KHỔ QUA & NOODLE SOUP #1

January 9, 2021

Hello,

Writing intros to a letter, email, text is becoming harder and harder. I don’t hope to find you well because I assume that you are not. I do not hope you are hanging in there because we are only hanging in there because of massive systemic failures. Surviving or hanging on is not where I hope others to be. I don’t have much hope in our own wellness.

But I did recently receive an email that began with, “I hope something about this day is bringing you joy.” Maybe this newsletter will bring about something akin to joy or delight in these dark days, a respite in your inbox. Winter solstice has passed and we will begin to see more light soon.

In the meanwhile, we have some thoughts about NOODLE SOUP. Wikipedia defines the term as “a variety of soups with noodles and other ingredients served in a light broth. Noodle soup is a common dish across East and Southeast Asia.” But does this description allow room for the range and styles of noodle soup? Has a single term become a wet blanket, putting out the spark from the deep breadth and richness within a diverse range of dishes which spans multiple countries?

With these questions in mind, we had local artists create illustrations of different noodle soups across different countries and some words alongside to further explore the gap between the term NOODLE SOUP as a Western construct and the actual food this term is supposed to represent.

I hope something about this day is bringing you joy.

As always,

Alana Dao, co-founding/managing editor



LOSING GRANDMA’S KHAUB POOB

Words by Rose Kue, illustration by Alexander Barrett

My grandmother is a card shark.

Her game is pronounced “Fucky.” It’s a Hmong three card poker played with two pots so she can extract as much money from you as possible. Even when I was six, she had no reservations about destroying me financially. 

While the rest of us spend each round making fun of each other, Grandma is stone-faced. Her eyes stay on her chips and her cards are close to her chest.

Just like she holds everything else. Including her recipes. That’s why I don’t know how to make my grandma’s Khaub Poob.

During the Vietnam War, the United States launched another, secret war in Laos. The Hmong people, who never knew there was a war going on, were caught in the crossfire. Actually, we were caught in the bombing runs as Laos quickly became the most bombed country in the history of the world. A horrifying record the country still holds. 

My family escaped to the US, but lost everything in the process. One day we were peacefully farming the hills in the jungles of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, completely unaware of the borders between them. The next, we were knee deep in the snows of Syracuse, New York. My grandma’s house, garden, possessions, and friends were gone. Since then, she’s held the memories of her real home so close not even her family can get to them. 

She won’t teach us how to cook her food. 

I don’t know how to make my grandma’s Khaub Poob but I do the best I can. 

I’m only able to type the name of this dish in Hmong because American missionaries created the first written Hmong language in the 1950’s. It’s not “COWB POOB,” It’s more like “Ka-PUN.” But the tonalities are so complicated that it’s impossible to explain in text. 

The dish originated in Laos but just like the Hmong people, it completely ignored all borders and quickly spread to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Singapore.

Of course, this had led to various versions but to me, Khaub Poob must contain three things: red curry soup, rice noodles, cabbage.

The soup should be as spicy, sweet, and funky as you want it to be. The noodles are fresh off your local Asian market’s shelves unless you happen to live in Laos, where your noodles are fresh from the noodle lady down the street. 

Beyond that, you can add whatever you have lying around. Could be meatballs, could be chicken wings, could be scraps of fish. 

When it’s ready to serve, pile on some thinly sliced cabbage. Then feel free to overdo it with the cilantro, perilla, and scallions. I don’t like bean sprouts but if you do, pile them on.

You’ll be in a Khaub Poob coma in minutes. 

It’s sad to know I won’t be able to replicate my grandma’s Khaub Poob when she’s gone. It’s harder to know how much pain she’s kept with her for the past fifty years. 

My grandma doesn’t hug me. In Hmong, there’s not really a word that means “love.” But when she brings a pot of Khaub Poob to a family gathering, I can taste all the care and hurt she carries in the depth of her broth. 

If I try to tell her how delicious it is, she just rolls her eyes.

So after dinner, when the plates are cleared, I thank her the only way she’ll accept.

By letting her take all my money in round after round of Fucky. 


HỦ TIẾU NAM VANG / KUY TEAV

Words by Vien Dobui, illustration by Pimzy

At first glance, hủ tiếu nam vang (HTNV) might look unremarkable to some, as it once did to me. With its light pork broth sweetened with sugar and dried shrimp and/or squid, thin rice noodles, and an array of meat and seafood that generally includes - depending on its cook - some combination of pork cuts and shrimp, HTNV looks like many other Southeast Asian noodle soups. This impression was why I was skeptical when, on a trip to Vietnam, my cousin insisted I try his favorite HTNV cart. I’d unknowingly had versions of it before in California so this promised to be my proper introduction to HTNV.

