Food: Pasta salads can be very cool
Saturday 05 July 1997
I go there for the Zaru Soba: a pile of icy noodles on a bamboo mat with a thin, dark dipping sauce and a restrained number of peppery garnishes, such as freshly grated ginger and spring onion, to provide little shock waves of taste.
I admire the austerity of the assembly, though, apparently, it is not greatly to the taste of the nation. While the Japanese revere the clean froideur of chilled noodles, we haven't pilfered and adopted the idea in the same way as with steaming bowls of ramen. I suspect it is to do with the texture, which has the tender slipperiness of briefly cooked squid.
Zaru Soba is served with a stunningly contrasting side order of hot and crispy tempura. And, being served separately, the tempura manage to preserve the purity of the pasta - "nude, cold and unadorned, the most daring dish in the master's repertoire" is how Way of the Noodle (Boxtree, pounds 10), the cookery book of London's seminal noodle restaurant, Wagamama, describes it.
The noodles were of the udon variety: long, quite chubby and square, made with a wheat flour typical of the south of Japan around Osaka. I prefer these to the more slender soba (buckwheat) noodles, which are too close to wholewheat spaghetti for my liking.
But it's all pasta, and pasta salads are one of the sorrier stories among convenience foods - usually, over-cooked shells in a tart mayonnaise with the improper addition of celery or raw red peppers. Choose instead a salad where the pasta arrives uncooked, with a separate sauce or dressing and with any additions thrown together at the last minute - as soon as you dress pasta, it continues to absorb moisture and ends up as a stodgy mass.
I find pasta salads work best as ordinary dishes served at room temperature. I recommend a really slushy tomato sauce with basil - then add lots of very good olive oil, roast fine slivers of fennel and red onion, and mix all this up with pasta shells, tossing in salty olives and feta for good measure.
There are two good recipes in Pasta, Pizza and Calzone by Alice Waters (Pavilion, pounds 12.99) - one where fusilli, tomatoes and herbs are tossed with crisply fried breadcrumbs and served tepid, and another where spaghetti in a tomato sauce is eaten with an aubergine and pepper salad. Both are as different in character from chilled noodles with a dipping sauce as is Japanese food from Italian. It's hard to believe two nations could arrive at such different destinations with the same product.
Chilled Udon Noodles with Dipping Sauce and Tempura, serves 4
To make a vegetarian dashi (stock), soak 40g of konbu seaweed in one litre of water overnight, leaving it at room temperature. If obtaining konbu is a problem, then use an ordinary vegetable stock. Likewise, ordinary radishes will do instead of the daikon.
125ml/4fl oz dashi
3 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin
sugar to taste
1 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
12 tbsp wasabi paste
2 tbsp finely sliced spring onions
2 tbsp grated daikon radish
350g/12 oz udon noodles
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
150ml/5fl oz iced water
125g/4oz flour, sifted
150g/5oz carrot batons
1/2 aubergine cut into thin segments
75g/3oz shitake mushrooms
Bring all the ingredients for the dipping sauce to the boil in a small saucepan, then cool to room temperature in a small serving bowl. Arrange the garnishes on a flat dish.
Bring a very large pan of water to the boil and carefully add the noodles - separating them as they go into the pan in order to stop them sticking. Once the water comes back to the boil, add a glass of cold water and bring it all back to the boil again. Repeat this process about four times by which time the noodles should be cooked - if not, give them a minute or two longer. This will take around 10 minutes. Drain into a sieve and rinse well in cold water. Place a pile on each plate.
Heat enough oil to deep-fry the tempura in a wok or pan - the temperature should be 170C which you can test with a jam thermometer. While it is heating, lightly whisk the egg and the cold water in a bowl using a fork. Add all the flour at once and blend very lightly. Do not try to eliminate the lumps. Dip the vegetables one at a time into the cornflour and then into the tempura batter. Deep-fry them until lightly coloured. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.
Serve each diner a pile of noodles with separate dipping sauce, tempura and garnishes.
Tomato, Fennel and Feta Pasta Salad, serves 4
2 fennel bulbs
2 red onions, peeled
extra virgin olive oil (for frying)
sea salt, black pepper
900g/2lb plum or beefsteak tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1tsp thinly sliced red chilli
1 tbsp pastis
1 small handful basil leaves
175g/6oz pasta shells
6 tbsp very best extra virgin olive oil (for the dressing)
2 tsp aged red wine vinegar
150g/5oz feta, cubed
75g/3oz black olives, pitted
Preheat the oven to 180C (fan oven)/ 190C (electric oven)/375F/Gas Mark 5. Trim the fennel bulbs of their shoots, remove tough outer sheaves and tidy the base. Halve vertically and slice thinly into segments. Halve the onions vertically and cut these, too, into fine segments. Place in a bowl and toss gently with olive oil and seasoning, then lay out on a baking tray and cook for 30 minutes until coloured at the edges.
Stir halfway through cooking.
To peel the tomatoes, bring a pan of water to the boil. Cut a cone from the top of each tomato to remove the core and plunge them into the boiling water for 20-30 seconds, then into cold water. Slip off the skins, quarter and de-seed them.
Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a medium-size saucepan and sweat the garlic and chilli for a moment, then add the tomatoes and seasoning and cook for 10-20 minutes, stirring regularly and pressing down to mush them up. Heat the pastis in a long-handled spoon, ignite and pour it over the tomatoes. Remove from the heat, tear up the basil and add, leave to cool.
Just before serving, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta, leaving it firm to the bite. Drain and run cold water through it. Add the best olive oil and vinegar to the tomato sauce, then gently fold in the roasted fennel and onion and the pasta. Next, mix in the feta and black olives. Serve straightaway
Sushi Wong, 38c Kensington Church Street, London W8 (0171-937 5007)
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