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Yunnan-Style Noodle Soup: China’s Hot Breakfast

Breakfast noodles are served in Yunnan province, China. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

Breakfast noodles are served in Yunnan province, China. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

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 flavor was rich and bright, sour and spicy, and somehow both comforting and exotic all at once.

Starting the day with noodles

A woman and her grandchild eat noodles in China for breakfast. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

A Zhuang woman eats noodles for breakfast with her grandson in Puzhehei, Yunnan province, China. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

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 Southeast 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 traveled 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 flavor.

It’s been a few months since I last traveled 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

Yunnan-style noodle soup begins with ground pork, vegetables, noodles and prepared broth. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

Yunnan-style noodle soup begins with ground pork, vegetables, noodles and prepared broth. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 large portions

Ingredients

4 cups prepared broth (preferably pork or chicken)

6 ounces ground pork (about 3/4 cup)

3 ounces vegetables, like Napa cabbage, sliced crosswise into 1/8 to 1/4-inch strips (approximately 1 1/3 cups’ worth)

1/2 cup Chinese pickled vegetables, ideally mustard greens or daikon pickles

2 1/2 cups fresh or parboiled rice or wheat noodles

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 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 chili in oil, for serving

Directions

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

Once the broth boils, add pork, cabbage and pickles to the pot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

Once the broth boils, add pork, cabbage and pickles to the pot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

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 then the remaining pickles and chives or scallions. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

Add noodles, and then the remaining pickles and chives or scallions. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

Add noodles and cook until semisoft (timing will vary depending on type of noodle being used). When noodles have softened, add 1/2 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

Finish the soup with herbs like mint or cilantro. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

Finish the soup with herbs like mint or cilantro. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand

Divide the soup into deep bowls and top with any delicate herbs, like mint or cilantro. Add vinegar and chili to taste.

Main photo: Breakfast noodles are served in Yunnan province, China. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand



Zester Daily contributor Georgia Freedman is a freelance food and travel writer who specializes primarily in exploring Asian foods and cultures. Formerly the managing editor of the food magazine Saveur, Georgia is a frequent contributor to the Off Duty section of The Wall Street Journal, and she has also written for Afar, Roads and Kingdoms, The Art of Eating, Imbibe, BonAppetit.com, and other publications and websites. Having studied East Asian cultures and Mandarin Chinese in school, Georgia spent a year and a half living in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, studying the foodways of the region’s many minorities and chronicling her discoveries at www.chinasouthoftheclouds.com. She currently resides in San Francisco but returns to Yunnan and other parts of Asia regularly.

1 COMMENT
  • Sally Larhette 11·30·15

    I actually like something like this for “Breakfast.” Congee, too.

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