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Question about nomenclature: is it "soup" or "noodles"?

ipsedixit Mar 27, 2013 08:44 PM

A bowl of Chinese "niu ro mian" (or 牛肉麵) literally translates in English to "cow meat noodle".

Nowhere in the Chinese name is the word "soup" mentioned, yet the English translation is colloquially known as "Beef Noodle Soup".

How did this happen?

More importantly, do you consider Chinese 'niu ro mian' to be a "soup" dish (like chicken noodle soup) or a "noodle" dish (like spaghetti carbonara).

For me, it's the latter. It's noodles.

I have the same question for things like Phở and ramen. For me, both are noodle dishes (in the vein of spaghetti carbonara) and not soup.

But I believe most Americans (using that term loosely, and in no derogative way), consider all three ('niu ro mian', Phở and ramen) to be soup.

Curious as to your thoughts.

  1. FoodLover16 Mar 30, 2013 02:15 PM

    Interesting post.
    Here is how I interpret them based on how I eat them:

    Niu ro mian = noodle. Focus on the meat and noodles when eating!

    Ramen = noodle soup. Won't do justice to it without carefully tasting the soup!

    Pho = noodle soup. Meal won't be complete without the soup.

    1. s
      Steve Mar 29, 2013 07:09 AM

      I consider anything served submerged in liquid to be a soup. If it features noodles, a noodle soup. Submerging noodles in liquid changes their character, and this is an important descriptor in deciding what I order.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Steve
        ipsedixit Mar 29, 2013 07:37 AM

        See, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

        In no way am I saying you're wrong, Steve, nor that I am right, it just fascinates me the way different people view the same dish.

        If I look at a bowl of Chinese Beef Noodle Soup, to me it's a bowl of noodles. It's not even really a bowl of noodles *in* soup necessarily -- that's not how my brain processes it. While it seems like you, on the other hand, view it as a bowl of soup, with perhaps stuff (incl. noodles) in that soup.

        1. re: ipsedixit
          Veggo Mar 29, 2013 08:10 AM

          It's the food equivalent of M.C. Escher's staircase.

          1. re: Veggo
            ipsedixit Mar 29, 2013 08:24 PM

            No, more like a Rorschach Test for hungry 'Hounds.

            I know where those stairs lead to.

      2. CindyJ Mar 29, 2013 06:41 AM

        I've been confused by this issue as well. There's a Vietnamese restaurant we've been going to that has several categories of soups on its menu -- There's Hoành Thánh, described as "Vietnamese Wonton Soup"; there's Hủ Tiếu, Mì, which lists about a dozen kinds of "Noodle Soup"; and there's Phở, which lists a half-dozen types of "Beef Soup." But then there's also Hủ Tiếu Khô & Mì Khô -- described as Rice/egg noodles with steamed beansprouts, chives, onions, garlic, scallions, cilantro, bak choy, and soup on the side."

        It looks to me like if the noodles are served IN the soup, it's considered soup; but if the noodles are served separately from the soup, it's considered noodles.

        1 Reply
        1. re: CindyJ
          luckyfatima Mar 29, 2013 03:57 PM

          The "kho" part of the hu tieu and mi noodle description means dry. It is indicating that this is not served as a soup.

        2. raytamsgv Mar 28, 2013 11:30 AM

          It's noodles to me because the main focus is the noodle. The broth happens to give it flavor. It's like Italian pasta. The sauce is important, but it's not the star. That's why it's a pasta dish, not a tomato sauce dish.

          9 Replies
          1. re: raytamsgv
            CindyJ Mar 29, 2013 06:45 AM

            "It's like Italian pasta. The sauce is important, but it's not the star."

            I might disagree with you there -- sometimes I think the pasta is simply the delivery vehicle for a delicious sauce.

            1. re: CindyJ
              raytamsgv Mar 29, 2013 11:25 AM

              But do you drink the sauce by itself?

              1. re: raytamsgv
                JAB Mar 29, 2013 12:12 PM

                Depends who's looking. ;>)

                1. re: raytamsgv
                  sunshine842 Mar 29, 2013 12:20 PM

                  if it's a sauce aurore or a vodka cream sauce?

                  hey, look at that -- over there -- what IS that?


