A Noodlephile’s Journey

One of the major influences on my culinary psyche was my mother’s menu repertoire

Not that it was very large or even by any stretch of the imagination particularly interesting but it did contain certain basic items that every Jewish mother is indoctrinated to force-feed their families.

Culinary historians generally agree that the origins of force-feeding geese to produce enlarged fatty livers was in Pharos’s Egypt possible by Jewish farmers who eventually brought this force-feeding technique across Europe to Alsace…I can see the connection!!!

There was of course the obligatory gefilte fish, in our case being from a Jewish English family this came in the form of “chopped fried” gefilte fish instead of the gelatinous boiled variety.

There was very good gehackte Leber and gehackter hering (chopped live and chopped herring to those deprived of a good deli upbringing).

Potato latkes always made us smile and of course roast chicken on special occasions.

And then there was her crowning glory…lockshen soup, a glorious golden chicken broth full of carrots, onions and celery. We always fought over the prized tidbit, the neck which inevitable went to my father who would spend an eternity sucking, very noisily the last pieces of flesh from the gristle.

Added to this was the lockshen or vermicelli. I would for some, later to be rationalized reason, pile in the lockshen. Mix it up with bits of vegetables, a little broth and THUS was born my life long love affair with noodles.

In any case there has always been the controversy of what came first, Lockshen or Lomein (see: From Lockshen to Lo Mein the Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food by Don Siegel http://www.amazon.com/Lokshen-Lo-Mein-Jewish-Chinese/dp/9652293571 )

 I grew up with this inexplicable fascination with noodles without really understanding them. As my interest in all things culinary grew so did my library of cook books. My first serious book about Chinese cuisine and noodles was the classic Time Life “Foods of the World” series.  I followed the recipes and scoured gourmet shops for the unusual Asian ingredients but never succeeding in producing the real thing,

Eventually my culinary career brought me to Asia and my first posting in Bangkok. Oh what joy! There were noodles everywhere.

Although the Chinese and the Italians have both claimed to have been the first to create noodles, the first written account of noodles dates from the Chinese Han Dynasty, between AD 25 and 220 and during the Song Dynasty noodle shops were very popular in the cities, and remained open all night. From there the mighty noodle spread throughout Asia from Mongolia to Korea to Japan and with the Chinese migration south eventually to all of S.E Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

 

I quickly discovered how many different types of noodles there were, flat rice noodles, egg noodles, thick noodles, thin noodles …Oodles of noodles, and as many ways to cook and serve them. I was in noodle heaven.

I even appreciated those packets of mass-produced instant ramen noodles created by the late Momofuku Ando as the nutritional answer to a world of hungry, harried students and workers seeking a quick, cheap, easy-to-prepare instant meal. They are to be found in their multi-colored packets stacked sky high onto the shelves of all super markets in every Asian city in every conceivable flavor imaginable.

But it wasn’t until I eventually found my way to China that I truly discovered noodles.

I had found the source, the El Dorado of noodles.

The following are a few of the many iconic noodle dishes that have their roots in Chinese culinary history and carried by Chinese immigrants to the far corners of Asian and beyond.

 Luk Shin Thai style beef or fish ball noodle soup (Luk Shin – Lockshen! Can this be a coincidence?) 

This is typical street food that can be found on almost every road side food stall all over Thailand.

There are many variations and most come with the spongy beef or fish balls (Luk shin) and rice vermicelli in a rich broth. Into the soup you add your own flavorings which are present on all Thai tables, chopped red chili, and yellow chili in vinegar, sugar, dry chili flakes and nam pla (salty fish sauce)

 

 Char Kway Teow (literally “fried flat noodles”) I was introduced to this popular noodle dish in Singapore and consequently have eaten it in many local forms all over Asia.

Stir-fried flat rice noodles are wok fried with crispy pork rind together with ingredients like shrimps, egg, bean sprouts, slices of Chinese sausage and fish cake. Because of its high fat or oil content Char Kway Teow has a reputation of being an unhealthy dish. It began as a poor man’s meal, but over time many more ingredients were added, making it one of the most loved dishes in Singapore.

What gives this dish its characteristic taste is what they call “the taste of the wok” meaning the noodles have been wok fried over such a high heat that you can literally taste the wok.

