December 28, 2009

8 Min Read
Using Your Asian Noodle

By Andrew Hunter, Contributing Editor

By now, its become a cliché: starving college kids subsisting from midterms to finals on cup after cup of instant ramen. But those poor students werent alone. For generations, the only Asian noodles Americans knew of came in penny-packets of crunchy, salty, fried ramenand, perhaps, in a greasy chow mein container from the neighborhood Chinese takeout.

As a devoted fan of Asian noodles, its my pleasure to tell you: times have changed. Asian noodles are an outright sensation, fueling interest in a variety of chefs and concepts, from James Beard Award winner David Chang of Momofuku to casual-dining chains like P.F. Changs China Bistro. And supermarkets offer convenient noodle bowls and meal kits from the likes of Annie Chuns, Simply Asia and Thai Kitchen. All boast a level of creativity unheard of even 15 years ago, and all are riding a wave of popularity that bodes well for the prospects of Asian noodlesand Asian cuisines.

The tastes of the American consumer are expanding beyond Chinese and Japanese fare, says Debbie Carpenter, senior marketing manager, foodservice and industrial, Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., San Francisco.

And if you aim to initiate mainstream diners on the pleasures of Asian cuisine, you might as well start with noodles. From the time they can eat solid foods, kids love pasta and noodles, says Philip Chiang, co-founder, P.F. Changs, Scottsdale, AZ, and a continuing presence in its test kitchen. It doesnt matter what cuisine the noodles come from. Everybody loves them. Theyre just really accessible to everybody no matter their culture.

However, the more Asian noodles we have within our grasp, the more confusing their variety. I could spend three lifetimes attempting to explore and master the magnitude of noodles in Asia, says Robin Stotter, head of culinary research, P.F. Changs.

The wheat from the chaff

Ive found it helpful to sort noodles into families based on size and shape, typical preparation, eating characteristics, national or cultural traditionand, perhaps most effectively, main ingredient: wheat versus rice, mung bean versus sweet potato, and so on.

Lets start with wheat. Most cultures in northern Asia have some sort of wheat-flour noodle, some of them, like traditional ramen, are enriched with egg (and although the ramen noodles in those familiar little packets at retail are fried, the light, hand-pulled noodles at the local ramen shop are not). These are your basic chow mein, lo mein and ramen noodles, and they come in different sizes, flat or round, fresh or dried. Their soft texture suits them to soupsthinner noodles work well herewhile broader, coarser varieties show their stuff in stews, stir-fries and claypot casseroles.

Back when Asian wheat and egg noodles were hard to come by, we substituted Italian pasta. And this worked to a point, but Stotter underscores that Asian noodles are lighter by nature than their Italian counterparts because of the flours and starches used. This goes for wheat noodles, as well as those made from other ingredients. They cook faster, he says. The texture is a little bit differentyou get a different chew and a lighter feel.

An exception to this lightness are the buckwheat-based noodles known as soba in Japan and naengmyon in Korea, the latter of which get a slight chew from potato starch. These are substantial noodles. In Korea, you might find naengmyon cold in a spicy sesame dressing with mirin (sweetened rice wine), sesame seeds, garlic, sugar and hot chile-bean paste. The classic Japanese treatment for soba is zaru soba: boiled, chilled noodles served with a soy sauce, mirin and dashi broth dip with a little wasabi and sliced green onion. Soba noodles also go into soups and stir-fries, where they inspired the common menu term yakisoba, or grilled noodles.

Two more wheat-flour varieties from Japan are somen and udon. Somen, thin, delicate and silken-textured, are a summer specialty in chilled salads and light soups. Udon are slippery, chewy and plump, appearing almost exclusively in hearty soups and stews.

The texture of udon is such that its not really great for stir-frying, Chiang says. It can break up and stick, and its not easy to handle. One non-soup prep is udon pan-fried pancake-style with a sauce poured over it.

Stotter has cooked the noodles, chilled them with a splash of mirin to lock in the starch, and tossed them in a thin peanut sauce with Fresno chiles and scallions. It makes a great cool noodle salad, he says.

Rice to the occasion

Stotters also been playing with rice noodles, fresh and dried. Im obsessed with rice noodles right now, he says. Cold rice-noodle salads are just tremendous. The noodles are great in soups.

