Love for Udon.
I know i’ve been heavily weighted upon the sweet for the past few posts, I apologise all you savourites. So I bring to you today a little slice of Eastern heaven. Anyone who’s been to Wagamama’s, will know of their ramen, probably one of the more popular noodle dishes outside of China, Thailand, South Korea and Japan.
Now, I’ve been to Wagamama’s quite a few times, and even though I like to try different things, I find myself always back to the start thinking…but, what if I don’t get to come here for a while, and i’ve missed out on ramen noodles? Overall, i’m relatively fussy about my eateries, but for a chain, Wagamama does some pretty awesome food. They have achieved some sort of harmony of appeal between being in a very Western country and enlightening said Westerners with different tastes. I sound like an advert. But anyway!
I hope they don’t mind me using this, it is to show love after all.
I’m by no means an expert, i’m barely even an amateur when it comes to noodles, but I like a challenge, and to get the balance of spices, and sauces and ingredients is not an easy feat. Along with a disasterous salsa concoction I made last year – it still haunts my dreams – Eastern food has been somewhat of a culinary foe. I say it with the utmost love of course, because along with great skill comes great reward, and if you get it just right, these types of dishes can be the most amazing experiences.
First a little basic noodle knowledge before we start. There is so much more than ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ noodles, and like pasta, it is often relegated to the food of students (me not included in this, naturally). I dread to think of the noodles that pot and packet noodles contain, you know, the ones that are 7p from some forsaken hell hole in the canned vegetable isle. Anyone who has lived with me will know that I am a complete pot noodle snob, and i’m quite happy to say it. I hate them, with a passion equivalent to that of a thousand burning suns. I don’t care how poverty stricken you students are, there is no excuse!
But on to proper noodles (I don’t relish the thought of using that word, but nothing else really seems appropriate). This is just the pure basics of noodles, as there are dozens of different regional varieties for each one, but for the novice, an overview is enough:
1: Egg noodles – This is what the ramen noodle variety sits under, they are relatively heavy and rich noodle, and come in basic ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ varieties. These are good for, but not exclusive to, broths. I know the term “egg” noodles, is so very broad, it doesn’t really cover shape or length or texture, but there are so many varieties, and the tastes are generally very similar to each other, so it’s an okay overview for lesser experienced noodle chef.
2: Wheat noodles – These come basic somen (thin) and udon (thick) varieties. Udon noodles are some of my favourite noodles, they’re thick, juicy and white and they are amazing in soups and covered in rich chilli sauce. Both varieties have a smooth silky bite but are still reasonably firm. They are a predominantly Japanese noodle, but there is tonnes of crossover, so you’ll only be hung by the purists if you want to mix and match.
3: Buckwheat noodles – These are brown-grey coloured noodles with an amazing nutty flavour, think brown rice compared to white. Japanese call them soba, Koreans call them naengmyon and are often accompanied with sauces for breakfast in Japan. Interestingly, if you are intolerant to gluten and wheat, 100% buckwheat noodles are completely free of both. Hoorah for noodles.
4: Wonton noodles – Well, wonton wraps, or gyozas, are noodle skins that you place around your meat, fish vegetables or sometimes noodles to hold little parcels together. These can be boiled, steamed or fried, and are used for making spring rolls. They really are very thin and very delicate, and if you were going to make any of the noodles from this list by hand, I probably wouldn’t recommend this one for beginners. They come in two main varieties, wheat and rice (and thick and thin within those) and can be used for sweet or savoury dishes.
5: Clear noodles – This seems a little out of place compared to the others, but this category covers all sorts of cellophane noodles (long, very thin and clear tagliatelle-like noodles), glass noodles and bean threads. Unlike some of the others on this list, these noodles are best if you want to add big texture to your dish, rather than taste. They honestly don’t really taste of much but they are gelatinous and slippery and make for a rather good salad. They are also good in soups and broths, they sit, in their clear glory like little ghostly cheekys at the bottom of the bowl after you’ve munched all the veg and meat. It’s pretty sneaky if you ask me, but a welcome surprise if you’re craving a teeny bit more.
6: Rice noodles – This is our final, and probably most prominant category. You usually find them dried and in little nests and are available in most UK supermarkets now, along with egg noodles. This category includes vermicelli, a really thin variety of almost clear noodles. These types of noodles go relatively well with light broths, rather than heavy meat sauces, as they are somewhat more delicate tasting. Along with our friends the buckwheat noodles, they are entirely gluten and wheat free.
