This recipe is a variation on the Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup that is one of my favorite comfort foods. Whenever I am sick or otherwise down, there are few dishes that I find as satisfying as my mom's Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup (or my own version of the dish). And after working like a maniac all month I was ready for some comfort food. So I suggested my soup. But Alex was more interested in trying something new so we decided to make a similar recipe from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen that I had been meaning to try. And somehow we had everything we needed. That almost never happens when I randomly suggest a recipe at 8:00 pm.
After eating the soup, I decided that this soup is more of a winter soup, while my mom's soup strikes me as more summery. The flavors in my mom's soup are a little lighter and fresher, whereas I thought the broth here was somehow deeper and a little less bright. Part of reason that this broth lacks the freshness and brightness of the other soup is that we essentially used boxed chicken stock, fish sauce, and some soaking liquid from the dried mushrooms as the broth. And dried mushrooms are kinda deeply umami and heavy. In my mom's soup I tend to throw in various aromatics (lemongrass, shallot, ginger are typical) in a base of water with some chicken bouillon mixed in. I tend to throw some fresh shiitakes in while the broth is simmering, which I prefer to the reconstituted dried mushrooms. Another reason that this soup wasn't as bright and fresh was that we were ran out of fresh cilantro. I think that a nice sprinkle of cilantro would have really done something for the dish. To try and brighten the broth up a little Alex and I ended up squeezing in some fresh lime juice, which I thought really helped to give the broth a little more depth of flavor. For whatever reason, I like the lighter broth better. It wasn't that this broth lacked flavor, it was just that I preferred the other. And a certain amount of that can be attributed to nostalgia - there are certain dishes that my mom used to make that I will forever prefer over all other versions. This might just be one of them. But, one thing that I really did like about this soup was that the chicken was poached and then shredded. I really liked the texture of the shredded chicken over the chunks of sliced chicken I usually throw in. I think I will appropriate that element from this recipe for future chicken soup recipes. Alex liked the rich, earthy flavor of the dried mushrooms, so maybe we will make Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup in the future with both fresh and dried mushrooms. While I prefer my mom's recipe for soup over this one, I really like that this recipe gave me something to think about (and ways to improve upon her recipe although I won't tell her that) when I make my mom's recipe in the future. And I am intrigued by the idea of combining my favorite elements of the two recipes (with some homemade chicken stock) to come up with something better and greater than either recipe could be on its own.
Recipe after the jump!
Chicken and Cellophane Noodle Soup (Mien Ga)
Adapted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors
By Andrea Nguyen
4 cups chicken stock
1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast (about 1/3 lb)
1 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 cm chunk yellow rock sugar
4 dried wood ear mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch strips
3 bundles cellophane noodles, soaked in hot water until pliable, drained, and cut into 6-inch lengths
1/4 cup cilantro or Thai basil (we used Thai basil because it was all we had, but I would use cilantro too if you have some)
freshly ground black pepper
1 serrano chili, thinly sliced (we used a red cherry pepper because it was all we had)
In a medium pot bring stock to boil over high heat. Drop in chicken. When the water starts bubbling at the edges of the pan, remove the pan from the heat and cover tightly. Let stand for 20 minutes. The chicken should be firm, but yield a bit to the touch. Remove and let cool. Shred with forks or your fingers into bite size pieces. Set aside.
Add fish sauce and rock sugar to the stock. Bring stock back to a boil over medium-high heat. Add chicken, mushrooms and noodles. As soon as the soup returns to a boil, remove from heat. Season to taste with salt or fish sauce if necessary.
Ladle into soup bowls. Garnish with cilantro, a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper and sliced chilis.