food art

Meet the Illustrator Who Turns Noodle Soup Into Art

Hong Kong–style wonton soup illustrated. Illustration: Michele Humes/Courtesy of Running Press

Looking at the illustration for the Hong Kong–style wonton noodles in The Noodle Soup Oracle makes me want to book it to Great New York Noodle Town. This is not helped by the fact that I haven’t eaten yet today, but it’s really the way the soup is rendered: the silky-looking wonton and noodles submerged in the almost-golden yellow broth, the scallions floating close to the surface. Out this week, the cookbook is the first by the writer and illustrator Michele Humes. She doesn’t approach it like a conventional cookbook, but as a sort of “build your own noodle soup” adventure or, as the author puts it, a sandwichlike approach.

Humes has had a lifelong love affair with noodle soup, a dish she grew up eating in Hong Kong, particularly after her parents separated. “That became the food my mother would cook all the time because it was so convenient,” she says. Her affection for the genre comes through in her illustrations: The squiggy, spry noodles swimming in the soup; the glossy sheen of the roast duck’s lacquered skin; the jammy egg yolk; and the way the bok choy starts to go limp just so.

If you’re noodle obsessed, like Humes, maybe you’ll want moon-viewing noodles — with the plump udon and brilliant egg yolk — as a poster for your kitchen. (Personally, as a noted clam enthusiast, I’ll take the soba alle vongole.) Grub Street spoke with Humes about the book and turning a lifelong passion for noodle soup into art.

Tsukimi udon. Illustration: Michele Humes/Courtesy of Running Press

Why noodle soup?
It’s something that is so central to the way I eat and was very much in Hong Kong, too. But I feel like in New York, people will either wait in line for very hyped ramen or they’ll make kind of nasty instant ramen in the dorm room and there isn’t that sort of middle part. Which is how I feel I eat and many people in Asia eat. That kind of middle part is comparable to a sandwich; it’s a very creative, flexible dish format. I felt like no one had talked about that.

So that explains the concept of the book?
Yeah, this isn’t some clever gimmick I made up, like you can have different combinations. But the dish naturally lends itself to that and people do really cook it that way. It’s just more in America where we think of noodle soup as being very delineated, like you have this variant from this region. But it’s just so much looser the way I know it.

It’s not strict.
Yeah. But people in the West do seem to think of noodle soup as being strict. It’s ramen and it’s pho, typically, and it’s quite laborious. Or it’s something that is the polar opposite, which is Cup Noodles or weird things you do with packaged ramen. There’s a number of start-to-finish recipes at the back of the book, but that’s a really small section. The goal is really to teach people how to, like, design customized bowls of noodle soup.

Well, you’re talking about sandwiches, and I feel like people have said to me Americans will eat anything if you put it between bread.
I’m now thinking, will I eat anything if there’s noodles and soup in the bowl? It’ll definitely go down easier. The book is about noodle soup as a format and giving you the resources to tweak that format in any way you want. Here are all broths, here are all the toppings, here are the principles of how you would combine those things — but please do it how you would like to, according to what you have in the fridge, and don’t worry about the region.

The illustration for instant ramen with Cantonese-style roast meat, blanched kale, and sesame oil. Illustration: Michele Humes/Courtesy of Running Press

How long have you been illustrating?
I started when I was 33, I just turned 38. I drew a little bit in high school. Then when I built the app, Noodler, I didn’t have any money to hire an illustrator, so I thought I could probably throw some together. Then I kept doing more and I was much better than I remembered. Did I have a burning drive to translate my love of food into pictures? Not at all. But then once I started it became a whole thing.

What appeals to you about it then?
There is something about the roundness of the bowl and light hitting broth — that sounds really wanky. It’s the colors in it and the light and the order of it.

How’d you develop your style?
Seriously, I started so late and I’m so untrained I didn’t know what I was doing. And I really wasn’t going for anything in particular. There was no endgame. But I kept visiting the theme over and over again; I was very obsessive. I wish I could say something clever about what I’m trying to do; it just looked kind of pretty.

Those noodle- soup portraits take a really long time, and I get really into it and obsessive about the placement of each noodle. They’re not from photo, so I’m planning how each noodle goes, and there is some hidden reason why each curve is curving the way it is.

Her sobe alle vongole. Just look at those clams! Illustration: Michele Humes/Courtesy of Running Press

So what is your process?
I work from photos in that I’m going to decide what’s in the bowl. So let’s say there’s bok choy and I’ll have eight photos I find online of it, and ten photos of a certain noodle and certain kind of broth. I just look at those until I understand how that element behaves. If you actually try to, and I learned this the wrong way, just draw from one photo, it’s impossible. Nothing actually ever looks this good in a single photo. You’re making this idealized composite.

Not that a photo or real bowl of noodle soup doesn’t look beautiful, but it’s not quite graphically all there. Or every element is not. Something is always sinking into the broth or wilting. The one bowl I draw will have elements of 20 different bowls. There’s some kind of underlying harmony.

Do you plan to sell illustrations in any other way?
I’m working on that, so don’t want to announce it’s the case. The bagel dress I’ve done, that’s more of a vanity dress. I don’t think anyone wants to wear my bagel dress; well, I think they do, but I don’t think they realize how much it costs. It’s kind of, I don’t know, a bit of a walking art illustration and “Ask me how about this!”

Do you want to draw other foods? Or is this it?
It’s so tied up with noodle soup for me I feel that if I never illustrated anything again that would be okay. Noodle soup is something I’ve been thinking about for so long the first iteration of this book was a website I created in 2008. It was — no “e,” like Flickr. (You remember that website What the Fuck Should I Eat for Dinner? I feel like that ripped off.) You would press a button, and it could generate several million bowls of noodle soup. At the time, it went mildly viral. Every thought I’ve had about noodle soup is in this book.

Taiwanese beef noodles! Illustration: Michele Humes/Courtesy of Running Press
An illustration for one of her “freestyle” soups with miso-chicken broth, sesame-crusted citrus tofu, and more. Illustration: Michele Humes/Courtesy of Running Press
A tom yum noodle soup. Illustration: Michele Humes/Courtesy of Running Press
Jammy eggs! Illustration: Michele Humes/Courtesy of Running Press
Cute little fish cakes! Illustration: Michele Humes/Courtesy of Running Press
Meet the Illustrator Who Turns Noodle Soup Into Art