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Thupka, aka ‘chicken noodle soup of Tibet,’ includes ginger, cumin seeds and green chiles

“Thukpa is essentially the chicken noodle soup of Tibet,” Maneet Chauhan writes in “Chaat,” her book of recipes from markets and kitchens across India.  (Rey Lopez/For the Washington Post)
“Thukpa is essentially the chicken noodle soup of Tibet,” Maneet Chauhan writes in “Chaat,” her book of recipes from markets and kitchens across India. (Rey Lopez/For the Washington Post)
By G. Daniela Galarza Washington Post

“I didn’t know I needed the Himalayan chicken noodle soup thukpa in my life until I arrived at the Guwahati Junction railway station, India’s first train station to be entirely powered by solar electricity, in the remote northeastern state of Assam,” Nashville, Tennesee-based chef Maneet Chauhan writes in her glorious cookbook “Chaat: Recipes From the Kitchens, Markets and Railways of India.”

Exhausted after traveling by rail for thousands of miles, through the snowy mountains of Tibet and Bhutan, Chauhan remembers how a steaming bowl of thukpa – “essentially the chicken noodle soup of Tibet” – warmed her frigid fingers and revived her spirit.

Assam is best known for its tea trade, but its food is an intriguing mélange thanks to its unique geography and long history. Situated beneath Bhutan and above Bangladesh, Assam has welcomed pilgrims seeking refuge in its ancient Hindu temples for centuries.

Located on the Brahmaputra River, Guwahati is its largest city, and the oldest city in northeastern India, having survived 17 invasions by the Mughals over many centuries. Today, the food of Assam is heavily influenced by Nepalese, Bhutanese, Burmese and Tibetan cooking traditions.

Thukpa, which is originally from eastern Tibet, was adopted into northeastern Indian cuisine after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. Thousands of Tibetan refugees settled in Assam and started adapting their cuisine to local tastes and customs. Weary travelers like Chauhan often discover this soup in railway stations, where it’s kept simmering in large pots and served in metal bowls.

In restaurants in Guwahati, it’s often served with a fork, for pulling out the noodles and vegetables, and a large soup spoon, for sipping the broth.

“In that single bowl of soup, I found all the reassurance I needed that the long journey had been worth it,” Chauhan writes. “When I lived in New York City, where the winters can be brutal, there was nothing my husband, Vivek, and I loved more than tucking into a bowl of this Guwahati comfort food.”

Besides chicken and rice noodles, thukpa is fragrant with garlic, ginger, green chiles and cumin seeds. Carrots, bell peppers, green beans and cabbage fortify it and give it lots of color. It can look as bright as a rainbow in a bowl. Keep it in mind this winter or whenever you need a bowl of something cozy and warming.

Thukpa

2 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped

One (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled

4 cloves garlic

2 to 3 serrano chiles, stemmed

2 tablespoons vegetable oil or another neutral oil

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs

2 quarts low-sodium chicken stock

2 red bell peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 large carrot scrubbed and coarsely chopped

1 cup coarsely chopped green beans

1 cup shredded green cabbage

6 ounces thin rice noodles or spaghettini

Juice of 1 large lemon (3 to 4 tablespoons)

Salt

Sliced scallions and fresh cilantro sprigs, for garnish

In a food processor, combine the tomatoes, ginger, garlic, serranos, oil and cumin seeds and process until smooth. Transfer the puree to a large, lidded heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven set over medium-high heat, add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until aromatic, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the stock, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the bell peppers, carrot, beans and cabbage. Cover the pot halfway and simmer until the vegetables are tender and the chicken is cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes.

Add the noodles and lemon juice and simmer until the noodles are tender, 4 to 6 minutes. Taste the broth and season with salt. Using your spoon or two forks, tear the chicken up into smaller pieces, if desired.

Spoon the thukpa into bowls, garnish with scallions and cilantro and serve very hot.

To make this soup vegan, use vegetable stock and omit the chicken or replace it with cubes of tofu. If you don’t like heat, seed the chiles, use fewer or omit them entirely. The rice noodles mean this soup is gluten-free, though you can make this with any long noodle.

Make ahead: The tomato-ginger-chile base may be made up to 2 days in advance.

Storage notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. The noodles will absorb much of the broth after a few days. The soup, without noodles, can be frozen for 2 months.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings (makes 12 cups of soup)

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