Weve recently been experimenting with different combinations of Asian noodles and Asian sauces. In the Kikkoman kitchen, we cooked up some Vietnamese vegetarian spring rolls using thin rice noodles and the translucent rice-paper wrappers traditional in this application. I simply boiled the rice noodles quickly to retain their bite, let them cool and mixed them with vegetables as a filling. The rolls needed a dipping sauce, so we tossed together a cross-cultural mix using Kikkomans Ponzu Citrus Seasoned Dressing as a base. It introduces a Japanese element to a Vietnamese classic, but its citrus notes are a perfect match for the fresh filling.

We also made a rice noodle soup. The linchpin to its profile was Kikkomans Thai Yellow Curry Sauce, which we added to the broth at about one part sauce to two parts chicken stock. Then we stirred in fish sauce and lime juice, parboiled wide rice noodles, shiitake mushrooms, chicken breast and bean sprouts.

The glass noodle ceiling

Beyond rice and wheat noodles, we find varieties based on more-obscure ingredients. Cellophane noodles, also known as bean-thread or glass noodles, are made from mung-bean starch and appear in soups, stews and Japanese sukiyaki, where theyre called harusame, which means spring rain. They have an irresistibly gelatinous texture and capacity for absorbing the flavors of their cooking medium. In sukiyaki, those flavors come from a delectable sake, sugar and soy sauce broth.

Sweet potato noodles are popular in Korea, where theyre called tangmyon. Functionally like cellophane noodles, they have a taste and texture that are similar, too. Japanese shirataki noodles, made from the konjac plant, are a low-carb, gluten-free alternative. Theyre also low-calorie, thanks to our bodies metabolizing their main structural component, the hydrocolloid glucomannan, as dietary fiber.

Matches made in heaven

This ingredient-based taxonomy is by no means the only scheme for understanding Asian noodles. Stotter, for example, prefers to view them by use: soups, stir-fries, salads. Within those veins, he says, you have rice noodles, for example, which make great chilled salads, as do bean threads. He notes that using some sort of composed or finished soy-based sauce or peanut sauce makes the whole development job a lot easier. It just depends on which sauce you want to pair with which noodle, he says.

Over the past 20 years, Stotter says, chefs have started to play with these noodles, evolving the cuisine and coming out with their own different interpretations. At the same time, he adds, the noodles themselves have changed, along with their accompaniments.

So it was that Stotter and Chiang reexamined a dish thats been on their menu for years: lo mein. Currently stir-fried with vegetables and beef, pork, chicken or shrimp, Stotters idea was to serve it with pulled chicken, peanut sauce, vegetables and pepperssomething really simple, really light, he says. Another P.F. Changs dish that riffs on a classic is dan dan noodles. Sometimes called Chinese spaghetti, its successful in part because it resembles that Western favorite. Its like an Italian bolognese, Chiang says, but with ground chicken and spicy peppers.

Its wise to serve stronger noodles like nutty buckwheat soba with lighter sauces that let the noodles stand out, while more neutral-tasting rice sticks and bean threads work best with assertive sauces: curry, peanut, chile-garlic. And dont forget to layer flavors. This applies especially to noodle soups made with classic Asian broths. These broths live or die on their umami strength, and starting with a good dashi foundation to which you add more umami from soy sauce and perhaps a prepared noodle soup base is a sure strategy for success.

With the help of the right sauce or base, chefs and product developers can adapt Asian noodles to any palate. If you have a bold product and use it as a base, you can make it sweet, you can make it hot, say Carpenter. The challenge is to get the right balance every time, which is tough if the sauces are made from scratch. By using the easy one-two punch of domestically available Asian noodles and manufactured sauces, she notes, nationwide chains can easily menu dishes like Cantonese chow fun, stir-fried lo mein and Singapore-style rice noodles without worrying about product availability or quality.

As Stotter says, the availability of prepared sauces and other kitchen helpers really expands the opportunities for using your Asian noodle, so to speak. Today, he says, access to produce, proteins, noodles, sauces, ingredientsits all easier. Technology has advanced to where you can do more and get more through your suppliers. The world has become a much smaller place for culinary experimentation.

Andrew Hunter is a foodservice and industrial chef for Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., and president of Culinary Craft, Los Angeles. He has more than 20 years of experience in culinary development and product innovation. He serves on the Center for Culinary Developments Chefs Council and is a member of the Research Chefs Association, International Association of Culinary Professionals, and the National Restaurant Association. Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, also contributed to this article.

Asias Rising Culinary Star

According to Chicago-based Mintels 2009 Ethnic Foods report, Asian foods grew 37% in food, drug and mass-merchandiser channels from 2004 through 2009, and the category is projected to grow 27% through 2014.

 

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