Cousin King and I spent a lot of time eating together on that trip, partly because we got along well but also because our families had charged him with watching over me - the bumbling công tử bột lacking in tiếng Việt and common sense. A young professional living in Saigon, King made a point of telling me that HTNV was really popular with students at the time.

The cute-but-average looking cart was located on a surprisingly quiet street - all things that my Việt kiều arrogance skeptically noted. The HTNV was very satisfying but the dish still struck me as somewhat familiar and unremarkable. A person living in Saigon is surrounded by beautiful noodle soup options so I was confused as to why young Viets would be so into HTNV. “It’s delicious, cheap, and filling,” King said.

As I looked closer, the banality I first perceived in HTVN became a fascination with how not-Viet it felt to me: instead of citrus wedges there was white vinegar and white sugar on the table, the herb plate had Chinese celery and Chinese chives, and the broth was noticeably light on nước mắm.

It wasn’t until I talked to my family more about the dish did I learn that it originated in Cambodia. The “Nam Vang” in HTNV is the Vietnamese name for the city of Phnom Penh, where the Khmer name for HTNV is kuy teav. Additionally, kuy teav itself is influenced by Teochew cuisine. These connections were a reminder to me that Vietnam and its neighbors are not static cultures. That they continue to change and engage in their own ideas. That young and broke people everywhere will continue to find new trends to absorb and reinterpret.

It was also a reminder that by initially reading HTNV as “non-Viet”, I was participating in the very same authenticity policing that I want to dismantle.

What is more interesting to me now isn’t the question of how “authentic” something is but instead: how common was the version that King showed me in Saigon? Could I say that I have eaten kuy teav? How can all of this translation be captured in the English name “noodle soup”? Thank you for showing me, King.


HONG KONG STYLE MACARONI SOUP

Words by Alana Dao, illustration by Guy Lyons

With this particular noodle soup, I’d like to ask: what qualifies as a noodle, ya know? Hong Kong style macaroni soup is typically served in cha chaa tengs in Hong Kong, a type of cafe or diner serving Western-style menus as cuisine became influenced by British “culture” aka colonialism.

Macaroni soup is like a cha chaa teng itself - a marker of a complicated past, relatively cheap, and accessible. These cafes took the very Chinese notion that the only proper meal is a hot one (including breakfast) and incorporated a short, European noodle - macaroni - into chicken broth.

The presence of a macaroni factory right in Hong Kong (Tsuen Wan) naturally meant macaroni, a short noodle considered to be more “Western” would find its way into a noodle soup versus the long, thin noodles we often think of inhabiting this region of the world.

A Hong Kong style macaroni soup is most often consumed at breakfast and includes chunks of Spam (another mark of empire seen the world over), chicken broth, and a fried egg. Any vegetable found in this dish is superfluous.

In addition to creating a moving image of the dish, my husband has also been making the actual dish itself for my daughters at breakfast time: Better than Bouillon thinned in water, boiled macaroni, and Chinese sausage instead of ham. They’ve been enjoying the novelty of macaroni for breakfast while I enjoy the type of hot, brothy breakfast that I prefer and am accustomed to.

They will never see the pre-’97 Hong Kong I grew up in and visited throughout my childhood. They will never walk across early morning streets, bumping into party-goers pouring out of nightclubs to eat breakfast at a cha chaan teng. They will never have dim sum and get their ears pierced with my jewelry-loving grandmother and then stop for tea at a cha chaan teng. That brings a sense of loss to me. Macaroni soup for breakfast works as a placeholder as we confront what it means to be from a place that no longer exists.


ROUNDING ERRORS

by Vien Dobui

Having moved away from my family in CA to The Whitest State in the US (one of my favorite pieces of demographic trivia), it is likely that I will be the only Vietnamese person in any given place. But since I became a father and - to reference a W. Kamau Bell joke that I think about often - “created my own ally”, my kid has become the most consistent other Viet person I have to relate to.

The obvious problem is that at this point in his life, my son identifies more as a 3-year-old chaos engine than a mixed race, Vietnamese person. Thus, the work of carrying and connecting the two of us to Viet-ness falls primarily on me.

