If I had a nickel for every time I said, “I could really go for a big bowl of Asian soup,” I’d definitely have enough money to buy one from the ever-growing number of Portland restaurants serving steaming versions of wonton, udon, ramen or pho.

But I’ve never even wondered what goes into those complex broths that have me lifting the bowl to my mouth to savor every sip, let alone contemplated making them myself.

That is, until I came across “Itsu: The Cookbook.”

The book’s 100 low-calorie Asian-inspired recipes come from a London-based chain of healthy fast-food eateries called Itsu.

Written by Itsu founder Julian Metcalfe (who also started international chain Pret a Manger) and food writer Blanche Vaughn, the cookbook explains the company’s philosophy on food and outlines the guiding principles for eating “the Itsu way.”

The basic tenets of the diet are limiting carbohydrates, filling up on bright colored foods, getting “good” fats from nuts and seeds and allowing for a little indulgence – all using the flavors of Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand.


Along with a glossary of terms and ingredients, the cookbook lists essential pantry items that reappear throughout the recipes for soups, sushi, salads, preparations for meat and fish, and egg, noodle and rice dishes, as well dressings, sauces, desserts and drinks.

All recipes list the nutrition content, are under 300 calories per serving and take fewer than 30 minutes to make.

I tested the cookbook’s claim to quick and delicious food with its Easy Chicken Pho recipe.

The grocery store prices of some of the ingredients in this recipe are tough to swallow. If I hadn’t had a donated stash of random Asian spices, I might have had to choose something else to make. But a specialty or health food store that sells them in bulk might also be the answer.

Had I known how the recipe would have come out, I might have been willing to pay the Hannaford price, because I’d be using the ingredients again.

As soon as the herbs and spices started boiling in my broth, I could smell the familiar aroma of the pho I’d eaten only in restaurants before.


The taste was there, too. I think I made the mistake of boiling the broth at too high heat, which made it saltier and left me with less liquid than I would have liked, but the flavor was spot on.

Once the shopping was done, the recipe took no time and was easy to follow. The serving size wasn’t anywhere near the massive bowl that Vietnamese restaurants serve, but still made for a belly-filling meal – and only 300 calories.

If this recipe is any indication, this book takes the time, calories and mystery out of Asian cooking, allowing lovers of Asian food to easily re-create their favorite restaurant meals at home.

Next up, sushi.


The ingredients listed under “To serve” are pretty much all optional (except for the noodles) and based on taste. I couldn’t find a red Thai chile, so got a serrano chile instead, but could have done without it altogether. I also used reduced-sodium broth, which was fine, and skipped the jaggery (Indian raw brown sugar) because I couldn’t find it, which I regret. The broth is the star and every ingredient in it is essential.


Serves 2

1 white onion, halved

11/2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, thickly sliced

31/3 cups chicken stock

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

4 cloves


2 star anise pods

1/2 cinnamon stick

Small bunch of cilantro

2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

2 teaspoons jaggery or brown sugar

1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce



2 ounces flat rice noodles, soaked in boiling water for 15 minutes (or according to package directions)

2 large handfuls of bean sprouts

1 red onion, finely sliced

Big handful of mixed cilantro (reserved from small bunch above), basil and mint leaves, coarsely chopped

1 hot red Thai chile, finely chopped


Juice of 1/2 lime

1. Heat a dry, heavy skillet until hot. Char the onion and ginger in it for 4 minutes each side. This adds a wonderful depth of flavor, but if you’re in a hurry, you can skip this step. (Note: I skipped it.)

2. Put the stock in a saucepan with the onion, ginger, spices and cilantro stems (reserve the leaves for serving) and bring to a boil. Add the chicken thighs and cook for 15 minutes. Lift the chicken out with a slotted spoon and let cool slightly before slicing into bite-size pieces.

3. Strain the stock into a bowl, discarding the solids, then return the stock to the pan. Add salt to taste, then the sugar, fish sauce and chicken pieces.

4. To serve, put the rice noodles into bowls and ladle the hot stock and chicken over them. Sprinkle with the bean sprouts, red onion, herbs, chile and lime juice, or offer these separately for the diners to add themselves.

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