The Tale of a Bowl of Noodles

A bowl of noodles that represents both the simple and the hard in life.

This is the world’s easiest noodle soup that originated with the world’s hardest job.

Allow me to explain.

Warming, nourishing and filling, this bowl of custardy, thick rice noodles with sweet-smoky slices of Chinese barbecue pork is absolutely no-fuss, no-frett to make.

It has to be. It’s a work-all-day, race-home-to-put-dinner-on-the-table-before-I-collapse kind of dish.

Born of necessity. Born of invention. Born of the need to feed a family speedily, economically and, of course, deliciously.

It’s a dish my late-Mom used to make on hurried and harried weeknights for my Dad, two older brothers, and I.

Like many of my generation, I took it for granted that my parents always made dinner every night, no matter how tired they might be, no matter how much of a hassle it might have been. Not until I became an adult, myself, did I realize what a far from small miracle that truly was.

When I worked full-time as a newspaper reporter, there were long days when I’d arrive home so exhausted that I was in a complete daze. Those times, I’d often think to myself: “How did my parents do it? How?”

Here I was single, responsible for taking care of only myself, and it was downright draining. Even when I got married, and gained a husband to look after, it was still a far cry from how my parents managed to work five days a week and raise three kids without ever seeming too pooped to do any ofร‚ย  it. There was never a complaint, never a word uttered that it was all too much and they just wanted to give up.

I marvel at that, at all that parents manage to get done while life refuses to wait or even slow down one iota.

As a teen, I spent various summers working at my parents’ offices to make extra spending money. I remember waking up on weekdays at the same time as my parents, and climbing into the backseat of the car to go to work with one of them, as my Dad would make the drive into San Francisco’s financial district. He’d drop my Mom off first at the landmark, monolithic Bank of America building, where she would take the express elevator up to one of the higher floors to her job at a stock brokerage firm, where she handled estate work. Then, my Dad would drive on to his job at nearby Greyhound, where he was a book-keeper.

Sometimes at lunch-time, I’d walk with my Mom to nearby Chinatown to help her pick up provisions for that night’s dinner. Or if I was at my Dad’s office, the two of us would head there after work to buy ingredients before he picked up my Mom to drive us all home.

Often, those ingredients included that lovely lacquered Chinese barbecued pork and a box of freshly-made, fat rice noodles. My Mom would put a big pot of canned chicken broth to heat on the stove. In would go a few coins of fresh ginger, some slivers of yellow onion, a dash of soy sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, and the slices of barbecued pork and cut-up rice noodles.

In mere minutes, it was ready, and my Mom would ladle out brimming bowl-fulls for all of us. We’d dig our Chinese soup spoon in to get at the big, soft noodles as the steam from the hot broth tickled our nose.

The rice noodles are already cooked. They just need warming to make them pliable.

This dish is as easy and comforting as it gets. Really, the most taxing part about it is making a trip to an Asian deli or Asian grocery store to get the barbecued pork and rice noodles.

When I make this noodle soup now, I add a few more flourishes — green onions, cilantro and slivers of bok choy. It’s an infinitely adaptable dish. Thai basil could be added or a bruised lemongrass stalk. Chinese roast duck could substitute for the pork, fish sauce could stand in for the soy sauce, and any manner of greens from watercress to green cabbage or napa cabbage to mustard greens can be added. A few sliced shiitake mushrooms also would be a nice touch.

No matter how the dish changes, there is always one constant. It remains a simple dish, seasoned deeply and most profoundly by endless hard work and family love.

Go ahead. Dig a spoon in.

World’s Easiest Noodle Soup

(serves 4 to 6)

10 cups of chicken broth or stock

6 coins of fresh ginger

2 tablespoons oyster sauce or to taste

1 teaspoon soy sauce or to taste

4-5 baby bok choy, cut into slivers OR a generous handful of chopped watercress, mustard greens, green cabbage or napa cabbage

1 pound of Chinese barbecued pork, cut into slices

2 packages (24-ounces each) rice noodles (banh cuon), cut into about 2-inch-long pieces

Toasted sesame oil

Chopped green onions

Chopped fresh cilantro

In a large pot, heat chicken stock with the ginger. Stir in oyster sauce and soy sauce. When soup comes to a boil, turn it down to a simmer and add bok choy. Let cook 1-2 minutes until the vegetable starts to soften. Add barbecued pork and noodles, and heat just until warmed through, about 2 minutes. Stir in a drizzle of toasted sesame oil. Turn off the stove. Take care not to overcook the noodles or else they will quickly start to break down and become mushy.

Ladle soup noodles into large bowls. Garnish with chopped green onions and cilantro, and serve. For those who like it spicy, add a squirt of sriracha or a dollop of chile-garlic paste.

If you have leftovers, store in the refrigerator. Because the noodles absorb the broth so readily, you might need to add more chicken stock the next day when you enjoy the leftovers.

