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The Tale of a Bowl of Noodles

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 of  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.

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.

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

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