FOOD & DRINK / SIMPLY OODLES OF

Made from wheat, rice or buckwheat, noodles are the staple of the Far East. They are also quick, easy and deliciously versatile, says Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
FEW FOODS are quicker or cheaper or easier to cook than noodles, oriental noodles.

Most fresh egg noodles cook in the time water takes to return to the boil. Now that really is fast food. Some take longer: Japanese somen noodles take all of two minutes; Japanese udon noodles three to four minutes.

Even dried (as opposed to fresh) egg noodles take no more than six minutes. And there are oodles of noodles, made from ingredients other than wheat, such as rice, buckwheat and bean flour (which is made from dried mung beans, the ones used to produce bean sprouts).

Europe does have its noodles, of course, one of many forms of pasta found both fresh and dried. But in the West they are made from the flour of hard or durum wheat, and usually need a longer cooking time.

The British are not averse to eating oriental noodles, as testified by our patronage of Malay-sian, Thai and Chinese restaurants, and by the booming popularity of Japanese Wagamama restaurants, which serve food that is tasty, nourishing, low-priced and fast.

But there is a difficulty in adopting noodles to home cuisine. We are unfamiliar with the various types of noodle. We're not sure how to make the best of them.

Well, help is at hand. The food writer John Midgley, who has the advantage of having been born in the Far East, has assembled a definitive guide to the subject entitled 100 Fast Noodles, with detailed descriptions of the different noodles, including some of the more mystifying types encountered in Asian stores. He also sorts out the recipes into four categories, which is useful. Soups and wet noodle dishes. Stir-fried and deep-fried noodle dishes. Noodle curries. And cold noodle dishes and salads.

Being a bit of an intellectual, John Midgley confesses to academic unease at hijacking the word "fast" for his book. The noodles cook quickly enough, he agrees, but he is first to admit that the preparation time is often considerable. On the other hand, much can be done in advance, and the final cooking really is fast.

So here John Midgley chooses seven practical recipes for beginners, most of them based on the commonly available dried egg noodles. But first a brief resume of noodle types.

Dried egg noodles. Available almost everywhere, from round noodles to flat ribbons, of varying thicknesses and colour, from orangey-yellow to buff. Follow the cooking instructions (usually a matter of four to six minutes in boiling salted water; some shaped like nests need to be stirred to disentangle the strands). When they are al dente, rinse in cold water to prevent them sticking together. Use as soon as possible, in soups, stir-fries or salads. If not used quickly, toss in a little oil to keep strands separate.

Fresh egg noodles. Sold packaged in clear plastic bags and found in the refrigerated sections of Chinese supermarkets. They cook to al dente in about two minutes. They deep-freeze well, so if you buy them only occasionally stock up your freezer. Either let them thaw out, or remove them from the bag and cook in boiling water, allowing a little longer.

Fresh egg "oil" noodles. Nil cooking time. These have been pre-cooked, the oil preventing them from sticking together and they don't need boiling. Toss them into your soup or stir-fry and serve when heated through.

Dried rice noodles. Made from rice flour and starchier than egg noodles. They range from the broad ribbons (sometimes called rice sticks) favoured by the Thais to the fine vermicelli loved by the Chinese; perfect for deep-frying, instantly puffing up and turning crisp and light.

Fresh rice noodles. Made from rice flour and wheat starch. Either thick and round, or wide and flat. From Chinese stores. Delicious when cooked for a couple of minutes, but taste at intervals to avoid overcooking.

Japanese wheat noodles. Come in two main types. Somen noodles are thin and white, and used in soups or soupy dishes.They cook in two minutes. Udon and kishimen noodles are thick, round and flat. Fresh they need little or no cooking; dried they boil in about four minutes.

Japanese buckwheat noodles. Otherwise known as the soba noodle. Buckwheat, not actually related to wheat, is the seed of a plant of the rhubarb family. They are thin and round and brownish-grey or buff with a distinctly different flavour, and cook in four to six minutes.

Cellophane noodles. Also known as bean thread noodles and glass noodles, these are made from ground mung beans. Soak them for 15 minutes in hot water and they become slippery and transparent. Eaten cold in salads.

All dried noodles keep well in a cool, dry and preferably dark place. Fresh noodles can be kept in the fridge for three to four days, but fresh rice noodles will keep for just 24-48 hours.

! `100 Fast Noodles' by John Midgley is published by Pavilion Books at pounds 9.99

HOT AND SOUR NOODLE SOUP

An adaptation of a popular Chinese soup.

