The Big Ingredient: noodles

They may be little more than flour and water, but each variety has its own character and history. Terry Durack introduces a guide to their tastes and textures
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Once upon a time, there were short ones and long ones. The long ones were in chow mein and the short ones were in chicken noodle soup, and that was the sum total of my noodle knowledge.

Once upon a time, there were short ones and long ones. The long ones were in chow mein and the short ones were in chicken noodle soup, and that was the sum total of my noodle knowledge.

But greed got the better of me, and I soon sought relationships with the great noodles of the world; not just short or long, but white yellow, brown, oiled, transparent, green, fresh, dried, flat, round, thick and thin. The more I got to know my noodles, the more I realised that every single one was imbued with its own special character, stemming from the culture, history and geography of the country from which it came.

Although they may be made of little more than flour and water, noodles go beyond pasta, into another world. To the Chinese, noodles represent longevity, and feature at every special event including weddings and birthdays.

In the hunger-inducing Japanese film Tampopo, a wise old man teaches a young man how to eat a bowl of soup noodles. "First, observe the whole bowl," he counsels. "Savour the aromas." Once the young man has noted every ingredient in the bowl, he is told to "caress the surface with the chopstick tips to express affection". Then, and only then, is he allowed to eat.

Modern Britain has been learning to eat noodles ever since Alan Yau opened the first Wagamama in 1992. Until then, most of us wouldn't have known our ramen from our udon. We can now buy oiled egg noodles from our corner Tesco, pick up pink noodle bowls at Habitat, and find noodle recipes in every food magazine. At Regent Street's Cocoon, we tuck into Hong Kong style seafood crispy noodles; at the ground-breaking Hakkasan, it's lobster noodles with ginger and spring onions; at Notting Hill's E & O, it's rice noodles with mushrooms. At Alan Yau's Busaba Eathai, the chilli-laced pad Thai noodles are the dish of the day.

But just how well do you know your noodles? To help you appear intelligent and well-informed at your next dinner party, here's a crash course on the world's top 10.

First, there are the skinny, all-purpose egg noodles you get in won ton noodle soup, which the Chinese call dan mian. Available fresh or dried, they pop up in a multitude of stir-fries and soups.

Japan's most treasured noodle is soba, a dried, brown, thin noodle flecked with buckwheat flour. Its flavour is so distinctive and subtle that Japanese chefs prefer to serve it chilled and unadorned, with a simple dipping sauce.

For me, however, the most satisfying Japanese noodle is the big fat, white worm-like udon, which can be bought dried or fresh in shrink-wrapped packs, and is traditionally served in a soup.

Then there are the thick, yellow, fresh, oiled noodles, known in Singapore as Hokkien noodles. This is your basic fresh supermarket noodle in Britain, and needs very little cooking, just a rinse in boiling water before adding to the wok or soup bowl.

No noodle makes the Chinese homesick faster than the soft, fresh, flat white rice noodles known as hor fun, especially when stir-fried with beef, bean shoots and dark soy.

Very similar to hor fun are dried rice stick noodles, a sort of "white tagliatelle" that features in the classic pad Thai noodles with egg, prawn and chilli. These are not to be confused, although they usually are, with the skinny, brittle dried rice vermicelli used in curry-scented Singapore noodles, crisp Thai mee krob and the popular Vietnamese summer rolls.

One of the most curious of noodles is the bean thread vermicelli, aka cellophane or glass noodle. Sold in neatly tied, yarn-like balls, they magically turn transparent when soaked in boiling water for a few minutes, before being used in stir fries and salads.

Because the Chinese believe the longer the noodle you eat, the longer you will live, the most auspicious noodles of all are e-fu noodles, or long-life noodles, which are sold in large rounds of pre-fried noodles.

The next phase of Britain's divine enlightenment is to absorb some of the culture behind the flavour, because only knowledge and understanding will protect the noodle from debasement and promiscuous fusion flavours.

At home, the first rule is never to overcook noodles. They should always be al dente, like pasta. The second is to never oversauce them or overload them with meat and vegetables. The noodle must be the star, not the support act. Luckily, there is no rule regarding the overeating of noodles, or the entire country would be in serious trouble.

TOP SHOP

Loon Fung Supermarket, 42-44 Gerrard Street, W1 Tel: 020 7437 7332

Close to 40 years old, the Loon Fung is the oldest and largest Oriental supermarket in Soho. Despite its size, manoeuvring your way through the Ikea-like aisles is a challenge, as the place is never less than blisteringly busy.

Somewhere in there is everything you will need for noodle cookery. There are fresh oiled noodles, Shanghai noodles, rice noodles, and egg noodles; as well as dried rice sticks, rice vermicelli, bean thread noodles, needle noodles, udon noodles, soba noodles and instant noodles. All you have to do is find them. Outside the store are stacks of durians, piles of nashi pears, and bundles of Chinese leaves.

In the refrigerated cabinets are wonton wrappers, fish balls, Chinese dumplings and salmon fish heads for the ultimate curry. On the shelves are spices, dried herbs, 5kg bags of rice, chilli sauces and Chinese crockery (best buys: dried roasted chilli flakes and crisp-fried shallots). There's even an in-store Chinese pork butcher selling every part of the pig except the squeal. Now all you have to do is find your way out again.

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