There are moments when you feel an intense connection with people. So often it’s about a shared love or hatred of a food. “What? You mean you also drive across Australia to Koo Wee Rup to get the first asparagus of the season? I love you. Let’s get married!”
“What? You also think furry-skinned fruit are the devil? I love you. Let’s get married!”
It can, of course, work the other way: “What? You think mash should be made with olive oil rather than butter?!? You … Me … Carpark … Now!”
Frankly, I’d struggle to be friends with someone who didn’t understand the beauty of the pizza, although I do get on with sugar-free Sarah Wilson, which is either a comment on her or that I’m a bit “what evs” about sugar.
However, this is a story about another connection and the way it felt when a colleague suggested that a bowl of chicken noodle soup was the epitome of winter comfort and we needed a column on it. I knew he was passionate about the subject because the email only had three words: “CHICKEN … NOODLE … SOUP”.
The impact was massive. You see, I feel the same way.
For those 17 or so years I lived at home, Sunday night supper was chicken noodle soup. It has a misty place in my heart as the very spirit of my mother’s table. It wasn’t a fancy version; it came from a packet, yet I loved it. I’d drink the broth first leaving the skinny short noodles mounded on one side of the bowl. The memory is so vivid I can perfectly capture their squiggly texture as I spooned them into my mouth, chasing the last few around my bowl like a stressed kelpie after a couple of rogue ewes.
I have made it part of my life’s work to find other versions of this wonder soup that is praised for its restorative properties, whether it’s being poured at Indian roadside dhaba, in a Brazilian favela, or served during the Philippines’ rainy season as a sopa with macaroni or a chicken mami with noodles. So here are my seven favourite chicken noodle soups from around the world:
1. The traditional clear chicken soup, so often referred to as “Jewish penicillin”, is regularly lifted by the addition of flat egg noodles called lokshen, or even noodly spatzle dumplings, as is the tradition in southern Germany and Hungary. While there’s no proof that this soup protects or repairs against colds, it is easy to digest, can contain good calcium levels, and according to UCLA’s chicken soup expert Dr Irwin Ziment, “contains a natural amino acid called cysteine that … bears a remarkable chemical similarity to a drug called acetylcysteine, which doctors prescribe for bronchitis and respiratory infections”.
2. The Chinese version of chicken noodle soup is their beautifully named “swallow clouds soup”. We know it better as wonton soup. Chicken broth, sometimes thickened a little with corn starch and brightened with ginger, is used to cook pasta-wrapped nuggets of chicken, pork and/or prawn. Try this using your favourite dumpling filling recipe and add some Chinese greens to add texture and colour. Finish at the table with a marbling of roast chilli oil.
3. The Italians have their own version of cloud swallowing, and that’s tortellini in brodo. You can make this the traditional way or just cook some good, shop-bought tortellini in chicken stock with a little garlic. I like to remove the cooked tortellini from the broth to toss them in butter and serve them with parsley and parmesan. I then pour the broth at the table.
4. Greece’s egg and lemon soup, avgolemono, is called into service to alleviate both stomach aches and hangovers. While rice is the more usual carb to bulk this out, it is also made with small pasta grains. The secret of this soup is moderating the temperature when you beat the egg and lemon juice into the chicken broth. It needs to make the broth silky rather than curdle. The secret is to slowly whisk a little hot broth into the egg and lemon mixture and keep doing so until it is warm. Only then whisk it into the rest of the broth. And never boil it!
5. Other Asian countries have their own spin on combining chicken and noodles, whether it’s a Malaysian soto ayam, tamarind-sour asam laksa, or a Peranakan curry laksa. I think these soups work particularly well when the tang of lemongrass and lime contrasts against the creaminess of coconut milk for a richer soup.
6. In Seoul, the Koreans are mad for the health-giving importance of chicken soup. They will pay top dollar for soup cooked with very special chooks and very expensive ginseng roots, but the people’s version is dak hanmari. Unlike the posh version, this soup usually contains chewy, gnocchi-like rice cakes rather than rice. It is served with a delicious dipping sauce made from gochujang chilli paste, minced garlic, vinegar and soy, into which you dip the rice cake and chook before eating.
7. Which brings us back to the packet versions of chicken noodle soup, which appear to be based on chicken broth and vermicelli noodle soups like Polish rosol or Romanian ciorba de pui. While I still have a rosy memory of these packets, if people are coming over, I’ll go to the trouble of making my own. This is really as simple as making the best chicken stock and then letting 35g rice vermicelli soften for 3 minutes in each bowl of piping-hot stock. Garnish with chopped parsley and, obviously, drink the broth first.