Serves 4

40g/112oz dried shiitake mushrooms

75g/3oz thin rice noodles (vermicelli)

2 teaspoons peanut oil

75g/3oz ham, diced

1.25 litres/214 pints chicken stock

75g/3oz oyster mushrooms, diced

100g/4oz solid bean curd finely diced

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

4 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons Shaohsing wine

2 teaspoons sugar

salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 spring onions, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon flour mixed with 2 tablespoons water

2 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 teaspoons chilli oil (or to taste)

handful of fresh coriander, chopped

Soak the shiitake mushrooms in a cup of hot water for 30 minutes to reconstitute them. Strain and reserve the water. Slice the shiitake caps very thinly, discarding the tough stalks. Soak the noodles in water as recommended on the packet.When soft, drain and reserve them.

Fry the ham in a small pan until golden. Bring the stock and the mushrooms' soaking liquid to the boil in a large pot. Add the ham, the reconstituted and fresh mushrooms, the noodles, bean curd, soy sauces, vinegar, Shaohsing wine, sugar, seasoning and the spring onions.

Return to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add the flour dissolved in water, stir, and allow the soup to thicken a little. Stir in the beaten eggs in a very thin stream and pull in different directions with a fork, to stretch the eggs as they set. Add the sesame and chilli oils, mix, and simmer for a minute longer. Sprinkle with coriander and eat straight away.

NOODLE SALAD WITH CHILLI-BEEF CUPS

A delicious Vietnamese-inspired salad.

Serves 2-3

225g/8oz beef sirloin or rump steak, trimmed

175g/6oz thin, dried egg noodles

212 tablespoons peanut oil

1 Cos (romaine) lettuce heart or 1 `little gem' lettuce

2 large or 4 small shallots, peeled and sliced

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 fresh chillies, seeded and cut into long, thin strips

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

juice of 1 lime

50g/2oz roasted peanuts, lightly crushed

white part of 2 spring onions, thinly sliced

leaves from 6 sprigs of coriander, chopped

leaves from 4 sprigs of mint, chopped

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

Cut the beef into large, even-sized cubes. Put them in the freezer for at least 15 minutes to firm up but without allowing the meat to freeze: this is to facilitate wafer-thin slicing.

Meanwhile, bring a large pan of water to the boil, add the noodles, return to the boil and cook until al dente. Rinse under cold water, drain and toss in two teaspoons of the oil. Place the noodles on a large serving platter. Separate the lettuce into individual cup-shaped leaves. Reserve the largest leaves; shred the smaller ones and arrange them in a ring around the noodles. With a very sharp knife, slice the beef as thinly as possible.

Heat the remaining two tablespoons of oil to smoking point in a wok, add the shallots, garlic and chillies and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the beef, stir once and pour in the light soy and fish sauces. Toss for just 112 minutes, or until the meat no longer looks raw, then add the sugar, and mix.

Transfer the wok contents to a bowl. When the beef morsels are cool, put them in the lettuce-leaf cups, pour over the juices from the bowl, sprinkle with the lime juice, crushed peanuts, spring onions, herbs and dark soy sauce to taste. Place the lettuce cups on top of the noodles and serve

COLD SESAME NOODLES

Deliciously spicy noodles from northern China.

Serves 2-3 as a main dish, 4-6 as an accompaniment

50g/2oz lean back bacon

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1cm/12in piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

100g/4oz fresh bean sprouts

2 teaspoons Shaohsing wine

18cm/7in section of cucumber, peeled

225g/8oz dried egg noodles

2 spring onions, very thinly sliced

3 tablespoons sesame oil

112 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 teaspoon chilli sauce

plenty of freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

12 teaspoon salt

Grill the bacon until the edges crisp up, then cut into very small pieces. Heat peanut oil in a wok to smoking point; add ginger, garlic and bean sprouts. Stir-fry for 30 seconds, splash in the Shaohsing wine and toss for 30 seconds longer. Scoop into a small bowl and leave to cool.

Cut the cucumber in half lengthways, scoop out and discard the seedy centre and finely slice the flesh. Chop into small dice and set aside.

Boil the noodles until al dente, separating the strands with a wooden spoon, then rinse under cold water and drain thoroughly. Com-bine all the ingredients in a serving bowl, mixing very thoroughly. This dish may be served straight away or refrigerated for up to six hours.

SZECHWAN-STYLE NOODLES

These spicy noodles are typical of the popular snacks served by street vendors in China.

Serves 2 as a main dish, 4-as an accompaniment

3 tablespoons peanut oil

l00g/4oz back bacon, trimmed and finely diced

small piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

6 spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon chilli bean sauce

1 tablespoon peanut butter

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

250ml/8fl oz chicken stock

450g/1lb fresh egg `oil'noodles

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Heat the oil to smoking point in a wok. Add the bacon and fry until crisp, stirring constantly to prevent burning, then lift with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent paper; don't worry if a few morsels are left in the oil. Add the ginger, garlic and spring onions and stir-fry for less than a minute. Add the chilli bean sauce, peanut butter, soy sauce and the stock.

