story by Shayne Chammavanijakul
A bowl of noodles can be more than just a bowl of noodles.
Ramen chefs in Japan, especially at more prestigious and lauded shops, must undergo years of apprenticeship before being trusted to craft a bowl of noodle soup on their own. An exact science is involved in everything from the specific flour blend used to create the silky, lustrous noodles to the exactitude in the cooking of the noodles to the choice of bones, marrow, and joints, as well as the aromatics used to brew the broth. It’s as if they’re working toward a degree in ramen, and it's a worthwhile path as far as they're concerned. And why not? Once they've achieved a high level of ramen mastery, they know the work of their hands—every single bowl of ramen they craft—is regarded as a sacred work of art, not to mention their status as a craftsman is elevated.
More often, however, a bowl of noodles can be just a bowl of noodles—not because it’s not ambitious but because it’s so rightfully self-assured it knows it doesn’t need to be anything more than itself.
For Michele Humes, a bowl of noodles is just a bowl of noodles, and the sanctity of noodle-making—if such a thing exists—lies in the freedom of improvisation and the satisfaction of personal choice. The hearty broth and noodles, made at home in the way you like them, serve as a blank slate for various toppings, made from the ingredients you have on hand, to create a harmonious, comforting bowl. It’s the kind of cooking by the seat of one’s pants that is as fun as it is comforting. The sense of accomplishment from creatively repurposing slices of leftover steak from last night’s dinner, shreds of a head of cabbage purchased a few days ago, maybe an egg or two from the fridge to crack into the steaming broth, and finishing drizzle from the bottle of sesame oil hiding in your pantry cannot be underestimated.
Noodle soup played a prominent role in Humes’s life during her childhood in Hong Kong. That prominence continued when she later lived with her mother in Los Angeles, where dinners were often quick and simple rice noodles in Swanson’s chicken broth with a rotating array of toppings such as sliced chicken breast and baby bok choy.
Those bowls of noodle soup were the impetus for Humes’s first cookbook, The Noodle Soup Oracle: Hundreds of Possibilities for the World’s Favorite Comfort Food. The book provides a gentle introduction to the diversity of noodle soup, the comfort dish Humes grew up with, as a platform on which to showcase the immense versatility of noodle composition and how it allows us to exercise our creativity in pleasing our own palates. Unlike a majority of Asian food that’s served and eaten family-style, noodle soup is an individual venture; it can be—and should be—customized to your personal taste.
The book is adapted from Noodler: The Noodle Soup Oracle, an app Humes and Seville-based tech generalist Joshua Sierles developed and released in 2015 that provided dinner inspiration from combinations of different noodles, broths, vegetables, proteins, and condiments—all illustrated by Humes herself. Learning to draw vivid, colorful depictions of her number one comfort food was a happy accident after Humes first took on the endeavor when she didn’t have the funds to hire an illustrator for the app. Since a book can’t generate random combinations like an app can, Humes is hoping people will see The Noodle Soup Oracle book in the same way they do spiral-bound, mix-and-match novelty books that allow you to make countless combinations of people from different slices of a head, body, and feet.
Hong Kong-style wonton noodles and pork and shrimp wontons, illustrated by Michele Humes (courtesy of Running Press)
In light of this, The Noodle Soup Oracle doesn’t follow a traditional recipe-and-photograph structure. It leaves a lot of leeway for readers to make their own personalized bowl of noodle soup by mixing and matching several individual components, such as meats and broths, all of which can be found in the book’s recipes. Imagine a bowl filled with wonton noodles in umami-packed broth with enoki mushrooms and napa cabbage, topped with seared scallops. Picture soba noodles in chilled mentsuyu, a Japanese soup base, with salmon roe, shredded crab meat, and slices of avocado fanned over the top. A bowl of thick udon noodles fortified with five-spice duck confit, sweet Kabocha squash, and crispy roasted Brussels sprouts should make any heart flutter. Even instant ramen can be turned into a hangover cure—at once effective and beautiful—when paired with crisp bacon, a glistening sunny-side-up egg, and soy-pickled jalapeño slices for an acerbic bite.
Freedom is more meaningful, however, when exercised with wisdom. Some combinations make little sense, such as the pairing of beef broth with boiled shrimp. When creating the app, Humes built in rules for randomly-generated soup combinations so as to avoid such nonsensical pairings. Even though Humes understands people may like some things she doesn’t recommend, her recommendations are rooted in the East and Southeast Asian nod to balance when eating.
“Every Thai dish always has a salty and sour and sweet; there are always multiple elements,” she explains. “When Chinese people order food, they’ll [opt for] one spicy dish and one sweet and sour; it’s all about getting the maximum amount of flavor. Koreans will [have] lots of Banchan, so I feel like it’s just those principles but within one bowl. I’m always just very conscious of harmony. I feel like that’s quite Chinese. It’s very cheesy, but I really believe in it.” In other words, exercise your freedom and make something that pleases you but don’t ignore the voice of a friend who has your best interest at heart.
A bowl of perfectly-executed ramen that takes hours of careful, loving labor is remarkable in its own way, of course, but nothing like cultivating the creativity and resourcefulness to freestyle harmonious pairings of ingredients to create a well-composed bowl—otherwise known as getting your own degree in noodle soup.
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