                  1. re: raytamsgv
                    CindyJ Mar 29, 2013 12:51 PM

                    Sometimes. Last week I made duck ragu with pappardelle (as opposed to pappardelle with duck ragu). The pasta was long gone, but we were wiping our plates with bread in order to get every last morsel of the ragu.

                    1. re: CindyJ
                      sunshine842 Mar 29, 2013 02:02 PM

                      oh, I'd be licking the plate. I love pappardelle anyway, but then with duck ragu?

                2. re: raytamsgv
                  c oliver Mar 31, 2013 08:00 AM

                  The pho I make, it's the broth that's the star.

                  1. re: c oliver
                    ipsedixit Mar 31, 2013 11:20 AM

                    So, would you be happy just slurping the broth without any phở in it? And to you would it be "phở" without, well, the phở?

                    1. re: ipsedixit
                      c oliver Mar 31, 2013 12:30 PM

                      I'd be happier slurping the broth than the other way around. Luckily I don't have to choose.

                3. JAB Mar 28, 2013 10:22 AM

                  I do consider it to be soup.

                  I've also noticed that Americans eat / drink most if not all of the soup / broth where Asians leave quite a bit as if there's no value to the soup / broth without noodles.

                  Additionally, I've also noticed that Americans only want these when it's cold out and Asians want these whenever.

                  1. pinehurst Mar 28, 2013 08:28 AM

                    This is not an exact analogy, forgive me. Popular in my family (but not just there :-) ) is a dish brought over from Naples, cioppino. On most menus, it's translated as a fish stew or a fisherman's stew. The legend goes that it originated on the docks of Naples, where fisherman whose catch was various species would contributed chopped bits or small portions of their own catch to a community cauldron, with delicious results.

                    Anyhoo, the star is the seafood. The broth, while second fiddle, is essential, like a fabulous supporting actor. So it sounds nu ro mian has a star and a supporting actor too, and its star is the excellent noodles.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: pinehurst
                      ipsedixit Mar 28, 2013 09:57 AM

                      Anyhoo, the star is the seafood. The broth, while second fiddle, is essential, like a fabulous supporting actor. So it sounds nu ro mian has a star and a supporting actor too, and its star is the excellent noodles.

                      I believe that's right.

                      And another analogy would be Moules Mariniere. Surely, the star of the dish would the mussels, but please don't tell me that the broth isn't important.

                      And I don't think anyone would call, or consider, Moules Mariniere "soup" right? Even though the soup (or broth) is a critical component in making the dish, not only what it is, but a delight to eat.

                      It's like in Django Unchained. Jamie Foxx is the star, but he would not shine nearly as bright without Christoph Waltz.

                      1. re: ipsedixit
                        njmarshall55 Mar 28, 2013 01:07 PM

                        So what one wants is a show with a good company of actors...not a one-person performance, i guess.

                      2. re: pinehurst
                        Will Owen Mar 28, 2013 02:27 PM

                        There is or was a restaurant on El Camino in Sunnyvale (I think) whose chef would make a broth from seafood trimmings/shells/whatever over the course of a week, and then on Fridays serve it as cioppino. When they opened at 11:00 there would be a line down the block, and if you got through the door after 11:45 you were going to have something else for lunch. My lunch bunch made it through twice; the last time we had to draw straws to see who'd get the last five servings. That broth was the star - first sip, and the ocean practically exploded in your mouth.

                        1. re: Will Owen
                          njmarshall55 Mar 28, 2013 02:58 PM

                          I miss Sunnyvale. Was stationed at the base many years ago...love that area.

                      3. luckyfatima Mar 28, 2013 07:39 AM

                        Actually, I have pondered such things...

                        In Mexican cuisines you have the dry noodle dish called dry soup, sopa seca, made with fideos/vermicelli. There is also the dry elbow macaroni salad dish called sopa fría (de coditos), means cold soup (made with elbow macaroni). There is also a tortilla casserole dish where the leftover tortillas are drowned in tomato broth and absorb it and become dry, which is also classified as sopa in some parts of MX. So you can have a 'sopa' which is not necessarily liquid. So, like the sopas secas I get, but how come sopa fría is a "soup"?

