Asian cooking expert Joyce Jue introduces us to some of Asia's most popular noodle-dishes. She also shares some of her favorite childhood memories of enjoying noodles in their many shapes, flavors and forms.
Celebrate with Noodles
Imagine noodles - really long noodles - in lieu of your birthday cake. In a Chinese birthday dinner, the last course is noodles rather than a cake. The long strands symbolize longevity and according to mom and pau pau, my maternal grandmother, they should never be cut. Considered bad luck, it may affect the longevity of one's life. As a child, I took Chinese superstitions seriously - and to this day, I hesitate taking a knife to noodles.
Traditionally, noodles were never served at a Chinese dinner so as to not compete with rice or other starches. The consummate lunch fare, noodles make a satisfying snack between meals or for late night noshing. Typically, in Chinese teahouses, a noodle entrée such as Chicken, Shrimp and Bok Choy over Pan-fried Noodles, a Hong Kong specialty, is eaten to complement the dim sum appetizers. In Hanoi, a day without pho, Hanoi Beef and Noodle Soup, is like a day without sunshine. Pho, Vietnam’s national dish, features flat rice noodles immersed in a hot broth. Invariably, the best pho is found at makeshift hawker stalls in Vietnam.
As the popularity of noodles grows and the availability of ingredients increases, there are lots of great choices for home-cooks all over the country to serve up numerous variations of tasty Asian noodle dishes.
Today, traditions are acknowledged and often breached. Birthdays are no longer a prerequisite for 'dinner' noodles. Noodle dishes contain both meats and vegetables which make perfect one-dish meals. And what about the question of noodles or a birthday cake? My solution is to have my cake, ice cream and noodles, and eat them too.
Can't Go Wrong with Noodles
An avowed noodle-holic, I devour them shamelessly whenever the hankering hits - even for dinner and frequently at midnight. When we were teenagers, after a late movie Mom cooked up her famous lo-mein - soft fried wheat flour noodles with barbecued pork, bean sprouts and garlic chives - to satisfy our hungry demands. A Sunday morning ritual, Mom and I sat at the kitchen table wrapping dumplings. By lunchtime, the family was slurping slippery noodles and savoring juicy pork and shrimp dumplings - her soothing Wonton Noodle Soup.
When I was growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown, Mon Sing was the local store that made fresh wheat flour noodles. Back then we had only two types of wheat noodles: one for frying and the other for soup. This was sufficiently uncomplicated so that Mom trusted me with the purchase. Today, store shelves are chock-full of noodles for every purpose, preparation, and cooking style. Admittedly, it is a challenge to select the right noodle; but the good news is that Asian noodles are versatile, so even the "wrong" noodle will probably produce tasty results.
Types of Noodles
As it is not always easy to tell what the origin of a particular noodle is, I have broken them down into several categories.
Noodles originated in China. As the Chinese scattered throughout Asia so did the popularity of noodles. Eventually, noodles evolved using different grains and vegetable starches, and fusing them with other Asian cooking styles. Wheat flour noodles are the oldest form of noodles. Indigenous to northern China where wheat is the staple grain, sometimes egg is added to the wheat flour and water dough. This noodle is delicious stir-fried, deep-fried, braised, simmered in broth, or made into a noodle ‘salad’. One of my favorite salads is Pong Pong Gai where cool noodles are sauced with a spicy peanut-sesame paste dressing.
The second most popular noodle, a specialty of southern China, is the rice flour noodle. Also versatile, they lend themselves to soups, stir-frying, deep-frying, braising, and salads. Available fresh and dried, in a variety of widths ranging from thin vermicelli to broad flat sheets, the latter makes an immensely popular dim sum specialty called cheung fun, where fresh rice noodle sheets are rolled into a silky smooth cannelloni-like dish. Rice noodles, in all their various forms are especially liked by the Thai and Vietnamese. Ingeniously, they use dried rice paper rounds to wrap grilled meats and vegetables into fresh, Goi Cuo’n or fried, Cha Gio spring rolls.
In Bangkok, I habitually settled at my favorite street hawker stall for the ultimate afternoon respite of limeade and Pad Thai made with dried fettuccine-shaped rice noodles called sen lek. Its chewy and dense texture mingles happily with the typical Thai sweet, sour, savory, and spice flavor profile. Thai Mee Krob was always thought of as a festive dish, now, it appears on the table whenever one dreams of it. Made with deep-fried rice vermicelli noodles, it is like a crispy sponge soaking up sweet, sour, and salty flavors.
Soba, Japan’s buckwheat flour noodles, reign. On hot summer days, I crave Cha Soba, a variation of Zaru Soba to temper the heat. Served in a bamboo box, bite-sized portions of chilled noodles are plunged into simple dashi (bonita fish broth) mixed with fiery wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and chopped scallions. Japanese style wheat flour noodle, the thick and chewy udon, is exceptionally tasty in a hot dashi-based broth. Udon is Osaka or southern style while soba comes from the north. Luxuriously subtle and refined is the most appropriate description of Japanese soup noodles.
How to Prepare Noodles
This is a general rule of thumb to prepare fresh and dried wheat-flour (Chinese) and buckwheat (Japanese soba) noodles. Add fresh or dried noodles to a generous amount of unsalted boiling water. Stir to loosen the strands. When the water reaches a second boil, continue boiling extra thin noodles for about 30 seconds to a minute, or medium to thick fresh noodles for 1 minute or so longer. Dried wheat noodles take about one minute longer. Dried soba or udon noodles may take 4 to 12 minutes according to the manufacturer's suggested time on the package. Check for doneness by biting into a noodle. They should taste tender and almost done. Immediately drain in a colander. Rinse thoroughly with cold water. Drain again. If not used immediately, stir in a tablespoon of sesame or peanut oil to keep them from sticking. They are now ready to use or for further cooking. Store fresh wheat flour noodles in the refrigerator for one week, or freeze them in their package. Do not thaw before boiling.
How to Prepare Fresh Rice Flour Noodles (Chinese)
These noodles are best used the same day of purchase but they will stay fresh for 2 days at room temperature. Look for soft and spongy noodles, which are usually wrapped in plastic. Before stir-frying, gently pull the strands apart to separate. Fresh rice noodles may be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for 2 months. Refrigeration stiffens the noodles. To soften, put the stiff noodles into a bowl, pour boiling water to cover and let them sit for a minute. Gently separate the strands apart and drain in a colander. They are ready to use.
How to Prepare Dried Rice Noodles (Chinese)
Soak dried rice noodles in a bowl of lukewarm water for 15 minutes or until they are soft and flexible, drain. They are now ready for further preparation. Store dried rice noodles in a dry cupboard. They will keep indefinitely.