Now the basics are covered here, but as I said before, there really are dozens of other regional varieties to try out there, so don’t think it’s exclusive to just these. They won’t be drastically different, probably similar to the relationship between linguine and spaghetti, but it’s still worth mentioning. You can even get potato noodles, but they are predominantly from Eastern-Middle Europe rather than far East. But I thought i’d be thorough.This particular post is purely about noodles for now, because if I got into any other element of Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Chinese or Thai food i’d be here forever. Noodles are amazing, and while I love me a good bowl of pasta, they offer a different kind of service; where pasta has versatility in shape (and sometimes texture, with using different flours and such like), noodles have versatility in taste. There are several varieties, somen, ramen and soba for instance, are the same general shape, long and thin, but offer very different tastes and their own personality to food. So while it’s probably implanted in us that many starchy additions taste the same no matter what the shape, what with Italian food being so popular in the UK, it’s important to treat noodles with a little more delicacy.
Something else I love about noodles is that they’re incredibly fast, they’re faster than their Italian rivals, because they’re mostly long and thin and require only a few minutes soaking. What makes them faster still is that you can chop vegetables, make sauces or broth in the time that they are soaking. If push came to shove I bet even the most inexperienced cook could make a pretty amazing vegetable stir fry in less that five minutes.
I am aware that if you have not been brought up on such boisterous flavours, or if you were a war child of sorts, than it may not be your cup of tea. But I pose to you today one of my bridge recipes, something for people who don’t want to jump head first into anothers’ culinary pool – not a euphemism…actually I suppose it could be.
Bridge Chow Mein
1 small red chilli – however hot you like them
3 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons (ish) dark soy
2 tablespoons (ish) olive oil
1 tblsp Chinese 5-spice
1 tsp paprika
150g of noodles- whichever takes your fancy, Udon noodles and Shi wheat noodles work well
150g (ish) beansprouts
2-3 chicken breasts
Any crunchy vegetables, sprouting broccolli, carrots etc
Equipment that’s useful for this – Pestle and mortar if you have one, skewers.
– First of all, chop the top off the chilli, and chop into thin-ish chunks, and peel the garlic. Put all of it (including the seeds, what’s the point in using chillis if you dont make it hot!) into the pestle and mortar and grind down to a chunky paste. Take one tablespoon on the mixture out and set aside.
– For the marinade. Add all of the spices, 2 tablespoons of dark soy for colour and flavour, a dash of sesame oil (and I mean a dash because a little goes a very long way!) and a glug of olive oil to bring it all together.
– Sandwich the chicken breasts between two layers of cling film and bash the living hell out of it with a rolling pin, it is relatively satisfying and it makes the chicken go further. Then chop into 2cm thick strips.
– Add the chicken to the marinade, make sure all bits are covered in it and cover with cling film and leave in the fridge for half an hour or so. If you want this can be done the night before.
– Skewer the chicken onto the sticks – allow for 2-3 a person and set aside ready to cook.
– Boil the kettle and cover your noodles in the hot water (if they’re dried) and put a deep frying pan on the heat with no oil.
– Put all of the chicken skewers and all of the marinade into the pan, turning occasionally, until they are fully cooked through and set aside on a plate.
– Add all the vegetables (if you’re using them) and the now softened and drained noodles the pan with the juices from the chicken. Add the last tablespoon of dark soy to the pan and add in the beansprouts at the last minute to keep them crunchy.
– Serve with the chicken skewers and a small drizzle of sesame on top.
– Slurp away at your yum noodles.
As I said before, this is an incredibly basic recipe, it’s essentially Chow Mein (hence the title), from the Mandarin chǎomiàn (and the Taishanese chāu-mèing, from where it is thought to have originated from), meaning ‘fried noodles’. Along with Chop Suey it is right up there with popular Eastern dishes, and may not be the most authentic thing you can cook from an Eastern perspective, it is the unity of East and West! It’s quite a heavy dish and it’s not as balanced as an Eastern chef would like, but it’s about bridging the gap. It has Mediterranean flavours, and Eastern flavours, and it’s a good place to start if you’re not vastly experienced.
Something interesting to remember about balance actually while i’m on the subject, much Eastern cooking is governed by the aspects of Yin and Yang. It is very much about the balance of the mild Yin, to the strong flavoured Yang, for example, something like bean sprouts or cabbage would be a Yin ingredient, and garlic or ginger or meat would be Yang. It is also applied to to cooking methods, so for instance, a Yin cooking method would be steaming, poaching or boiling, and a Yang would be deep-frying, stir-frying or roasting. The divide is very logical if you think about it. It’s healthier to eat steamed fish than it is to eat fried, but it’s okay to have bits of both, as long as they are balanced
It’s not an odd idea, it is more of a means to keep nutrition and body balanced so nothing overpowers the other, as opposed to an abstract concept. It’s useful to know in every type of cooking, not just Eastern.
But after that my little culinary deviants I shall leave you to your experimenting, there will always be more to come
Selamat menjamu selera!