                        In Vietnamese, it seems to function like you mention in Chinese. You have pho. Pho actually refers to banh pho, or the noodles inside. (Banh classifies all starchy items from noodles to bread to cakes.) The broth is the nuoc (nuoc really means any liquid), for pho specifically nuoc pho. Pho can appear dry, like pho ap chao. or pho xao. You have hu tieu which can appear in soups or dry but the soups don't say "soup" but refer to the hu tieu noodle in broth (like hu tieu nam vang, or Cambodian style hu tieu). There are a lot of other soups like mi, mi hoanh thanh (from the Chinese mee and won ton) and bun bo hue (Hue style beef bun noodle soup) or bun rieu (I don't know what rieu means, actually), or bun mang (bun with bamboo shoot and usually duck or chicken) that mention the noodle but don't have the word soup.

                        There are soups called canh. Canh chua or tomato soup, has the word canh it it but NO noodles. Banh canh, which refers to the thick noodle AND the soup made with those fat noodles.

                        So you have canh as soup or even the English lexical adoption xup/sup (pronounced sup). The one soup I can think of that always uses sup in the name is sup mang cua or crab-asparagus soup---no noodles in this one. The rest of the times I have seen sup on the menu it is usually translating to English from Chinese or American Chinese noodle-less soups.

                        There are probably many more VN soups...I do have an interest in VN food but obviously I am not Vietnamese and my info is limited. But those are some popular soups/noodle dishes from which you can draw your own conclusion, but it seems that the soupy dishes with noodles in them are conceptualized as noodle dishes and not soups, per se.

                        One thought in my pondering is that even though good, deeply flavored broth is extremely important to these soups---it makes the soups, one isn't expected to consume the entire bowl including the broth. The broth is actually a medium of flavor for the noodles, proteins, and possibly veg. So you finish of the protein and noodle, but you can leave some broth in the bottom of the bowl.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: luckyfatima
                          ipsedixit Mar 28, 2013 07:55 AM


                          Well said and very interesting. Thank you for that.

                          I am glad that I am not the only Chowidiot in the universe that self-indulges in such pedantic culinary nuances.

                        2. r
                          ricepad Mar 27, 2013 10:58 PM

                          I've always thought of it thusly: if the dish is typically consumed completely, broth and all, it's 'soup' (eg chicken noodle soup). If, on the other hand, it's more typical to eat the solid stuff while drinking some (but not all) of the broth, it's 'noodles' (ala pho or ramen).

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ricepad
                            melpy Mar 28, 2013 04:36 AM

                            I refuse to leave pho broth. I would rather leave the noodles, the broth is like gold!

                          2. linguafood Mar 27, 2013 10:45 PM

                            It's all noodle soup to me. Or soup noodles. But more likely... noodle soup, regardless of what particular dish you're referring to.

                            1. K K Mar 27, 2013 09:10 PM

                              It's the same thing...wonton noodles vs wonton noodle soup.

                              I'm guessing the word soup is added for clarification for those not familiar with the bowl or the cuisine as to what to expect.

                              There is a distinction however in Taiwan.

                              牛肉麵 = beef with noodles in soup
                              牛肉湯麵 = beef soup (beef broth) with noodles (no beef)

                              Xiaolongbao or xiaolong mantou as it is known....the word "soup" does not exist inside. Change the receipe and suddenly all the brothy liquid makes it a "soup dumpling", but tang bao means something else sometimes.

                              Ramen is just 拉麵 in Chinese (whether referring to JP noodle or Chinese hand pulled). But you always get someone in the media saying the word "ramen noodles" (which ramen IS a noodle, or method rather).

                              In Hong Kong, pho is known as 牛肉河粉 or 牛肉粉 (beef pho). Or the word Vietnam(ese) is put in the prefix 越南粉

                              While the broth is a very important component when evalulating the entire package deal, I do agree that the theme and category is still the carb.

