We all love to warm our bones with a good love a good bowl of ramen or phở. But it’s still early enough in the year for us to remember that we make resolutions to try new things and be more adventurous. Here are four dishes you may never have heard of to step your Asian soup game up to the next level.
Bún bò Huế (Vietnam)
Try it at: New Saigon. 630 S Federal Blvd, Denver, Open daily 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
The Lowdown: Bún bò Huế is one of those Vietnamese soups on the menu without an explanation in English. This is probably due to the presence of ingredients like blood tofu (regular tofu is made from curdled soy milk, blood tofu is the exact same thing, just replace soy milk with pig blood) that tend to give Americans the heebie-jeebies — but Americans aren’t the picky eaters we once were.
Bún bò Huế is an incredible balancing act of bold flavors: salt, spice, lemongrass, garlic, lime, umami — all turned to 11. But instead of being overwhelming, these flavors come together to create a soup greater than the sum of its parts. As you hold your head over the bowl for a first whiff, your olfactory bulb is ravished by the promise of a medicinally spicy broth. The soup’s surface is guarded by a cap of glistening fat and chili oil that adds a scrumptious sheen to any bit of meat or noodle that passes through it. Plunge your chopsticks into the depths of the bowl and you’ll be rewarded with marinated meat, garlicky noodles, chewy tendon and spongy fish cakes which soak up broth better than any slice of bread.
Wildly alluring with a little sense of danger, bún bò huế is like phở’s sexy cousin who rides motorcycles and plays in a band. You can’t show it to Mom or bring it to church, but it will rock your palate in ways you never thought possible.
Winter Melon Soup (Cantonese)
Try it at: Superstar Asian Cuisine. 2200 W. Alameda Ave., Denver Open daily 10 a.m. — 10 p.m.
The Lowdown: Winter melon soup is the kind of food that immediately makes you nostalgic for the Cantonese grandmother you never had. The soup is light and delicate — good for those who can’t handle bún bò huế — and is immediately comforting. After your first bite, winter melon soup seems pretty similar to egg drop soup — it is thick, pale in color and not overwhelmingly spiced or salted. But the exciting part of this soup is the melon. Though the soup is thick, the juice from the mild winter melon is thin. when you bite into a spoonful of broth and melon chunks you’re treated to a playful contrast of consistencies.
Tom Kha (Thai)
Try it at: US Thai. 5228 W 25th Ave, Edgewater, CO 80214. Tuesday – Thursday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Friday 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. Saturday 12 – 9:30 p.m. Sunday 12 9 p.m.
The Lowdown: Tom Kha is a perfect hangover cure and could probably function as a decent replacement for Gatorade, too. The rich coconut broth is salty and sweet with citrus and spice. A prominent flavor in Tom Kha is Galangal. Galangal is a member of the Zingiberaceae (ginger family). Since they are in the same family, ginger and galangal have flavors in common, but galangal is much more spicey, citrusy and earthy. This earthiness plays with the nicely along the symphony of high notes provided by the sugar, lime and chili, giving the soup its beautiful balance.
Try it at: Tofu House,2406 S Havana St, Aurora or Seoul BBQ. 311 W 104th Ave, Denver, CO 80234. Sun – Thurs 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Fri – Sat 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
The Lowdown: Soondubu-Jjigae (soft tofu stew) is a sea of kimchi, tofu, ground meat and egg yolk. The deep red broth is served still boiling in the pot it was cooked in. It is hard to think of a more welcome vision on a frigid winter’s day than your own personal cauldron of smoldering lava.
Among Soondubu’s many appealing attributes is the harmony of meat and tofu. In the west, we often approach meat and tofu as an either-or situation. Please, dear reader, do not succumb to this false dichotomy. The two work wonderfully together — meat creates savory secretions and tofu soak them up; they’re the perfect team.
All photography by Giacomo Di Franco