 La Mian The queen of noodles in China is La Mian, or fresh hand-pulled noodles. Through a process of stretching and twisting wheat flour, noodle makers can hand pull hundreds, even thousands of beautiful long thin noodles for a variety of dishes. The process is simple enough, but when you see a master noodle maker perform, one truly appreciates the art and beauty of the process

 Beef Noodles. Having worked a number of times in China now and traveled quite a bit around the country, I have found in almost every city, there are Beef Noodle restaurants – almost all with the name  “Authentic Lanzhou Beef Noodles”, well, I am not sure how “authentic” they are and  if they really are from Lanzhou and the truth is that Beef Noodles  are pretty delicious no matter where you are but I must admit the most delicious beef noodles I have tasted was in Beijing served with beef tendon and freshly pulled wheat noodles. The noodles are served “dry” topped with the very gelatinous beef tendon and a sprinkling of chopped green onion. The rich broth is served separately. A popular urban myth has it that there is a small hole-in-the-wall beef noodle shop just outside the walls of the forbidden city that serves the best beef noodles in Beijing. The secret is in the stock which, according to the legend, has been on the boil for the last hundred years with the chefs just adding to it day by day. The actual secret has been handed down from Beef Noodle masters to apprentices.

Dan Dan Mian One of my all time comfort food favorites and after work relaxants is a classic Sichuan noodle dish that originally comes from Chengdu in Sichuan province.  You can actually find Dan-dan noodles in every Chinese city in the very many popular Sichuan restaurants. This spicy and  fragrant noodle dish is flavored with roasted Szechuan peppercorn, dried shrimp, shredded preserved vegetables, crushed roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, chili oil, soy sauce, black vinegar and garlic topped with minced fried pork and chopped green onions. 

Dan-dan refers to the shoulder poles that in time gone by noodle peddlers would carry with the two baskets containing his noodles and sauce on either side. He sold his noodles as he walked along the street to passers-by and residents and gradually local people called it Dan-dan Noodle.

 Wonton Mee is a Cantonese noodle dish which is popular in Hong Kong and can be found in various variations in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The dish is usually served in a hot soup garnished with vegetables, generally Chinese kale (kalian), shrimp dumplings and sliced barbecued pork.

For the Cantonese the preparation, serving and eating of this noodle dish is very serious business.

There are four distinct features:

First; the wontons (dumplings) are mainly filled with prawn with just enough pork mixture to hold it together and wrapped in yellow wontons skins, made of egg flour or an egg/wheat combo

Second; devotees of this dish, almost to the point of obsession will insist on fresh, smooth thin egg noodles. Third; the broth – they say that the best broths in Hong Kong are made with dried flounder, dried shrimp and pork bones. Lastly, garlic chives are used as a garnish and giving the dish a unique bouquet.

For an authentic dish the cooking and construction of the dish is rigid. The wonton dumpling are boiled first, and then placed in the bowl. The noodles are just blanched for only 10 seconds, rinsed in cold water and placed in the serving bowl. Steaming hot broth poured into the bowl, on top of the wonton noodles. The Kalian is placed neatly folded one side of the bowl and 3-5 slices of BBQ pork are layered carefully on top of the noodles

When served, the spoon must be placed at the bottom of the bowl, with the wontons above the spoon and the noodles on top. Because if the noodles soak in the soup for too long then it will be over cooked, this is strictly adhered to by the best wonton noodle establishments.

 Ramen

The Japanese Ramen noodle craze has swept across the globe. In Japan the cooking and serving of the perfect bowl of Ramen noodles has almost reached the point of being a science. But truth be known Ramen noodles are of Chinese origin; although it is uncertain when ramen were introduced to Japan.

The etymology of the word ramen is a topic of debate. One theory is that ramen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese la mian, or “hand-pulled noodles.” A second theory proposes laomian, “old noodles”; while another states that ramen was initially lǔmiàn, noodles cooked in a thick sauce. A fourth theory is that the word derives from “lo mein“, which is Cantonese and means to “stir” http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramen

 By 1900, restaurants in Japan serving Chinese cuisine from Canton and Shanghai offered a simple bowl of noodles with a few toppings, and a broth flavored with salt and pork bones.

After WW2 Japanese troops had returned from China and continental East Asia. Many of these soldiers had acquired a taste for Chinese cuisine and some opened Chinese style restaurants across Japan. Eating of ramen was still a special occasion that required going out to one of these restaurants.

