I have listened, spellbound, as an 85-year-old noodle chef in Beijing told me why the act of making noodles helped him make sense of the world. As he spoke, he effortlessly stretched a soft, white blob of dough into a thick skipping-rope affair which began to dance before my eyes. It twirled and furled and stretched and strained until he deftly passed one end of the dough to his other hand, causing the rope to twist upon itself.
Back and forth he folded the rope upon itself until, for no reason apparent to mere earthlings, it split into noodles. A little twist, and it split into even finer noodles. And so it went, until the man had produced noodles so fine they could pass through the eye of a needle.
I have watched Mongolian noodle-makers slam their hand-pulled noodles so hard on their work tables that I feared the wood would splinter.
I have witnessed master soba chef Yoshi Shibazaki push and prod and roll his buckwheat dough until he was weak with the effort.
I have watched antique machines in outer suburbia steaming rough mixes of rice flour and water until they turned into a bridal white, gelatinous dough that was then stretched into shimmering silken sheets, cooled by rattly old fans hanging from the ceiling.
I have plunged my hands - well, my whole body - into flour in an effort to make my own noodles, ending up with a snow-white kitchen and a small bowl full of the most satisfying noodles in the world.
This is not a mere grab-bag of quick-fix meals for the busy family on the run, even though these recipes can be done in a twinkle. There is no East meets West, no "oriental pasta", and no garbage. I have cooked the following recipes many times over in my long-suffering kitchen. They are recipes with roots; recipes with a tradition and a sense of history that reflect a region, a religion, a way of life, or a season.
A word on wok-cooking. Always heat your wok first, then add the oil, to prevent food from sticking. When the oil is smoking, add the food. For an authentic flavour, keep your heat up high. It helps to seal the food quickly, as well as imbuing it with the characteristic heat-seared flavour that the Chinese call "the breath of the wok".
As for stir-frying, you don't actually stir. Instead, you toss or flip. Use a paddle or broad spoon to get under the food, flick it up and toss it over on to itself, rather than stirring. Keep the noodles moving at all times, or they may stick, scorch or stew.
And never put too much in the wok at any one time. Unless you have industrial- strength heat and a giant wok, the noodles will go soggy before they can heat through. If you want to cook for more than four people, buy another wok and run two at once.
It's very, very difficult to undercook a noodle. It's very, very easy to overcook a noodle. When boiling or soaking your noodles to prepare them for cooking, keep them al dente, so they are still firm to the bite - especially if they are then going into a soup or stir-fry.
Above all, trust your instincts. If you want to add more garlic, add more garlic. If you want to leave out the chilli, leave out the chilli (but you'll go straight to hell when you die). Taste as you go. All you have to do is eat noodles, for long life and happiness.
BEAN THREAD VERMICELLI
WHAT? Referred to as bean thread, green bean thread, cellophane, jelly, transparent, glass, silver, and even invisible noodles, these thin, opaque white threads are made from an extrusion of mung bean starch and tapioca starch mixed with water. When soaked, they become gelatinous in texture and quite see-through. Their ability to absorb stock makes them ideal for soups, stews and soupy, braised dishes. They can even be deep- fried, instantly expanding before your eyes and are also popular in desserts.
WHY? Because they wiggle in the mouth, slipping over the tongue with divine lightness; because they look so good and because they're fun to cook with.
WHICH? They are sold in tight white bundles that resemble rough, wiry knitting yarn.
HOW? Pour boiling water over them in a heatproof bowl and let stand for three to four minutes. Rinse under cold water and drain. If deep-frying, use straight from the pack.
WHATEVER A pair of scissors is a must. These noodles are practically impossible to break by hand when dry, and can be quite a handful even after soaking, because of their length and propensity to tangle. When separating the strands for frying, work inside a large plastic or paper bag or you'll find noodles in strange places for months after.
PAD WOON SEN
This quick and easy stir-fry is a popular lunchtime snack throughout Thailand.
