Chicken noodle soup is merely broth, noodles and chicken unless you approach it as a culinary canvas you paint with herbs and spices. Without your own aromatic influences, it lacks identity, but you don't have to search long for inspiration. Simply pick a region or style of cuisine as a starting point and build your chicken noodle soup's flavor profile from there.
Umami is the robust taste sensation derived from glutamate. Soy sauce is perhaps the most well-known umami-rich ingredient, but you can source it from other foods, too. Mushrooms, carrots and tomatoes all have high levels of glutamate; simmer umami-rich vegetables in chicken noodle soup for 30 minutes to impart an unctuous taste and aroma that tie the noodles, chicken and broth together.
Asia's respect for the noodle is evident in every soup it graces. Thailand, China and Japan have thousands of chicken-noodle-soup variations with just as many names and spice combinations, but you can start with a couple of base flavors and build from there. Chinese-inspired chicken soup might contain garlic, Thai chile and spring onions as the primary seasonings; and fennel seeds, ginger and kaffir leaves as the secondary seasonings. Japanese chicken noodle soup, or chicken udon, commonly contains mirin, soy sauce, sake as the base seasonings, and spring onions and shichimi -- a Japanese chili powder -- as the finishing ingredients.
Known for its seamless combinations of the pungent and floral, the bold and woodsy, Italian-influenced herb-and-spice mixes do for chicken noodle soup what they do for all Italian dishes: Make the humble haute. Use basil, rosemary, marjoram, oregano and thyme as the primary seasonings and finish the soup with a grating of umami-rich Parmesan for a taste redolent of Emilia-Romagna. Finish Italian-style chicken noodle soup with a drizzle of good olive oil to round out the flavors.
No tour of world cuisine is complete without a trip to Latin America. Zesty and floral, simple yet complex, the flavors of South America delight the palate with an array of taste sensations in any dish they bless. Use sofrito -- equal parts sauteed bell peppers, garlic and onions -- as the primary flavoring ingredients and add chili powder, smoked paprika, oregano and cumin as the supporting seasonings. Add a handful of freshly chopped cilantro to finish with a flourish.
Season Like a Pro
Without proper technique, even the best herbs and spices remain subdued. Toast whole spices in a dry saute pan over medium heat until their aroma wafts around you -- an indication their essential oils have mobilized -- before use. Crack whole spices after toasting and tie them in cheesecloth with twine to make retrieving them easier; nothing throws off the taste of a dish like biting into a whole peppercorn does. Add ground spices at the start of cooking; add freshly chopped herbs halfway through cooking and garnish the soup with the same herbs. Lastly, season judiciously with salt in the beginning, middle and end of cooking; salt added at the end of cooking makes the seasoning taste superficial.
A.J. Andrews' work has appeared in Food and Wine, Fricote and "BBC Good Food." He lives in Europe where he bakes with wild yeast, milks goats for cheese and prepares for the Court of Master Sommeliers level II exam. Andrews received formal training at Le Cordon Bleu.