodles, fish sauce, and a heavy garnish of cilantro, chili oil, fried shallots, and scallions complete the package.
“Many classic Asian broths contain similar elements—pork bones, soy sauce, ginger, scallions, and water—whether in the form of Japanese ramen or chicken and rice from Malaysia,” says Chef Farmerie.
He also makes a variation of laksa, a spicy noodle soup from Peranakan cuisine, combining Chinese and Malaysian flavors and cooking techniques. Instead of the traditional coconut-curry or seafood stock base, Chef Farmerie starts with tea-smoked duck bones for a unique broth. Vermicelli or egg noodles are then added for the Malaysian-Chinese take on ramen.
Posole, or pozole, is an ancient Mexican soup typically made with pork shoulder and sometimes chicken or other meat, corn hominy, and chilies—and is known for its rich history of comforting the weary or filling up a farmer after a long day of field work. Chef Anthony Lamas of Seviche in Louisville, Kentucky, uses lamb shoulder and lamb chorizo for a twist on his nostalgic posole. “It’s one of my comfort dishes that brings back memories from home; what chicken noodle soup is to Americans, posole is to Latinos,” says Chef Lamas, who sears the lamb, then simmers it on the bone to create tenderness and add spice and fat to the dish.
Chef Santiago Gomez of Cantina La Veinte in Miami puts his own twist on the traditional Mexican sopa seca de fideo, a “dry” soup made with thin noodles that absorb a flavorful, chili-spiked broth often made with roasted tomatillos or tomatoes. For his fideos negros, Chef Gomez cooks thin pasta noodles in a tomato, garlic, onion, and guajillo sauce with a touch of chili pastille.
“On one of my trips to Miami while living in Mexico, I had dinner at a Spanish restaurant where I tried one of their traditional dishes called Fidegua—a dish with thin noodles, dyed black with squid ink, and that contains assorted seafood and garlic mayo,” says Chef Gomez. “I thought to myself: There has to be a way I can marry this traditional Spanish dish with our traditional Fideo Seco, giving it my own twist.” To do so, he dyes the noodles using black beans and then adds a mix of seafood, mayonnaise, and avocado purée.
With soups, chefs have creative license within classic techniques. For example, paying homage to his Puerto Rican wife and the Latin-Asian dishes at Belly Shack, Chef Kim tried a mushroom-based posole as an Asian-inspired vegetarian version, using an earthy miso and mushroom broth with tortilla chips, basil oil, pea shoots, and soft tofu. For him, it’s fun and easy to put a spin on classic soups, and he gets inspiration from every ethnic place he visits.
“If I go to a Mexican grocery store and see people eating posole, I’ll wonder what I can put in there that I grew up with,” he says. “When I get bouillabaisse at a French restaurant, I’ll think: How can I change up the broth or the protein, but keep the technique? You can easily put your own spin on a coconut soup you might find at a Thai restaurant.”