Baked lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese, fettucini Alfredo — even spätzle — we’re all well acquainted with the delights of various types of European pasta. But why not venture a bit beyond your comfort zone to try something new? Noodles are a staple food all over the world and Asian noodles are readily available now in supermarkets and, of course, from Nations Fresh. If you don’t have the time or money for a trip to Thailand, it’s easy and fun to experiment with some new types of carbs’ in your very own kitchen.
What got me thinking about noodles, actually, was my semi-annual visit to the Mandarin. That’s right — Chinese New Year celebrations are just over (the year of the snake turning into the year of the horse) — and that always requires an obligatory night of binge eating with friends at the popular buffet.
Now please don’t write to tell me how North American the Chinese food is at the Mandarin because friends who have lived in China have already annoyed me with that tired message many, many times. I still love to make a pilgrimage there a couple of times a year, the food is always tasty, hot and fresh, and for one thing, I’m fascinated by all of the different types of noodle dishes on display — from Shanghai noodles to Singapore noodles, from chow mein to lo mein, and beyond. China, in fact, is probably the only cuisine that rivals Italy with its food culture devoted to noodles. Legend has it that Marco Polo returned home from his long trek to China and introduced the Italians to the joys of noodles. (I’m pretty certain that this is “legend” rather than truth, but — hey — it makes a great story!)
Anyway, I was inspired to learn a bit about noodles from China, Japan and south east Asia and thought you might enjoy the fruits of my research. So here’s a brief primer:
Chinese noodles are essentially made from wheat four, rice flour and mung bean flour; the wheat flour noodles coming from the north, the rice flour noodles from the south.
Wheat flour noodles — with egg added — are basic ingredients in both chow mein and lo mein. With lo mein, the noodles are soft to soak up the sauce, for chow mein, the noodles are fried and crispy, therefore fresh egg noodles are best for lo mein while either fresh noodles fried or dried, can be used for chow mein.
Rice noodles can be wide and soft or they may be crisp or brittle. They cook very, very fast. Vermicelli are rice noodles used not only in China but all over south east Asia. They look a lot like angel hair pasta in their uncooked state and are sometimes called rice sticks. They don’t need to be cooked, just steamed or soaked in hot water.
Cellophane noodles — also known as glass noodles, or crystal noodles or bean threads — are transparent and made from some type of starch, usually mung beans, but also yams, potato starch or cassava starch, combined with water. They are usually sold in dried form, boiled to reconstitute and then used in soups, stir fries or spring rolls. After cooking, these noodles really resemble clear, transparent cellophane, usually light grey or brownish grey in colour. They are generally round and available in various thicknesses. The most famous recipe, perhaps, using cellophane noodles is a Sichuan dish called “Ants Climbing a Tree” which tastes much better than it sounds.
Noodles are also well loved by the Japanese and used in soups, hot dishes and cold. Ramen noodles, soba noodles and udon noodles are some of the favorites.
Ramen noodles are firm in texture and usually pale yellow in colour. They vary in shape, width and length but are wheat based. You are probably familiar with them served in miso soup and there are regional variations in Japan, a Tokyo type, one from Sapporo, etc. Ramen noodles have become ubiquitous — there is actually a ramen museum in Osaka which attracts more visitors than Japan’s national art museum. And if you’ve gone to college, you’re probably well acquainted with instant ramen noodles — “Oodles of Noodles” or “Cuppa’ Noodles.” Instant ramen noodles were invented by the founder of Nissin foods and are sometimes claimed to be the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century(!!) Although filling and satisfying in the tummy, unfortunately they’re not very good for you, containing huge amounts of sodium and being deep fried in highly saturated palm oil.
Soba noodles, on the other hand, are made from buckwheat and wheat flour and are supposedly more healthy, since they contain large amounts of B vitamins. They are sold either dried or fresh and are often used in a hot broth or with a cold dipping sauce. They are usually eaten with chopsticks and slurped up happily in a dish that is served on New Year’s Eve in Japan.
Udon noodles are the thickest in Japanese cuisine. They are white, wheat-based noodles, about as thick as fettucini. They are served chilled with a dipping sauce in summer and hot with a sauce or in a broth in winter.
Besides China and Japan, Asian noodles form part of the cuisines of Korea,Thailand, Vietnam and the Malaysian peninsula. In fact, the only country I found that did not seem to have noodle dishes as part of their cuisine was India (curried noodles???). I’m wondering if I’m right about that and will check it out with Chef Nick Bhalesar from India Village when he comes to our Go Cooking session on March 31st. In the meantime, here’s a recipe for Peanut Sesame Noodles, a cold dish that should be spicy enough to keep you warm.
Peanut Sesame Noodles
adapted from Gourmet magazine, June, 2002.
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup warm water
1 tbsp chopped peeled fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1 1/2 tbsps toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp red pepper flakes (or a splash of hot sauce or chili paste)
For the noodles:
3/4 cup dried soba noodles
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup warm water
1 red bell pepper cut into 1/8 inch strips
1 yellow bell pepper cut into 1/8 inch strips
1/2 a seedless cucumber, thinly sliced
1 cup firm tofu, cubed
3 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
1) Purée sauce ingredients in a blender and put in a large bowl.
2) Cook pasta in 6 – 8 cups of boiling, salted water until tender. Rinse with cold water and drain in a colander.
3) Add all ingredients except sesame seeds to the sauce and combine. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and chopped peanuts and serve immediately.
Makes about 6 side dish courses, or 4 vegetarian main course servings.