Noodles au naturel

When cooking naked, an apron goes a long way towards protecting delicate areas … just kidding. As soon as I published my last post it occurred to me – lots of people cannot tolerate msg in their food, and most instant noodles packs, especially if they are made in Asia, probably contain a ton of msg in the broth packets.

Cartoon about the ill effects of msg in food

So how do you make a tasty bowl of noodles that won’t give you a headache? Use unflavored dry noodles and make your own soup base. How do you make your own Japanese-style soup base you might ask? Well I’m about to tell you!

Oh! if you haven’t noticed, I don’t really measure ingredients or follow recipes when I cook. In fact, someone once (jokingly?) accused me of deliberately altering recipes constantly so that no one could ever reproduce anything I served, thus insuring my dishes remained elusive. While I don’t try to keep my recipes secret, I am forever playing with them. I’ve given ballpark measurements, but you need taste things as you go along. I tend to “under-salt” almost everything (and make up for it by eating potato, pita, and tortilla chips like I’m on a mission), so make sure to taste and adjust.

Miso Soup Base for Noodles (vegetarian)

Ingredients (aside from water):

  • dried mushrooms (shiitake add plenty of flavor, so count on about 2 per cup)
  • scallions (put fine shreds of the white portion in the broth, mince the green part to use raw as a garnish)
  • ginger and/or garlic – both can be “smashed” with the flat side of your knife, thrown into the pot, and fished out later
  • vegetables – I like to use Asian greens like napa cabbage and bok choy
  • miso – white (shiro) miso is sweet and mild, the least salty, and makes a beautiful creamy-looking broth, but red is richer in flavor

NOTE: some dried mushrooms have a lot of grit stuck in their gills. You can soften your mushrooms in hot water (just enough to cover). Once they are soft, strain the liquid into your soup base – I use a tea strainer lined with a small piece of paper towel – and rinse the mushrooms. But I’ve also found an amazingly grit-free brand (and crazy-inexpensive at my local Asian grocery). If you know your mushrooms are clean, you can just throw a few into the pot to simmer with everything else:

photo of Dynasty brand sried mushrooms


  • Put a little oil in the bottom of your pot, once it shimmers, throw in any garlic (1 clove), ginger (roughly the size of a quarter), or other aromatic herbs (curry powder is also really delicious, and even 1/4 tsp will add plenty of flavor)
  • Stir them a bit, just until they start to soften and smell amazing, then pour in your water (1.25-1.5 cups per person) and vegetables
  • If you pre-soaked your mushrooms, rinse them off, remove the stems, slice thinly and add them to the pot (I’ve also served them whole, stems and all); if your mushrooms are reliably clean, throw them in with the vegetables
  • If you want a true one-pot dish, wait until the vegetables are not quite done, then throw in your noodles
  • Bring everything to a boil and simmer just until the vegetables (and noodles) are tender
  • Remove about a 1/4 cup of water and “dissolve” your miso in it – this is really hard to gauge, since miso varies so much in saltiness. Start with a teaspoon per cup of water, because you can always add more. Once the miso has dissolved, add it back into the pot.
  • Taste and adjust the seasoning. Feel free to add more miso or maybe some soy sauce, tamari, or mirin

NOTE:  miso should not be boiled (it kills the enzymes), so either add the noodles to the pot before you add the miso, or boil them separately, place in your bowl, and ladle the soup and veggies over them.

Remember: every bowl of noodles is a new adventure! Use whatever you have on hand, and make it your own! Yesterday I topped a bowl with stir-fried celery and red swiss chard but skipped the scallions. Since I had added a pinch of curry to the soup, the fresh crispiness of the vegetables provided a wonderful contrast to the rich and spicy broth. It also looked really pretty!

Flat noodles with celery and chard

Stone Soup (or how to make a bowl of noodles)

Remember that old folk story called “stone soup?” A man sets up a pot of water with a rock in it and nonchalantly tells bystanders that he is making stone soup. He tells them – despite the tried and true nature of his recipe – it would be even better with a few additional items. The townsfolk are curious and cannot help but contribute a carrot here, some parsley there. As the soup bubbles away, more people are drawn by the wonderful smell, and they all eagerly offer something from their own stores. In the end everyone enjoys a bowl, which really is delicious.

