Steaming With Delight: Delicious ethnic soups for the season

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

With cold in the air (and in our bones), we long for rich and filling soups to close out the day. And while chicken soup always has a place in our American hearts, it's time to move to hearty soups from some of our favorite Asian eateries. So bring on the bone broths, the noodles and a little bit of spice. We're ready for you, winter.

Miso soup at Akai Hana

Much like America's chili, miso soup has many varieties. "Some are stronger; some are weak. Some add mushrooms or potatoes. Each house has a different flavor of the miso soup," says chef Tsukasa Endo at Akai Hana. "But here, we just provide one type."

That style is very simple: a salty, nutty and buttery base made of bonito (dried, aged and shaved skipjack tuna), anchovies and kelp that's boiled, simmered for an hour and then topped with both white and red organic miso, seaweed and scallions. Rather than using a boxed dashi mix, a common tactic in making miso soup, Akai Hana prefers the bonito-based trio to bring about the umami so integral to miso broth. "The umami comes out naturally, from scratch," says manager Tomoko Smith. Boxed dashi comes with MSG, something the restaurant tries to avoid.

The Old Henderson Road restaurant serves more than 150 bowls of miso soup a day. Americans receive the soup prior to their meals, while Japanese and Korean customers prefer it served concurrently.

After 34 years in the miso business, Endo holds reverence for it. "I don't think there is any bad miso soup," he says. "The base can be different. Sometimes, the fish is a little bit stronger, but the miso can cover the fish taste. The flavor needs to come from the base."

A Japanese meal without miso is highly unlikely, Endo adds: "Without the miso soup, something is missing. It's [from] a long, long, long, long time ago. It's Japanese culture."

Kimchee Jjigae at Diaspora

Some dishes cross continents. In kimchee jjigae (pronounced "shee-gay"), Eastern and Western characteristics collide. Reminiscent of dishes like pork and cabbage, and good ol' fashioned vegetable soup, this North Korean dish is more of a stew than a soup. With spicy Chinese cabbage kimchee, chewy diced pork butt, sliced onions, green onions and tofu, there's barely room for Diaspora's bright and rich broth supplemented by kimchee juice. The Campus eatery serves one of the best kimchee jjigaes around alongside a side of rice and traditional banchan.

Kimchee is the key to a stellar jjigae. First, it can't be fresh. "You have to have a little bit older kimchee," explains Diaspora server Hanna Smith. "Fresh does not have much flavor to it."

Seasonality is important, as well, says chef Chul Kim. "Some summer cabbage is not really good for kimchee," he says. "It has too much water in it. It will be much better in the fall." Kim soaks cabbage in salty water, then rinses it, before adding chilies, fish sauce and garlic. "In Korea, they store kimchee for a year," he says. "But we cannot [hold it that long]. We store it for five or six days."

Asked how he learned his jjigae recipe, Kim pauses. "Maybe my mother?" he asks more than states before adding, "I was 5 years old. Most Korean people, they know how to cook this."

Shio Tonkotsu Ramen at Meshikou

While other cities are ripe with ramen joints, the trend (which started as street food in Japan) is somewhat new to Columbus. The concept is simple: bone-laden broth, fresh noodles and an array of meats and vegetables like mushrooms and green onions to add umami. Throw in a creamy soft boiled egg, and the meal is complete.

Meshikou on Bethel Road serves one of the finest bowls in the city. With cooked-to-order noodles and torched-to-order smoky pork belly, Meshikou's shio tonkotsu ramen is a buffet in a bowl of pork-flavored milky broth seasoned with shio, a sea salt. In the mix are tangy and thick bamboo shoots, a pink-lined fish cake, Japanese mushrooms and a mess of green onions. It's topped with a perfectly easy egg.

For chef and owner Mike Shek, good ramen is about the balance of all the ingredients coming together. "It's not just about the soup, noodles or toppings individually," he says. "It's how they all layer together to create that richness in flavor."

Shek honed his ramen skills in a "Jiro Dreams of Sushi"-style apprenticeship in New York City under a ramen master. For five months, Shek trained. His paramount lesson? "To make really good broth, you have to take the time to really watch the soup, to add ingredients at the right time and to monitor the details. It's not something where you throw ingredients into the pot and come back to it in 12 hours," he says. "If you try to shortcut any step, it makes a huge difference in the taste, texture and richness of the broth."

Thai Noodle Soup at Nida's Thai on High

It's quite possible Columbus might not have had a chance to try Nida's version of Thai noodle soup, the ultimate Southeast Asian comfort food. In Central Thailand, where Nida Perry is from, pork is the prominent protein. Ever the adaptor, the Short North restaurateur added beef to her version to appease the American palate, and thus: Thai noodle soup exists in Central Ohio.

In her version of this classic, Perry simmers fatty beef in broth for four to five hours, adding cinnamon, star anise and Thai spice. Beef, noodles and broth compete for lead billing. The dish-more of a meal than simply a soup-includes contrast in texture, a mess of soft white and wide noodles mixed up with crispy similarly white sprouts. Nida's allows customers to order with any heat level, but the fatty elements of this Thai noodle soup help balance extraneous spice. Slices of two types of beef (one fatty, one lean), meatball halves (100 percent beef) fill the bowl, which is joined by cilantro and the zenith, fried garlic. The latter adds a little oil to the broth, tying all the tastes together. The classic version includes beef blood, but Perry omits it because she can't find any fresh in Columbus.

Perry, it turns out, stopped eating beef ages ago, but happily serves bowls of the good stuff. "I love it," she says, "but since I quit eating beef, I miss it." More for the rest of

Pho Tai at Huong

A bowl of steam-up-your-glasses hot pho is the perfect remedy for a frigid day, sore throat or recovery from an evening of over-imbibing. Columbus has a growing number of pho places catering to a variety of aficionados, from novices to those who correctly pronounce the dish ("it's fuh, duh"). To get a near-perfect pho experience requires two main decisions: where to go and what topping to get.

An order of pho tai (rare beef) at Huong is almost always a great choice on both accounts. Huong's broth is made with 10 pounds of beef bones and beef brisket in a 70-liter pot. Aromas of star anise and spices are at the forefront of the Vietnamese soup served with noodles and onions. The richness of thinly sliced beef and broth is balanced with brightness from accompanying green components, most notably green onion, cilantro and basil.

"[A good pho] will make you salivate from just smelling the aromas," owner Huong Pham says. "The scent is the first thing you would notice." Pham developed her pho recipe through customer feedback and help from her cousin, who owns a restaurant in Texas. "Each pho recipe is different depending on the region the person who makes it comes from," she says. "You may get pho that is on the saltier side versus the sweeter side. It was trial and error for us. It's a combination of all the recipes that I've come across."