In 1958, instant noodles were invented by Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman of Nissin Foods. This greatest of Japanese culinary inventions allowed anyone to make this dish of instant ramen simply by adding boiling water.

By the 1980s, ramen began to be known as a Japanese culinary icon and at the same time local varieties of ramen were being produced by small mom and pop restaurants in the backstreets and as mass produced versions served in multi- national ramen restaurant chains. A ramen museum even opened in Yokohama in 1994.

Most ramen noodles are made from four basic ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui, which is essentially a type of alkaline mineral water, containing sodium carbonate and usually potassium carbonate, as well as sometimes a small amount of phosphoric acid. This lends the noodles a yellowish hue as well as a firm texture. Ramen noodles come in various shapes and lengths. They may be fat, thin, or even ribbon-like, as well as straight or wrinkled.

 Pho (pronounced “fur”) I was introduced to this wonderful Vietnamese derivative of noodle soup when I took up a position in Saigon (Ho Chi Min City). On my first day in the city I was taken by a local colleague to Restaurant Pho Hoa Pasteur on 260C Rue Pasteur, Saigon. Parked outside of this extremely local and packed noodle shop were both brand new Mercedes and local worker’s bicycles.

We sat down at a communal table that was laden with every conceivable type of green leaf, bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai basil, sliced chili and lime wedges as well as hoi sin sauce and hot chili sauce. Before long we were presented with bowls of hot steaming beef broth and rice noodles, scented with star anise, Thai Basil, caramelized onion and ginger. We inhaled the perfume and slurped up the noodles and broth, gradually adding to the bowl from the array of condiments and greens with squeezes of lime juice. Truly poetry in a bowl!

 And now a word about chop sticks.

Even from a very young age I was fascinated with chopsticks.  I remember as a small boy, actually fastening two wooden sticks together, tied at one end and separated with a small piece of wood just like tweezers then trying to eat my food. I had unwittingly fashioned a rudimentary form of eating sticks even before I had even heard of chopsticks let alone noodles.

Today most non-Asian diners are familiar with the use of chop sticks but not all are familiar with the etiquette that goes with the use of them. So here is a brief guide to chopstick etiquette,

Do not stick your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl. This is because it’s the way a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of a dead person on the household Buddhist altar.  

Do not use one chopstick to spear food. Chopsticks are always used as a pair, as if attached to each other invisibly. Think of them as tweezers or tongs.  

Do not pass food from chopstick to chopstick. A real faux pas! When a person dies and is cremated, their bones are passed from chopstick to chopstick as a part of the Buddhist funeral ritual.  

Do not use unmatched chopsticks. This not only looks funny, it also is reminiscent of some funeral rites.  

Do not leave your chopsticks in your mouth while you do something else with your hands. Just imagine what would happen if you slipped and land face-down!

Do not stick them in your mouth and pretend you are a funny vampire, or stick them up your nose. You will be the only one that thinks this funny.

Chopsticks are not hair accessories Chopsticks are for food. Would you stick a fork in your hair?  

Do not take food from a communal plate with your own chopsticks. Ask for separate serving chopsticks if you are served family-style. This is considered to be unsanitary.  

Don’t point at people or things with your chopsticks. This is considered to be somewhat ruder than pointing with ones fingers.

If you are supplied with chopstick rests, use them.  Don’t rest your chopsticks on your bowl.

You are not Jackie Chan so don’t practice your Kung Fu with your chopsticks. Playing with your chopsticks is considered bad manners and it diminishes your status during a dinner party or banquet.

 Now that you know what not to do so how do you eat noodles in the proper Chinese way?

When eating noodle soups, you hold your chopsticks in one hand and your soup spoon in the other. Take a spoonful of broth and pick up some noodles with your chopsticks. Lower the noodles into your spoon with the broth, and then eat the contents of the spoon, pushing the noodles into your mouth with your chopsticks. Alternately you can also suck the noodles straight into your mouth with your chopsticks, with satisfying slurps of broth from your spoon.

By the way, slurping is definitely allowed for practical reasons. It helps to cool off the noodles and soup.

 So there you have it; a brief insight into a life time of noodling and my own personal journey in a bowl.

 Now I’m hungry so it’s off to get a bowl of……………………..

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