                              However, when you bring up the American comfort food classic, chicken noodle soup....it is always viewed as a soup. Nobody sees it as a bowl of noodles, in soup. Ditto for pasta e fagioli or minestrone with a lot of little pasta bits in it, or alphabet soup for that matter. Though I'm not sure one can assume pho, beef noodles, wonton noodles are being looked at with the same lens that way.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: K K
                                ipsedixit Mar 27, 2013 09:26 PM

                                However, when you bring up the American comfort food classic, chicken noodle soup....it is always viewed as a soup. Nobody sees it as a bowl of noodles, in soup. Ditto for pasta e fagioli or minestrone with a lot of little pasta bits in it, or alphabet soup for that matter. Though I'm not sure one can assume pho, beef noodles, wonton noodles are being looked at with the same lens that way.


                                Well, that's my question.

                                Is niu rou mien (or pho or ramen) viewed more as classic soup or more like a pasta.

                                For me all three are clearly pasta dishes, or more precisely noodle dishes. They aren't soup.

                                In fact many times I will order something like hot and sour soup in addition to a bowl of niu ro mien.

                                1. re: ipsedixit
                                  Kris in Beijing Mar 27, 2013 10:09 PM

                                  Ipse Dixit-- can you Clarify?
                                  "Is ... viewed ... as soup"
                                  Viewed by whom? Traditional American culture? Or each individual respondent?

                                  I would vote for ratios as the determining factor.
                                  Chicken noodle soup, IMHO, is 1/3 small things to 2/3 broth. SamGaeTang or 滋补乌鸡汤 are, however, by ratios about 2/3 chicken and 1/3 broth, so they are "dishes," not soup. However, that doesn't address the pasta/ noodle issue.

                                  So, for meeeeee:
                                  Ramen noodles and ramen noodle soup have the same core ingredients but RNS is a bowl of broth with a twist of noodles.
                                  Pho is not soup, it's ... pho!! But to me, it's a noodle dish.

                                  From a "Western food" perspective, if the pasta isn't "draped" in a "sauce," then is is probably 1/3 of the contents in a bowl of broth of soup.

                                  As a total side note, when I lived in Korea, I had trouble with jjigae or a guk until I learned to define them as stew-type vs soup-type.

                                  1. re: Kris in Beijing
                                    sunshine842 Mar 28, 2013 12:50 AM


                                    1. re: Kris in Beijing
                                      ipsedixit Mar 28, 2013 07:48 AM

                                      "Is ... viewed ... as soup"
                                      Viewed by whom? Traditional American culture? Or each individual respondent?

                                      Viewed (probably and generally) by most non-Chinese folks when, for example, talking about 牛肉麵.

                                      Let's take this example.

                                      Me: What did you have for lunch today.
                                      Bob: Soup.
                                      Me: Oh, what kind of soup?
                                      Bob: Chinese beef noodle soup.

                                      That's not how I would've answered the question if I had 牛肉麵 for lunch. I would have said noodles.

                                      When my family and I go out for 牛肉麵 we always say lets go someplace with good 麵 not some place for 湯.

                                      As a side note, I don't even think it has anything to do with proportions. It really has to do with the quiddity of the dish, and significance of the noodles.

                                      For example, with Chicken Noodle Soup, regardless of the ratio of broth to noodles, I judge that dish more on the broth than the noodles -- in fact, the noodles are at best an afterthought (they could be freakin alphabets for all I care as long as the chicken broth is rich and umami-filled).

                                      On the other hand, with 牛肉麵 the dish is judged more by the noodles than the broth (although the broth is very important). I will not eat 牛肉麵 made with limp, machine extruded dried noodles -- no matter how good the broth. The noodles either have to be hand made in some fashion (either pulled, rolled or cut) and must be cooked so that they are toothsomely sturdy, but not exactly al dente.

                                      1. re: ipsedixit
                                        Will Owen Mar 28, 2013 02:37 PM

                                        I'm going to say the same about pasta e fagioli, at least when it's made by my favorite recipe. The pasta for this is either broken up lasagna noodles or handmade sheets cut into odd shapes (maltagliati), and in sufficient quantity to form a substantial part of the soup. I've seen other recipes that call for lesser quantities of smaller pasta, even elbow macaroni, but this one is from Marcella Hazan and I'm sticking with it.

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