The pandemic has exacerbated that challenge in stripping away my primary outlet for non-white community, CTB.

Oftentimes, when my racial melancholia peaks and the pressure of carrying the culture of an entire people overwhelms me, I will make canh cà for myself and my family. It’s not the most impressive dish but I love how its simple and malleable deliciousness - tomatoes and beef, how blasé! - resists attempts to complicate or elevate it, and how quickly it roots me in my Viet-ness. That and my son will actually eat it.

A typical family meal in Vietnam will consist of multiple dishes served at the same time to have with rice: stir fried vegetables in a simple soy or nước mắm sauce, a more intensely seasoned protein, and a light soup called canh. Whereas soup in Western eating opens a meal or is a meal itself, canh is meant to be eaten alongside the rest of the meal as a supporting dish.

Unlike most noodle soup broths, canh comes together fast and is rarely something that you have simmering on a stove all day.

When I thought that I had come into my own as a cook, I kept trying to “elevate” canh by applying the same tired Eurocentric cooking techniques involved in making soup: saute your aromatics, caramelize this, Maillard that, pack in the collagen, low and slow to dEvELoP flaVOR, etc., etc. Those soups never tasted as good as the canh I eat at home with Mẹ.

In the process of de-colonizing my cooking I am continually reminded that the “best” version of a canh does not need elevating, that just because I can do something doesn’t mean I need to.

CANH CÀ

(Tomato soup)

Remember that this soup is constructed to be eaten with other dishes. When served alongside 2-3 other things, this is more than enough to serve 4 people. You won’t find canh cà on many restaurant menus because it is so easy to make that it’s almost more work to go out and pay someone else to make it for you.

Last few bits of preamble, I swear. At CTB, I’m fairly rigorous about having all of our recipes written out in grams. Many of our cooks troll me by tragically crying that they wish they could just “cook by feel.” For the record (attn: Bones!), I’m not against “cooking by feel” and would like to submit this recipe - written by feel and in grams - as exhibit A at my inevitable chef bullshit show trial.

Speaking of chef bullshit (aka cliché chef aphorisms), most chefs are bad teachers and managers. As a self-professed bad chef and/or decent manager, I hope I can provide some meaningful instruction for less experienced cooks. As such, I’ve made two versions of this recipe. The recipe below is a quick shorthand version I might give to one of our cooks. The other version is a living google doc that has much more context and background. Please feel free to comment on that doc and ask questions. I will check in on the recipe at least once a week to reply and provide more info.

Tools

Knife

Cutting board

At least a 4qt pot

A lid that fits said pot

Ladle

Small bowl for tasting

A scale, if you’re nasty

Ingredients and prep

100g or ~½ medium onion

  • Cut it however you like, seriously. Depending on the preferences of who is eating - though my convenience is usually paramount - I will do anything from a fine dice to a large chop.

500g or ~4 medium tomatoes

  • I’m going to say this a lot throughout this recipe: cut it however you like. They’re going to get pretty beat up in the soup.

15g or ~3 medium cloves of garlic

  • Peeled and processed how you like: from smashed whole to grated on a microplane. Generally speaking, the more you damage the garlic the more assertive its flavor. In long cooked dishes this matters less. I usually use a microplane (if I don’t have to wash it before using it) for this soup.

110g or ~¼ lb ground beef

1L or ~1qt water

20g or ~1tbs nước mắm (aka fish sauce)

  • The saltiness and sweetness of your nước mắm will vary depending on the brand and thus impact how much you should use. I usually have 3 Crabs or Red Boat on hand. If you’re unsure about any of the seasoning quantities start with less and add more as you go.

5g or ~1tsp soy sauce

  • Everything I said about nước mắm applies to soy sauce. I usually use the red-label Yamasa soy sauce.

0.5g or ~8 turns black pepper

10-20g or ~1-2tbs oil

  • I usually use canola. Animal fat is nice too. I generally try not to use olive oil for this as it pushes things too overtly Western but again, use what you have.

1-3g or ~big pinch salt

  • There’s at least two stages of salting for this recipe. The quantity listed here accounts for that. 

2-3g or ~1tsp sugar

Optional stuff

5g or ~1-2tsp rice vinegar

  • Surprise, any vinegar will do. White vinegar is more common in Viet cooking, but really you just need a bit to make up for any acidity that your tomatoes might be lacking.

  • How will you know that your tomatoes are lacking acidity? (More importantly, how can you live with yourself after saying that sentence out loud?) Taste your final broth - more on that later.

