Noodles You Should Know: Thukpa

Pronounced with a percussive rhythm akin to a drum, or perhaps a steady heartbeat, thukpa lives up to its name. Granted, “thukpa” is simply the generic Tibetan word for any soup or stew with noodles, which doesn’t exactly inspire great poetry. Dig a little deeper and you’ll learn that “thuk” means “heart.” This understanding clearly speaks to how deeply a bowlful of the stuff can restore the spirit, beyond merely satisfying basic bodily hunger. Warming the eater’s very heart, right down to the core, in brutally cold winters and times of need, it’s the original soup for the soul.

Those noodles, however, are the real star of the show, sometimes dwarfing the liquid to such a small component of the dish, you’d think it was just a brothy sauce. Many different variations exist, changing ratios and ingredients across cultural boundaries, but the basics remain the same: Noodles, soup, and vegetables.

My personal favorite is the Nepalese version, which is often naturally vegetarian and has a spicier flavor profile. Not many vegetables can thrive in the harsh tundra, so inclusions remain basic: cabbage, onions, carrots, and radishes are the prevailing options. Modern versions take advantage of greater access to worldwide markets, adding everything from bell peppers to tomatoes to green peas, and relish the opportunity to finish each bowl with fresh herbs like cilantro and scallions.

Types of Thukpa

As more of an umbrella term than the definition of a single dish, thukpa include many different, distinctive combinations of noodles and soups.

  • Thenthuk: A Tibetan soup with hand-pulled flat noodles.
  • Gyathuk: A Chinese-fusion soup featuring round chow mein noodles, often with chicken or pork.
  • Pathug or Thugpa: A Tibetan variant with hand-rolled, pinched noodles that are more like dumplings or gnocchi in texture.

Other spellings and pronunciations include thuppa, thuggpa, and drethug. Occasionally you’ll come across shortcut recipes that call for rice noodles, but this is another contemporary twist that purists would disqualify.

How To Make Thukpa

There’s no wrong way to make thukpa, just different approaches based on your needs and wants.

Any vegetable is fair game, in any quantity you want, which is also true of spices. Indian versions will include garam masala as a quick flavor boost, leaning on cumin for more body. It’s always a treat with homemade noodles, but there’s no shame in using regular spaghetti or fettuccine as a shortcut.

Thukpa is a food born of strife, created by migrants dispersed throughout the Himalayas to seek refuge as they forged new lives in Sikim, Darjeeling, Arunachal Pradesh, Nepal, and Bhutan, transforming the dish at every turn. It serves a need, both physical and emotional, while weaving together communities. It embodies the warmth of togetherness, reminding us that food has the power to forge connections beyond borders.

Tidbits from Tibet

Like any reasonable human fortunate enough to try them, I love momo. All dumplings are delicious, but something about this Tibetan specialty is particularly captivating. These two-bite round bundles look like beautifully wrapped packages, which isn’t too far from the truth. It’s a real gift because making momo from scratch is no quick fix meal.

Funny enough, despite that, the thing that I crave most when I think about momos aren’t the dumplings themselves, but the unbelievably creamy tomato soup that comes with an order of jhol momo. Spicy, rich, and intensely flavorful, it’s essentially liquefied chutney that’s been spiked with toasted sesame seeds. Once blended, that nutty goodness transforms the brilliant red brew into the best kind of tomato bisque on the planet.

I still haven’t mastered momo, but I have cracked the code on a shortcut jhol achar soup. Garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorns dance in this aromatic mixture, bolstered by the natural sweetness of lightly caramelized onion. Canned, fire-roasted tomatoes add an instant earthy, woodsy, smoky complexity, while tahini ensures a smooth finish every time.

This soup is so good that you don’t even need dumplings to make it a meal… But if you do have access, it certainly doesn’t hurt. If you can’t get your hands on vegan momo, homemade, frozen, or otherwise, other [unconventional but delightful] additions and serving suggestions include:

  • Diced avocado
  • Steamed vegetable gyoza or wontons
  • Gnocchi
  • Diced and roasted sweet potato
  • Chickpeas

On really cold days though, I’m happy to just pour it into a thermos and sip this soup all day. It’s soothing, invigorating, and restorative all at once.

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