200g/7oz bean thread vermicelli
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
100g/3oz lean pork, finely sliced
150g/5oz small prawns, peeled
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)
2 stalks of celery with leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons chicken stock
100g/3oz bean sprouts, lightly blanched
1 teaspoon sugar
ground white pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons coriander leaves
4 tablespoons roasted peanuts, coarsely crushed
1 lime, quartered
Pour boiling water over noodles and soak for three to five minutes. Drain. Heat oil in a hot wok and fry garlic until golden. Add pork and stir-fry until meat is opaque. Add prawns and stir-fry for one minute. Add noodles and toss lightly. Add fish sauce, celery, soy sauce, chicken stock, bean sprouts, sugar and white pepper. Heat through and serve on a large platter or in small Asian bowls. Scatter with coriander and peanuts and serve with a quartered lime. Serve with forks and spoons.
FRESH ROUND RICE NOODLES
WHAT? Delicate noodles that run from thin varieties such as Thai khanom jeen, to the thicker type that look like Hokkien noodles. Pale and interesting, they have made their presence felt throughout Southeast Asia, but particularly in Northern Vietnam and Malaysia, where they perform a public service in the famous laksa lemak and Penang laksa.
WHY? Because this is a truly unique noodle experience, combining the delicate flavour and sublime smoothness of rice vermicelli with the satisfying presence of a thicker noodle.
WHICH? They are generally sold in a variety of thicknesses in plastic- wrapped trays. They will keep at room temperature for two days, or in the fridge for a week.
HOW? Pour boiling water over fresh noodles, separating the strands gently, but quickly, with chopsticks, and being careful not to damage them. Drain, and refresh in cold water.
WHATEVER If you have no luck finding fresh round rice noodles, the thicker variety can be replaced with Hokkien egg noodles, while the thinner version can be replaced with rice vermicelli or thin rice sticks. Dried khanom jeen can be found in Thai groceries, but they are a poor substitute for fresh. Malaysian restaurants often serve both Hokkien noodles and rice vermicelli in their laksa soups, instead of the white laksa noodle.
FRESH RICE SHEET NOODLES
WHAT? These fresh, white, satiny noodles, cut into ribbons from fresh rice sheets, are delivered fresh daily to Asian food stores and supermarkets. Cantonese feast on them wok-tossed with thinly sliced beef, bean sprouts and soy. Thai people eat them as a lunchtime snack, with beef, curry, pork or fish balls. Vietnamese devour them for breakfast as pho bo, a fragrant soup alive with noodles and beefy bits. Laotians also eat them in soup, flavoured with pork, garlic and a number of herbs, including the leaves of the marijuana plant. Malaysians eat them lightly scorched with the "breath of the wok" in a slippery stir-fry known as as char kueh teow.
WHY? Because they are so flamboyantly voluptuous, angelically white and refreshingly fresh, with a silken, slippery quality no dried noodle could match.
WHICH? Although flat rice noodles are also available in dried form, they really fulfil their silky promise only when fresh. Look for square plastic packs of noodle slabs that look like folded white satin pillowcases. These can then be cut into the desired noodle widths. Pre-cut fresh rice noodles are also widely available.
HOW? Just slice them into flat noodles of the required width, and pour boiling water on to cover. Gently pull the strips apart with a pair of chopsticks, drain and rinse, and they are ready to toss through a stir- fry or slip into a soup.
WHATEVER In spite of the notice on the pack to "keep refrigerated", you will probably find them stacked beside, rather than in, the refrigerated cabinet. The truth is they will never taste as good as the day they were made, and while they will keep in the fridge for some time, they will almost instantly lose their generous supple texture, and break up when cooked. Fresh is best.
HOR FUN SOUP NOODLES WITH ROAST DUCK
How easy is this? All it takes is some rice noodles, a ladleful of chicken stock and couple of pieces of the Cantonese roast duck you picked up at the Chinese supermarket on the way home. It goes to show that there are times when shopping skills are more important than cooking skills.
2 cloves of garlic, crushed with the side of a knife blade
2 slices ginger, cut into thin matchsticks
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
2l/312pt chicken stock
4 iceberg lettuce leaves
12 Cantonese roast duck (from Chinese supermarket)
300g/10oz fresh rice sheet noodles
2 spring onions, green part only, sliced
Add garlic, ginger and oyster sauce to chicken stock and simmer for five minutes. Remove garlic. Blanch lettuce leaves quickly in the stock and remove. Chop duck Chinese-style, through the bone, into 2.5cm (1in) pieces.
