If you've ever visited an Asian grocery story of any size you might have been surprised at the selection of noodles.
You'll find noodles made from rice, wheat, egg, potato starch, kudzu root, mung bean and buckwheat, just to name the most popular.
Some are dried and some are fresh. They go by the names of ramen, somen, soba, udon, cellophane and hail mostly from China, Japan and Korea. The assortment is quite amazing and presents a grand opportunity for the cook willing to explore new worlds of food.
The origin of the noodle is a contentious subject. Modern myth says that Marco Polo brought them back from his travels to China, but that is probably not true.
The first written record of the Asian noodle comes from the Han Dynasty around A.D. 25, but archaeologists have found evidence of them, also in China, that date to about 4,000 years ago.
Food that has been around for such a long period of time has got to be a good idea.
Most of us are familiar with the instant noodle, generically and incorrectly referred to as ramen. Ramen noodles were invented in Japan in 1958 and have been a mainstay in the Asian world since.
They come in single-serving-size packages and include a flavoring packet. Again, you might be surprised at the variety of instant noodles found in Asian markets.
A good size Asian market will carry as many as 40 types of instant noodle. While the flavor packet can be high in sodium, the noodles are quite affordable and a case of 30 packages can be had for as low as $8. A case or two put in the back of the pantry might serve you well in times of unexpected need.
Asian noodles do not have to be prepared in an Asian style to be good, but it would be a good idea to try a few different types without much adornment before experimenting.
With that in mind it should also be said that Asians have been preparing noodles for a very long time indeed, and they offer some spectacular recipes well worth trying.
A note of caution: do not be put off by the use of fish sauce. It is an essential ingredient in Asian cooking and imparts a mild salty flavor that holds hands well with lime, hot peppers and a bit of sugar. That Thai dipping sauce you are crazy about would be nothing
at all without fish sauce.
Udon noodles are thick and meaty and are a perfect match for this classic Italian pairing of bacon, eggs and cheese. They hail from Japan and are made with wheat flour. This recipe is quick and easy and definitely falls into the comfort food category.
1 package udon noodles per person (look in the refrigerated section)
1 egg per person
1 strip bacon, chopped per person
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2-3 cloves garlic
Bring one cup of water to a boil. In a medium sauté pan cook the bacon until crispy and then add the chopped garlic and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Drop the noodles into the water, turn the heat off and stir just until the noodles separate. Beat the egg and the Parmigiano-Reggiano together. Drain the noodles, add them to the pan with the bacon and garlic, mix well and add the eggs (make sure the noodles are hot or the eggs will not cook). Season with black pepper and chopped cilantro, serve immediately. A pinch of red pepper flakes can be added for a little zip.
QUICK VIETNAMESE PHO
Pho is the national dish of Vietnam and the secret of its vast success is in the long-simmered beef broth. It is not practical for the average home cook to make, most Vietnamese think of it as restaurant food, but an acceptable canned version of the broth is available in most Asian markets. If you just can't find canned pho broth sup-up chicken stock with lots of star anise, cloves and ginger, and you just might come close. Please remember this is a quick fix recipe and will not compare to a professionally prepared pho at a restaurant. This recipe serves four people.
8 cups canned pho broth
1 pound dried rice sticks
1 cup thin sliced flank steak
1 lime cut into wedges
Prepare the noodles according to package directions. Heat the broth to a simmer and add to large warm soup bowls, drop in the beef, add the noodles and garnish to your taste with the bean sprouts, basil, chilis and lime. Stir until the beef is cooked through.
SHRIMP AND PORK
10 ounces flat rice noodles
1/2 cup fish sauce
3 tablespoons water
1- 1/2 teaspoons sugar
Canola oil as needed
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound large shrimp
8 ounces ground pork, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Fill a bowl with hot water and soak the noodles for about 15 minutes, then drain and reserve. Peel and devein the shrimp if necessary. Combine the sugar, water and fish sauce, then heat a wok or sauté pan to medium high. Add oil to the pan and when hot add the pork and cook thoroughly. Next add the garlic, cook for about 1 minute then add the shrimp, cook until well done, about 3 minutes. Now add the fish sauce mixture, cilantro and the noodles, toss until warm and serve immediately.
Note on cooking with a wok; the conical shape of the wok allows the gas flames to come up the side of the pan for a quick, intense heat. If you do not have a gas stove then a wok really does not give you any advantage at all. A flat bottom wok is a sauté pan with curved sides and will not help you in any way with Asian cooking, but then again it doesn't hurt anything, does it?