2 scallions and/or 10 sprigs cilantro

  • Use the same cutting instructions I gave for the onions =P

  • Wash your greens, you filthy animal.

1 star anise

  • I’m not sure if this is typical but I like star anise with beef and onions a lot and sneak it in where I can. Please don’t submit this as evidence of chef bullshit.

Put it together

  1. Prepare all your ingredients according to the prep list above, or do it as you go. 

  1. Preheat your pot on medium heat for about 5 minutes or until it’s hot enough for the meat to sizzle when you’ve added it all.

  1. Add oil or fat, it should thinly coat most - but not entirely - the bottom of the pot. Give it a minute to heat up and look shimmery. Don’t let your oil smoke.

  1. Add meat to your pot. Break up the ground meat with a spoon or ladle as it cooks, ~5min. Make the chunks of meat as big or small as you like, smaller than meatballs usually - but do you. Don’t brown the meat though, get your mind out of the West. Once your meat is broken up, you could add your garlic here if you prefer a milder garlic flavor.

  1. Dump in the water, tomato, onions, salt, and the remaining seasonings/spices. Hold some or all of the seasoning back if you’re still learning about what you like. This is when I usually like to add my garlic.

  1. Turn your heat up to the highest setting. Bring everything to a boil and hold it at a rolling boil for about ~5 minutes. Skim if you want, I don’t.

  1. If you aren’t skimming, boil until the scum on top disappears. After which, turn off your heat and cover with a lid.

  1. Let your canh sit covered, off the heat, for at least 20 minutes and up to an hour. This is usually when I’ll cook the other dishes we’re having with canh for dinner.

  1. 15 minutes before you’re ready to eat, bring the soup back to a full boil over high heat. If you’re pulling the pot out of your fridge you’ll want to do this a bit more slowly, over medium heat.

  1. As you’re boiling the canh again, stop to assess your work. Your broth should somehow taste under seasoned and perfectly seasoned. It should taste good to you.

  1. If your broth doesn’t taste good, now is your time to readjust your seasoning. Add more salt, sugar, vinegar, and/or nước mắm in small increments. Taste as you make each change. If you think this might take longer than 5 minutes, turn off your heat while you are making adjustments.

  2. Your soup is done when it tastes good to you. Once you’ve decided this, finish the soup with an absurd amount of black pepper and some optional scallions/cilantro. Bring it to the table with your other dishes and steamed rice. If you added star anise, warn everyone that it’s there but don’t coddle them further by taking it out.


CONTRIBUTORS

ALEXANDER BARRETT (he/him) is a writer/illustrator/good eater based in Portland, Maine (traditional territory of the Wabanaki Confederacy.) To his surprise, he’s spent his lockdown quilting and not writing the book he was supposed to write. He is currently relying on Meredith Dairy’s Marinated Sheep & Goat Cheese for emotional support.

BOUNAHCREE KIM aka Bones aka Uncle Boney (he/him) is Wini the cat’s loving human, avid cult podcast listener, and butter chicken connoisseur. He is currently a prep cook and Twitch streamer at CTB and more of his work can be found on IG @w1nsdvd. He is currently eating La-Z-Boy© meals like cereal, hot pot leftovers (otherwise known as fresh produce), and any random assortment of items in his fridge  🦝

ROSE KUE (she/her) is a first-gen Hmong American living in Portland, Maine (traditional territory of the Wabanaki Confederacy). By day, she’s a UX designer working on machine learning experiences. In her free time, she’s trying to figure out how to avoid ZOOM calls and remain a social being. She is currently eating Thanksgiving leftovers.

GUY LYONS 2.0 (he/him) is a web developer and dad from Lubec, Maine, the hotly contested Easternmost point of the United States. He headed West to Portland (Maine) where he has cut hair, skateboarded in empty parking lots, made art, and tinkered with computers for many years. He is currently eating mini muffins and drinking discount post-holiday eggnog.

PIMZY (he/him) contributed "collected views from dinner.” He is currently eating a pomegranate.

JOEY TATLOCK (he/they) is an ex barista, front-of-house aligned restaurant worker “freelance artist” and a proud member of the He/They community. He lives in the attic someone else used to live in with his 15 year old cranky cat, Molly. He is currently eating what his roommates cooked for a special birthday celebration dinner: lasagna with homemade cashew cheese, mustard greens, lots of garlic  and mushrooms of course!!