While I’ve never tricked anyone into handing over a carrot, I do regularly make a bowl of noodle soup out of odds and ends. The last time I did, I posted a photo of the finished result on my Facebook page. A bunch of people “liked” the photo, one friend asked for the recipe, and someone even asked me where I had bought that dish (!). So, P-Girl, this is for you.

Because I subscribe to a CSA, I often have random vegetables in small amounts in my refrigerator. On this last occasion, I had one big zucchini, a few bunches of baby bok choy, and a handful of snow peas. Other vegetables I like to use include asparagus, sugar snap peas, any kind of greens, and aromatic herbs such as scallions and cilantro.

When I’m feeling ambitious, I will make a stock and use plain dried noodles. Any Asian store will stock a wide variety of noodle types such as wheat, rice, bean thread, buckwheat, egg noodles, flavored and unflavored (usually shrimp). These noodles will also come in a variety of widths and lengths:

Asian noodles
Various dry Asian noodles

Most often, when I make noodles I eat them as a quick lunch or dinner, so I start with prefab. That’s right, I am a huge fan of instant ramen. Now, I know what you are thinking, “But they are soooo unhealthy! They are fried! Haven’t you looked at the sodium content??? I once saw a photo of undigested ramen in someone’s stomach …”

To this I say, “Do you know who invented instant ramen? Do you know what nation tops the world in longevity?” The answer to both questions is the Japanese. So forgive my faith in my ancestors, but I am not going to let one nasty photo stop me from enjoying my birthright! And, honestly, about that photo – do you think if that person chewed his or her food maybe it would digest? Anyway, on this particular occasion, I started with instant udon (which are thick, non-fried, wheat noodles). You can find them at you local Asian market in the refrigerated section, although I have seen a spicy seaweed ramen (which looks halfway between ramen and udon to me) at Trader Joe’s. Udon packages come in all sorts of “flavors” such as pork, crab, abalone, mushroom, “oriental,” and spicy, and this is what they look like:

instant udon packages
Instant Udon

Don’t worry if the directions are in Japanese or any other language. Disregard them if they are in English.


  1. Boil some water in a pot that will fit everything (I use about 1.25 cups for myself, more for my boyfriend because he likes having more broth).
  2. Throw in whatever vegetables you would like to simmer. In this case I decided to simmer the baby bok choy so that it would flavor the soup and become soft. Sometimes I don’t put any veggies in the water and just stir fry them all; if I’m feeling really lazy, I boil everything so I only have to wash one pot. The options are truly endless – and endlessly delicious!
  3. As the water is boiling, heat up a non-stick or cast-iron skillet on medium. Grease lightly with olive oil, coconut oil, whatever you like. I use a non-stick skillet and pour on about a teaspoon of roasted sesame oil. I use Kadoya brand, but there are so many brands that you cannot go wrong.
  4. Once the skillet is hot, put in the vegetables or anything else you want to stir fry. This time I lined up slices of baked tofu and zucchini. Once one side browned, I flipped them all and threw in the snow peas.
  5. By this time, you water will be boiling, and your veggies will be simmering. Here is where we go wild. Open the broth packet that comes with the noodles, but only pour half of it into the water. Taste. In many cases, this is all the flavor (and the salt) you need. If you want more, add more, but err on the side of caution.
  6. Save the leftover half-packet of broth. I have a small box of leftover broth packets that I keep for when I want to use the plain dry noodles – because sometimes only flat noodles will do.
  7. Put the noodles in the pot, drop the heat to low, and let it simmer a bit (yes, even if it’s instant ramen, let it simmer a little).
  8. Your skillet veggies should be almost done by now. I like to splash a little mirin (Japanese rice wine) over the veggies and then cover the whole pan, just for a minute. This adds depth to the flavor and makes the veggies glossy.
  9. NOTE: you can also add about a tablespoon of mirin to the broth instead, or both.
  10. Pour the contents of the noodle pot into your bowl.
  11. Artfully arrange your veggies, tofu, etc. on top.
  12. Garnish with finely sliced scallions, cilantro, etc. I dabbed on some Vietnamese chile garlic sauce, which I prefer over sriracha. I also sometimes drizzle a bit of sesame oil on top, which just makes the bowl smell like my Mom cooked it.
  13. Slurp your noodles and enjoy!
noodle bowl
Bowl of Udon