May 11, 2017
Talking Noodle Shops
from Chef Gregg Nelson
Asian noodles, where do we even begin? Ramen-ya, soba, udon, rice sticks, cellophane noodles, somen, spring roll wrappers, Chinese egg noodles, rice noodles— it goes on and on. Noodles are a meal-time staple in Asian cuisines. Morning to midnight, all year round. Whatever the season, the drop-in-the-pot convenience of noodle cookery is perfect for busy American kitchens, too.
What could be more refreshing on a hot midsummer day than dipping into a bowl of cooling pad thai? The classic noodle dish made with slim noodles engulfed with shrimp and crunchy bean sprouts, dressed in the classic pad thai sauce and topped with crushed peanuts and fresh cilantro. And spring, which celebrates the early bounty of fresh produce, can be showcased in creamy spicy sesame noodles tossed with garlic, toasted pine nuts, scallions and spinach. How about a bowl of saucy garlic pork lo mein on a chilly fall day? Stir fried noodles tossed with a sweet & spicy plum sauce, smoky Chinese black mushrooms, and pungent garlic chives. Come wintertime, every Asian culture has their own version of chicken noodle soup.
The incredible diversity of Asian noodle dishes is extraordinary. While here in the U.S. we think of noodles as those made with flour, eggs and water, Asian noodles are much more varied. They can be made from buckwheat as well as wheat flour, or almost any source of starch— mung bean, potato or sweet potato starch. Some Asian noodles include eggs, others do not. Asian noodles are served in a variety of ways— stir-fried, pan-fried, or deep-fried—and in soups, salads, casseroles, entrées, side dishes, or snacks.
The national dish of Vietnam, pho, is served from morning till night. It’s an addictively flavorful soup with hints of cinnamon, star anise, fish sauce brimming with flat rice noodles and pieces of either chicken, beef, pork or seafood. In Malaysia, mie goreng features stir-fried soba noodles and spicy garlic sauce. In Japan, their favorite noodle dish is ramen-ya. A big bowl of hot noodles with an array of topping choices— pork belly to toasted rye noodles, soft boiled egg, and chicken fat.
A few years ago I was in Tokyo and spent each day roaming the Roppongi section of the city for ramen-ya. I found quite a variety of ramen being served. As unique as the dishes were, the common theme in all of the ramen houses was they were quiet. All you could hear was the slurping of noodles and broth. But that quiet is what makes the Ramen-ya chef happy. Quiet slurping sounds are the sounds of many satisfied customers. So next time you’re enjoying ramen, slurp away. It’s required.