Use your noodle

Freed from its "Pot", the noodle is challenging Italian pasta for a place in British hearts. Michael Bateman gets to grips with the world's most venerable fast food
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Our flirtation with noodles is hotting up. Locked into a solid (but faintly predictable) marriage to the pasta of the Mediterranean, we have been allowing our eyes to stray furtively in the direction of the pasta of the East.

Our flirtation with noodles is hotting up. Locked into a solid (but faintly predictable) marriage to the pasta of the Mediterranean, we have been allowing our eyes to stray furtively in the direction of the pasta of the East.

In London, the Wagamama chain of noodle bars (and its many imitators) serves tasty, nourishing ramen soups in informal Japanese-style settings. Supermarkets report huge success with dishes such as laksa, a Singaporean bowl of noodles, flavoured with ginger, lemongrass, chilli and coconut. And the ground has been well prepared (whisper it) by the humble Pot Noodle.

So it was only a matter of time before we began to want to make our own noodle dishes. Yet, though willing in spirit, we tend to assume that specialist skills are required to transform dessicated packs of dried noodles into dishes. As a nation brought up on spaghetti hoops, we took long enough to grasp the essentials of Italian pasta, coached by such TV chefs as Antonio Carluccio, Valentina Harris and Keith Floyd. Where, then, do we even begin with noodles?

Well, help is to hand with this month's publication of Sri Owen's Noodles, The New Way. Born in Sumatra, Owen came to England in 1975 and was the first serious writer to introduce Britain to Asian cooking that wasn't Chinese or Indian. Her initial book, The Home Book of Indonesian Cooking, published in 1976, was a landmark.

In Britain at that time, Owen says, you could not buy fresh ginger and galangal, or hot sambal sauces or the sweet soy sauces known in Indonesia as kecap (pronounced ketchup). And certainly not terasi (or balachan), the piquant shrimp paste used in tiny amounts to give a pungent, savoury, seafood tone.

Since then, Owen has taught at university, opened a delicatessen, run cookery courses and, for a while, tested recipes for The Independent. She also won a clutch of awards for 1993's The Rice Book (Doubleday, £20), including the André Simon Book Prize.

Noodles may be one of the world's oldest foodstuffs, but one of the selling points of Noodles, The New Way is that you can have many of the dishes on the table in 10 minutes - surely the ultimate in speedy modern cooking.

There are three main kinds of noodles: wheat noodles - which sometimes include egg and are thus known as egg noodles - cook in three to five minutes. The flat ones are usually used in soups, the rounded ones are best for frying.

Rice noodles, of various thicknesses, need 20 minutes to soak, but can be eaten in soups or stir fries as soon as they're heated through.

Meanwhile, cellophane noodles (bean thread noodles, made from mung bean starch) need only five minutes' soaking, and are also ready when heated through. They can be used in soups, stir-fries, or deep-fried as a garnish.

When I think of a noodle dish, my mind leaps 5,000 miles to the markets of Singapore, its inimitable sights and smells, every hawker stall slopping out its own speciality. I do not recognise any of them in Owen's elegant book, lavishly photographed by Gus Filgate. These cosmetically perfect dishes might have been designed for arousing gasps of praise in Michelin-starred establishments. Presumably, the object is to elevate them to dinner party dishes. And why not?

Happily, Sri Owen is very much a cook's cook, so you can approach her recipes with confidence. Here is her delicious take on Japanese soba noodles and Peking duck salad. *

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