The restaurant was nothing special, just a small room with a couple of low tables and stools. There was no menu, nothing to indicate what was being served. But next to the door was a wide basket piled high with fresh rice noodles, and behind them I could see steam rising from a large soup pot. And in Yunnan province, in southwestern China, that means one thing: breakfast noodles.
I hurried in, took a seat at an empty table and shook off my coat, wet from the heavy morning fog. The proprietress, a young woman whose face was rosy from standing over the steaming pots all morning, asked what I wanted in my soup, and I pointed to some things that looked particularly delicious – some fatty stewed pork, a heap of thin rice noodles, some bright green chives. In just a couple of minutes, the soup was ready. I added a handful of pickled mustard greens and a small spoonful of dried chili flakes in oil and took a sip. The flavour was rich and bright, sour and spicy, and somehow both comforting and exotic all at once.
Starting the day with noodles
I would say that the noodles were a perfect antidote to the cold, wet weather, but the truth is that those noodles would have been fantastic in any circumstance. In fact, I've enjoyed similar noodles for breakfast on hot, muggy days down by the Chinese-Vietnamese border and on a cool, crisp morning near Tibet. And in every case (and every temperature) they were the perfect way to start the day.
Eating noodles for breakfast is common all across East and South-east Asia. In Japan you can have asa-raa or "morning ramen", in Vietnam pho is a reliable way to start the day, and in Malaysia there's stir-fried mee goreng. But there's something about the combination of meat, pickles and chilies in Yunnan's noodles – not to mention the wide array of different rice and wheat-based noodles you can choose to put in your soup – that makes it one of the most addictive and satisfying breakfasts I've ever had. Everywhere I've travelled in Yunnan, I've started my mornings with noodles from that town's busiest stand, hole-in-the-wall or restaurant, and every single time I've been blown away by the flavour.
It's been a few months since I last travelled to Yunnan, but thankfully those morning noodle are not hard to make. Whenever I feel like I need a little help waking up, or I just want something hearty to start the day, I make them for myself. All it takes is a few ingredients and about 15 minutes, and I can have a breakfast that is both a little bit exotic and immensely comforting.
Yunnan-Style Noodle Soup
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 large portions
4 cups prepared broth (preferably pork or chicken)
170g ground pork (about ¾ cup)
85g vegetables, like Napa cabbage, sliced crosswise into 3mm-6mm strips (about 1-1/3 cups' worth)
½ cup Chinese pickled vegetables, ideally mustard greens or daikon pickles
2½ cups fresh or parboiled rice or wheat noodles
1 tsp salt
½ cup fresh herbs, ideally flat garlic chives or scallions, cut into inch-long pieces (mint and cilantro also work well, and multiple herbs can be used in combination)
Black Chinese vinegar and dried ground chilli in oil, for serving
Heat the broth in a pot large enough to accommodate all of the ingredients (including the noodles). Meanwhile, in a separate pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil and blanch ground pork for 5 seconds, breaking up the meat with chopsticks or a spoon, then drain it and set it aside. The meat will still be pink, possibly even red in some places.
Beginning the soup
When the broth is boiling, add the pork, cabbage and half of the pickles to the pot. Return to a boil and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until stem parts of the cabbage begin to soften slightly.
Adding the noodles
Add noodles and cook until semisoft (timing will vary depending on type of noodle being used). When noodles have softened, add ½ teaspoon salt and mix into broth, then top noodles with the remaining pickles and chives or scallions, if using. Cook another 30 seconds, and remove the soup from heat.
The finished product
Divide the soup into deep bowls and top with any delicate herbs, like mint or cilantro. Add vinegar and chilli to taste. – Reuters/Georgia Freedman (Zester Daily)