How to Make a Pretty Bowl of Noodles
Noodle bowls only exist on A Chef's Life and in China. It's way too hard to pull off something that looks so fresh and exotic in your kitchen, right?
It looks complicated, but it really isn't. It's like the opposite of watching the Olympics; you actually can do this. (Although I still think I'd be pretty good at curling but whatever.)
Noodle Bowl Building Blocks
Every good noodle bowl needs the following:
- any combination of cooked vegetables and/or protein
- something green and fresh
Let's look at each one.
Have you ever been to an international grocery store? My Asian supermarket has an entire aisle dedicated to noodles. It's enough to make you turn around and go home for a ham sandwich just to stop the noodle stress. But it doesn't have to be that hard.
The Lazy Genius choice for your noodle bowl is a pack of ramen.
Yep. Ramen. Sure, you can use soba or udon or rice noodles (and I do), but the best way to begin your noodle bowl journey is to simply use ramen. They're already portioned (1 per person for lunch, 1.5 per person for dinner), cheap as dirt at maybe fifty cents each, and they're really hard to mess up. Plus those springy noodle spirals feel right at home in your bowl.
Get started with the cheap easy stuff, and as you get comfortable with your noodle bowl process, you can branch out to other noodles when you're feeling adventurous.
VEGETABLES and PROTEINS
Everything in your bowl should be like a supermodel - long and thin.
The smaller the food, the quicker it cooks. And if you want to eat your noodle bowl with chopsticks (which is definitely half the fun), long and thin foods are easiest to eat.
You can use any combination you like, but I recommend keeping it simple with one protein and two vegetables. Too many ingredients gives you more to chop and it muddies your flavor pretty quickly.
- Protein ideas: thinly sliced ribeye, thinly sliced chicken thighs, soft tofu cubes, salmon, a runny egg
- Vegetable ideas: mushrooms, bell pepper, Napa cabbage, bok choy, carrots, snap peas... really anything that holds up to high heat // Carrot idea - peel the carrot and then keep peeling; the long strips are perfect for quick cooking.
- Combination ideas: salmon and cabbage; ribeye, mushroom, and snap peas; tofu, mushrooms, and carrots; chicken, carrots, and cabbage; ribeye, bell pepper, and bok choy
You have two basic options - store-bought and homemade, and you want it thick.
If you go with store-bought, just use something you love. A simple teriyaki, a ginger dressing... anything Asian that sounds good. You want a thick consistency, like ketchup, so if your chosen sauce isn't naturally thick, stir it together with a little cornstarch before you add it to the pan, and it will thicken as it boils.
If you want a homemade sauce, oh my word there are so many delicious options. Here's what I have in my kitchen:
- soy sauce (obvs)
- mirin (sweet rice wine)
- miso paste (salty and earthy and naturally thick)
- sesame oil (use just a drop or two... it's STRONG)
- ginger-garlic paste (equal parts fresh ginger and garlic whirred together with enough canola oil to bring it together)
- hoisin sauce (kind of like an Asian barbecue sauce)
- wasabi (my favorite heat)
Just about any combination of any of these works. You want a sauce that has salt, sweet, and heat in whatever ratio makes you happy. And I love the fresh zing of the ginger-garlic paste. Stand at your counter, mix a little here and there until you reach delicious Asian alchemy, and if the consistency is pretty thin, add a spoonful of cornstarch while it's still cold. Once it hits the pan, it'll thicken nicely.
A few of my favorite combos: soy, mirin, and ginger-garlic paste (my go-to); miso and soy; soy, sesame oil, and wasabi, hoisin and ginger-garlic paste.
Meals like this are hard to nail down in terms of measurements, but you're probably going to want about 1/4 cup of sauce per person. Ish. Maybe. Don't quote me I hate math.
SOMETHING GREEN and FRESH
This is what separates the pros from the amateurs. You know why you drool over one noodle bowl photo and not as much at another? Bowls topped with texture and green are gorgeous and look fancy. But it's as simple as slicing some scallions and sprinkling them on top. A few sesame seeds and a swirl of srirachi? Stop it you just won a James Beard award.
Depending on what flavors you're working with, some topping ideas are green onion/scallion, cilantro, mint, basil, sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, and a swirl of chili or hot sauce.
Step-by-Step (ooo, baby) Gonna Get a Noodle Bo-o-o-o-owl
- Cook your protein. If you're cooking chicken, beef, or fish, cook it first. Season it, marinate it beforehand, sear it like crazy to get those burnt flavors... whatever you do, make sure it takes like something. Salt is required; the rest is a bonus. Once your meat is cooked, move to the bowl you'll eventually eat out of. No need for extra dishes.
If your protein choice is tofu or a runny egg, there's no need to cook those yet. The tofu you can just toss in at the end as you're mixing everything together, and a runny egg should be eaten right away, i.e. cook it last if you're using it.
- Cook your veg. Your pan is empty again, so add a little oil, your supermodel vegetables, a generous pinch of salt (yes, even though you're adding sauce), and move those suckers around over pretty high heat. The best is a little char on the edges, so don't be afraid of the burn. Once your vegetables are cooked, move them to the same bowl as the meat to hang out.
- Cook your noodles. Have you already given up because you're cooking your third thing now? Come back to me. You're still using only one pan, and the first two steps literally took a couple of minutes. Sure, you spent a few minutes slicing everything, but if you do Lazy Genius Meal Prep, you might already have some prepped food waiting for you in the fridge. It feels like a lot on paper but not in person. Just roll with it, okay?
Okay, now it's noodle time. Fill the bottom of the same skillet with an inch of water, maybe more if you're cooking multiple ramen packs. Bring the water to a boil (it picks up all the flavors of the meat and veg by the way), and then place the square blocks of noodles in the shallow water. Let them sit for a minute to soften on one side, and then flip them to soften on the other. Now the blocks are breaking apart, and you'll use your tongs to move them around the barely-there boiling water. These noodles take no time to cook, but if you feel like the noodles are sticking to the pan before they're done, just a little more water. It won't hurt it a bit. You're essentially cooking your noodles in just enough water to cook them without any water left.
- Toss it together. Your noodles are cooked, so add half of your sauce and bring to a boil to coat the noodles. Then add your cooked meat and veg and tofu if you're using it, and pour in the rest of the sauce. Again, bring it to a boil so the cornstarch will do its job. Tongs are the best tool for this. Just keep tossing.
Side note: you can totally use one of those seasoning packets from the ramen if you want, but I generally like the flavor of my homemade sauces better. Just know that's an option as long as you leave some water in the pan to soak the ramen powder up.
- Make it pretty. Everything is now cooked and coated, so put it in your boil. Now top it with your choice of fresh green stuff and any other final touches, including that beautiful runny egg. Then grab your chopsticks and go. to. town.
Once you make this once, you'll make it again and again. It's such a great method with an epic payoff. I adore the noodle bowl.
P.S. If you want more of a soup style noodle bowl with broth, follow the process above, but instead of adding cornstarch or having a thick sauce, mix your sauce and leave it as is. Then you can cook your noodles in a saucepan with a lot of water until cooked and then gently toss in your cooked protein, vegetables, and enough sauce until it tastes yummy. That's not how a Japanese grandmother would do it, but it works in a pinch.