Bring to the boil and cook down for about three minutes, then add the noodles to the wok and toss until well coated and heated through. Turn into a bowl, sprinkle the bacon and sesame oil on top and eat straight away.

FRIED EGG NOODLES WITH WATER CHESTNUTS

The crunchy texture of water chestnuts contrasts well with the soft egg noodles.

Serves 2-4

350g,/12oz dried egg noodles

4 tablespoons peanut oil

1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and very finely chopped

3 cloves of garlic, crushed, peeled and sliced

2cm/34in piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

225g/8oz canned water chestnuts, drained and sliced

1 teaspoon sugar

12 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

2 teaspoons chilli sauce

1 tablespoon Shaohsing wine

2 teaspoons sesame oil

110g/4oz bean sprouts

2-3 fresh chillies, seeded and sliced

handful of fresh coriander, chopped

Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add the noodles and boil until al dente. Rinse and drain.

Heat the oil in a wok until smoking. Add the red onion and carrot and stir-fry for two minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and water chestnuts and stir-fry for two minutes longer. Add the sugar, salt, soy sauce, chilli sauce, Shaohsing wine and sesame oil. Mix well, then add the bean sprouts and the noodles. Stir-fry for about two minutes and serve on a warmed platter. Sprinkle with the chopped chillies and fresh coriander, and eat immediately.

CURRIED NOODLES WITH BEAN CURD

Serves 2-3 with the nutritious garnishes

175g/6oz green beans, trimmed and cut into 2cm/34in lengths

225g/8oz thick, dried egg noodles

3 tablespoons corn oil

I egg plus I egg yolk, beaten

1 small green pepper, deseeded and diced

4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 fresh chillies, seeded and tbinly sliced

1 tablespoon Thai `green' curry paste

225g/8oz solid bean curd, cut into 2cm/34in cubes

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

6 tablespoons vegetable stock or water

juice of 1 lime

50g/2oz roasted peanuts, lightly crushed

handful of fresh coriander, chopped

Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add the beans, return to the boil and blanch for just 30 seconds. Remove the beans with a slotted spoon, refresh under cold running water and drain. Boil the water again, add the noodles, return to the boil and cook until al dente. Rinse under cold water, drain and set aside.

In a small, non-stick frying pan heat one tablespoon of oil to smoking point, add the beaten eggs and make an omelette. Drain on absorbent paper and shred coarsely.

Heat the remaining oil to smoking point in a wok. Add the green pepper, shallots, garlic and chillies, stir-fry for one minute. Add the curry paste and stir to release the aroma, then add the bean curd and beans and stir-fry for another minute. Add the soy sauces, sugar and stock. Bring to the boil and cook for one minute. Add the noodles and toss to coat and heat through.

Transfer to a serving platter, arrange the shredded omelette over the noodles, squeeze the lime juice on top, and scatter over the peanuts and coriander. Eat immediately.

UDON NOODLES WITH CHARGRILLED SALMON

In Japan, dashi would be used in this dish, but chicken stock makes an adequate substitute.

Serves 2-3

450g/1lb fresh udon noodles

175g/6oz fillet of plump, skinned salmon

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespons olive oil

400ml/14fl oz chicken stock

6 tablespoons Kikkoman's soy sauce

4 tablespoons mirin

2 teaspoons sugar

175g/6oz fresh spinach

3 spring onions, very finely sliced

In a large pot of salted water, boil the noodles until just al dente, then, saving the cooking water, drain and reserve the noodles. Place the salmon on a plate, season and pour the oil over it. Turn a few times to coat thoroughly in the oil.

Heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan or griddle; when it is very hot, place the salmon on the cooking surface. Char both sides lightly (one minute per side), then remove the pan from the heat and let the fish cook in the residual heat for about four minutes longer on each side; the centre should still be moist but no longer dark pink. (You may have to turn the heat back on to low for the last two minutes.) Slice the salmon into 4- 6 chunks and keep warm.

Heat in a small pan (but without boiling) the stock, soy sauce, mirin and sugar, stirring to dissolve the granules; remove from the heat but cover to keep warm.

Wash the spinach then immediately throw it into another hot, dry pan. Stir around until wilted, then remove and chop the spinach.

Reheat the noodles' cooking water and, when boiling, dip in the noodles for just 30 seconds; drain them and put them in a large serving bowl. Quickly reheat the stock and pour it over the noodles. Arrange spring onions, spinach and salmon chunks on top of the nood-les and eat while still piping hot. !

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