From Carolyn Jung

More: My Mom’s Incomparable Tomato Beef Chow Mein

More: My Dad’s Oven-Version of Foil-Wrapped Chicken

More: Soothing Chicken Meatball Soup

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  • Gorgeous post. I always love hearing where people came from and how the moments when they were children shaped their relationship with food. On a separate note, I love your point about caring for a husband or however you put it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • The soup looks and sounds amazing. I love the story behind it. And I love food that brings back memories and has history… And yes, it’s easy for children to take home-cooked meals for granted; I know I did, and my teenager does today… ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I love this post–so interesting to hear a little about your family! And I’m dying for a bowl of this soup. Roast pork is one of my most favorite things in the world–I can eat it plain, in soup, whatever. Awesome.

  • This is a great story + great family recipe. Looking forward to trying it soon!

  • Carolyn, this is a beautiful tale and one I can totally sympathize with because right now, I’m experiencing it. Any bowl of noodles really, ramyun, udon, ramen – a bowl of noodles is what I always crave living on my own away from my family. And then I realize how much I take it for granted that I normally come home whilst mum’s busy preparing dinner for everyone. it’s a lotta effort and a lotta love that goes into it. A bowl of noodles sure comforts one’s soul and I hope one day my mum can come home (in her old age) to my homecooking and i’ll give her the same love and peace of mind from homecooked meals. x

  • This soup look fantastic. I particularly love how simple the broth is to prepare. I typically associate noodle soups like this with long simmered stocks, but this seems especially doable on a weeknight. Looks like a big bowl of comfort to me. Thanks for sharing such a great family recipe.

  • awesome in every way….any suggestions on best way at home to make the bbq pork, as authentic tasting as possible?

  • I really enjoyed the story behind your recipe. I can’t wait to try it, because I love those wide flat rice noodles. The photos make me think of noodle soup in Chinatown, but the word banh cuon makes me think of Vietnam.

  • I love soups like this. I really like the pork and bok choy combo you’ve used here. So easily adaptable. Thanks for sharing!

  • I wonder the same about my parents all the time…. amazing how they did it. This soup not only sounds utterly delicious but I love to story behind it even more.

  • Parents do amaze me. I have no idea how they do it. Your soup looks fantastic, and I’m completely drawn in by the noodles. I love all the suggested variations too.

  • I love it when you talk about the emotional connection a food has for you. It’s like I can see your family. That’s a lesson I always remember when I poke at my blog: A good food writer is a writer, first.

  • I have been living on soupy noodles for the past month, this sounds delicious and easy, which is how I like recipes… I would never would have thought of using those rice noodles, what an excellent idea!

  • Mike: This is totally a cheater’s soup. Hah. Perfect for last-minute meals on a weekday. Just open a can and add some aromatics, and you’re good to go.

    Peteyb: If you want to make your own char siew (Chinese barbecued pork), my buddies at the HouseofAnnie blog have a great recipe:

  • Love this so much! Dinner at home was always something we did together–no matter how simple the meal, my mom always cooked something nourishing for the family. And it was often something simple like this.

    I’m craving a big bowl of soup myself right now. Need to find the best char siew in my new neighborhood so that I can have this at my fingertips. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Lovely post. Makes me want to make the dish and share it with my loved ones.

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  • I’ve added your lovely blog to my blog list/links.

  • There aren’t too many ingredients, which is a good way to show something’s easy. The bbq pork alone is good enough to eat, so it must be nice in a warm soup.

  • aHA! So that’s what I’m supposed to do with those beautiful noodles that I see at the Chinese market. I remember buying them once, trying to stir fry them into chow fun, and they immediately disintegrated into mochi!!
    Thanks, Carolyn, for another wonderful piece of writing, and a yummy idea for these cold rainy days. I just made a batch of chicken broth after dinner tonight – I’m going to brave 99Ranch tomorrow to pick up a pack of these noodles.

  • Carolyn! That first picture just makes me want to jump through the screen and devour it all!

    I’ll have to make a trip up to North Charleston to the Asian market to get the pork.



  • I love this dish! Noodle soups are my favourites! Will be making this in the very near future!

  • Oh my, I must make this soup soon! You are talking to me on so many levels here. This is my kinda soup.

    I also love that it was something of your mom’s that you passed along to share – a living memory. I’ve just decided with the help of my family to put together a cookbook with memories of my cooking kin – my nieces and nephews never got the chance to meet these incredible people and I want to give them some sort of connection.

  • I love it when you write about your parents! I took family dinners for granted too when I was a kid.

  • I agreed completely. I grew up in a family of 7 siblings, I am the youngest, and my late mother cooked for us every meal, without fail. She never took a day off, NEVER. And she made the best and most-balanced dishes for all the 7 kids, and my father. She was incredible! Love your story on this dish, it’s great.

  • It’s cool how a seemingly simple bowl of noodles can symbolize hard work, sacrifice and love. Beautiful post, Carolyn.

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