I became a breakfast noodle fanatic on a chilly spring morning in Hanoi. I had been eating my way through Asia, hunting down new foods and flavors. But breakfast was still the trickiest of meals. Like many travelers, when I woke in a strange bed, unsure of my surroundings, I would crave the familiar flavors of my breakfast back home. That morning, my first in Hanoi, there was no “Western” breakfast to be found, so I followed the crowds to a busy corner noodle stall and ordered by pointing to the soup of the person next to me. Soon, a bowl of noodles in a fragrant beef broth, flavored with cinnamon and star anise and topped with thin-sliced fresh chili and a handful of herbs, appeared on my table. I took a sip, and suddenly the whole day looked brighter.
That first bite of pho taught me what millions of people in Asia have known for centuries: that a combination of broth, noodles, and a bit of protein is a perfect way to start the day—and that adding chilies, fresh or dried, will wake you up faster than a cup of coffee ever could. By the time I finished, I was a true believer.
I continued my travels throughout Asia, starting every day with a pilgrimage for a bowl of breakfast noodles. I eased into my day with chicken broth-based khao piak in Laos and greeted dawn with pork-filled kuy teav in Cambodia. I even stood in line for a surprisingly comforting bowl of Campbell’s noodle soup topped with sliced ham in Hong Kong. But it wasn’t until I was living in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, that I found of the ultimate bowl: sand-pot noodles.
I was wandering down an alley at the end of my street when I found a woman cooking in an open-air shop. Most breakfast noodles I had encountered were cooked in large pots—noodles in one pot, broth in another, toppings in a third—and then ladled into bowls, but this cook was using clay pots that clearly served as both cooking vessel and serving bowl. Intrigued, I ordered, and a bowl came to the table still sputtering and steaming. Inside I found a tangle of rice noodles in broth topped with ground pork, a thatch of garlic chives, and a spoonful of dark pickled greens. Their sour, salty, slightly bitter flavor was unlike anything I’d had up until that point. The pickles tasted like they could cure whatever ails you, from a hangover to homesickness.
The noodles became my go-to breakfast, and over the next few months, I managed to coax the cooks at my local stall to share their recipe. I learned that the pork broth gets its slightly piney, citrusy flavor from black cardamom pods, and that the chili oil contains a few lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. I discovered that the reason the pickles are so delicious is that they’re fermented for anywhere from two weeks to a year, much like a Chinese version of sauerkraut.
I’m back in the United States now, but I still make regular trips back to Kunming. When I do, I skip the standard hotel breakfast and head back to my old haunt for a bowl of sand-pot noodles. The cooks are always happy to see me, and the noodles are always an awakening.