Cookbook Review: Noodle Soup by Ken Albala

Note: I received a digital advance reader copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This cookbook was completely unlike anything I was expecting. Instead of a gorgeously styled coffee table collection of noodle soup food porn with accompanying recipes, I got an extremely thorough encyclopedia of noodle soup. I can confidently say after reading this cookbook that there is no one else on this planet who knows as much about noodle soup as Albala. He approaches the topic from every angle. Equal parts historian, connoisseur, and mad scientist, he provides you with everything you've ever wanted to know about noodles or soup or the people who enjoy them.

He starts off with a story about how he fell in love with noodle soup, starting from his days eating instant ramen in his room alone. From there, he takes off on a journey through the "epistemology of noodle soup" and a history of the topic, which is fitting considering Mr. Albala's day job as history professor. I have to admit I couldn't get through all of it, as I soon discovered that my interest in the subject paled in comparison to Albala's. Next he breaks down all the utensils needed to achieve his level of noodle soup prowess, before diving into all the many components of noodle soup, from the broth to the noodles to the garnishes. Then the fun part--he includes a noodle soup dish from each country, which I had a lot of fun reading about. It's always interesting to see how each culture has taken one humble dish and adapted it until there are hundreds of variations. I thought I had tasted a lot of different noodle soups, being Asian, but it turns out there are many more that I have yet to try.

The wacky part, and my favorite part, is the unusual noodle soup concoctions that I believe only Albala has been (brilliant? crazy? somewhere in between?) daring enough to bring to fruition. At various points in the book, he makes noodles out of pine sap, crickets, acorns, peanuts, and ham, among other things. All of these are dehydrated and ground into a powder that can then be used to make noodles. Perhaps the most impressive dish he described was a salad he made into noodles, with an array of vegetables each dehydrated, ground up, and reconstituted into pasta one at a time and later combined into a tangled noodle rainbow. There's no other words for it--this blew my mind.

As much as his recipes are exciting and eccentric, they are also very different from the usual cookbook recipes. Instead of precise measurements and a list of instructions, his recipes are more freeform. The ingredients and their measurements are there, but the instructions are written in confusing paragraphs with too much detail at times. It's hard to distinguish where recipes end and where his general writing begins again. His thoughts on the philosophy of noodle-making tend to go on for too long, which coming from academia as well, I understand. However, his editor might have been more conservative with the word limits, as the amount of text can be overwhelming at times and would have benefited from a tighter emphasis on brevity.

The writing itself is thoughtful, intelligent, and often made me laugh out loud with its dry humor, particularly during his anecdote about making cricket noodles. The photography is not on the level of other cookbooks out on the market today, but that is also because a lot of his recipes are experiments he seems to have made in the past and documented once, instead of dishes that were made and styled by food stylists. In fact, much of this book seems to be a documentation of the inner workings of a craftsman who is obsessed with honing and expanding his craft. "Obsession" seems to be fitting for a man who watches his son eat Kraft mac and cheese and can only think of ways to capture the essence of it in noodle soup form.

Lest you think I am disparaging Mr. Albala, I'm not. After putting this book down, I had nothing but admiration for him. I can't recall ever seeing this level of dedication to exploring one type of dish and challenging the way that the food world has traditionally seen it. It's not just comfort food--it's a blank canvas on which you can throw any idea and watch it transform into something new and special entirely.

Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of cookbook I would see myself buying for myself. As I mentioned earlier, I discovered about 30 pages in that I just didn't care as much about noodle soup as Mr. Albala does. He makes a passionate case, but in the end, I found the recipes hard to transform into practical meals in my home kitchen without having to go out and buy a lot of equipment I don't have. If I encounter someone with the same level of zeal for noodle-making, I'll be sure to gift them this extraordinary cookbook, and also send them along to Mr. Albala who I imagine would be their culinary Mr. Miyagi. In the meantime, this is going back on the shelf.

Overall Rating: 3/5 stars

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