What is it about Asian cultures and great soup? Reminiscing brings me back to a sushi bar outside Hartford, where I tasted for the first time the earthy umami of miso soup, and to a mega-mall in Houston where I can still feel the steam on my face from an unforgettable bowl of pho. And then I find myself in Portland, Oregon, where my mouth starts watering all over again for the piquant galangal and lemon grass in a bewitching cauldron of tom kha gai.
These soups, like the memories they created, left me feeling warm and full. From each, the first spoonful delivered explosive flavors and intense pleasure, while the last brought invigoration and invincibility. Popeye might have tried any of them and discovered he had no need for spinach.
Closer to home, I’ve fallen for another Asian bowl of restorative power—the sukiyaki at restaurant in Groton. Inspired, loosely, by the East Asian hot pot tradition, in which ingredients are cooked at the table in a simmering communal broth and then dipped in a spicy sauce, the sukiyaki instead arrives fully cooked and assembled in a bowl large enough for doing laundry.
The steamy broth awakens the senses. At first the soup looks thin, but stirring it reveals a tangle of transparent bean thread noodles bathing within, bulky and starchy enough to make a meal all by themselves. Tubes of chewy squid and bite-sized chunks of tender chicken add yet more heft, while shrimp contribute a textural snap and bulky leaves of napa cabbage add a fibrous, satisfying crunch. An egg is dropped into the broth and poached. The shreds and clumps of egg, along with the noodles, soak up the liquid and thicken the soup while you’re eating it. Sweet scallions and cilantro—oh, I should write a song about cilantro—brighten each spoonful.
The side of sukiyaki sauce, if added entirely, will produce a slightly runny nose. In other words, it’s perfect—a balance of sweet and sour, salty and spicy. The toasted sesame seeds in the sauce pop once in a while on your molars. It’s exhilarating heat, combined with the warm broth and the abundant meats and vegetables, make the experience feel all very healthy.
If you’d rather, you could ask for chopsticks and dip the ingredients hot-pot-style in the suki sauce as you go, saving the broth and remaining noodles to enjoy as a soup at the finish. This approach would add fun but also work. You might also simply pick up the giant bowl—it must have been nearly six inches deep—and slurp everything down in a frenzy. Or just use your spoon all civilized-like. No matter how you eat it, the sukiyaki is money well spent.