Cut rice sheet noodles into strips about 2cm (34in) wide and place in a bowl. Pour boiling water over the top, and quickly but carefully separate the noodles with a pair of chopsticks. Drain and divide among four soup bowls. Arrange lettuce leaf on top, and ladle hot soup over the noodles. Put four or five pieces of duck in each bowl and sprinkle with spring onion.
WHAT? This is the closest any noodle gets to taking over the world. Seductive, slippery egg noodles stretch from one side of Asia to the other, and joyously cross the boundaries between breakfast, lunch and supper. It's the difference between fresh, silken tagliatelle made with eggs, and egg-less spaghetti made with tough durum wheat. Made from wheat flour and egg, they come in various shapes and sizes, but here we want the classic thin, round variety to throw into soups, to stir-fry, and even to deep-fry. If you find thin flat egg noodles, either dried or fresh, save them for soups.
WHY? Because they're instant texture food, mouth-filling and bouncy, with a satisfying chew. Because their slipperiness adds a new dimension to the humblest of bowling companions. And because, like an eager student, they absorb whatever they are given, playing out the flavours of stocks and sauces with every mouthful.
WHICH? Dried: look for nest-like bundles of golden noodles (shown). Any picture of a hen is a dead giveaway.
Fresh: check the refrigerated cabinet for plastic bags of suntanned golden noodles. These will keep for no longer than a week.
HOW? Dried: cook in plenty of boiling water for three to four minutes, or until tender. Drain and rinse under cold running water; drain well. Set aside, covered, until needed.
Fresh: cook in plenty of boiling water for a minute. Drain and rinse under cold running water; drain well. Set aside, covered, until needed. Alternatively, fresh egg noodles can be deep-fried, puffing up into crisp, golden beauties.
WHATEVER Don't overcook. You will probably be cooking them again in a stir-fry, braise or soup, so go for an "al dente" bounce rather than an "al denture" glug.
If pre-cooking, add a little oil to avoid sticking.
WONTON SOUP WITH NOODLES
If there were one dish that summed up everything that was good, pure and nourishing about Cantonese food, this would be it. It is subtle, gentle, fragrant, thoroughly clean- tasting, and almost a monument to the freshness and quality of the ingredients. The Chinese eat it for a full-on breakfast, a fast lunch, a satisfying supper and, sometimes, for a homely, easy dinner. In other words, all the time.
150g/5oz raw prawns, peeled, de-veined and finely minced
150g/5oz minced pork
2 tablespoons pork or bacon fat, finely minced
4 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and finely minced
4 water chestnuts, finely chopped
2 spring onions, white part only, finely chopped
1 small egg white
salt and pepper
200g/7oz fresh egg noodles
1 packet fresh wonton skins
1 heaped teaspoon cornflour mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
2l/312pt chicken stock
2 slices ginger, peeled
100g/3oz choy sum (flowering cabbage), washed and roughly sliced
2 spring onions, green part only, sliced
To make dumpling mixture, combine prawn, pork, pork fat, mushroom, water chestnuts, spring onion, egg white, salt and pepper in a bowl, and mix with your hands until totally amalgamated. Refrigerate for one hour. Cook noodles in boiling water for one to two minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, drain again and set aside.
Lay a wonton skin on the workbench. Put a teaspoon of filling in the centre. Dip your finger in the cornflour paste and run it around the edges. Fold over to form a triangle, pressing the edges together. Bring the two extreme corners together to meet and overlap in the middle, and seal with a little paste. Make four or five dumplings per person. Heat stock in a saucepan, add ginger and bring to a simmer. Blanch cabbage in boiling water for one minute, drain and add to stock. Drop dumplings in a pot of boiling water and cook until they float to the surface, about two minutes. Drain and distribute among four deep warmed soup bowls. Pour boiling water over noodles in a strainer over the sink to warm. Drain and divide among the bowls. Discard ginger and pour stock on top. Scatter with spring onion.
Noodle by Terry Durack is published by Pavilion at pounds 16.99, and is available from bookshops. Independent on Sunday readers can purchase a copy at the special price of pounds 12.99, including p&p, by calling 01403 710851 and quoting reference number Z11Reuse content