Thursday, September 03, 2009

The skinny on (Asian) noodles

The most notable thing about my (temporary summer) kitchen cabinet right now is that despite the depth of my inventory, I have quite a breadth of noodle and hot sauce varieties. I thought I'd write about some different kinds of Asian noodles and what they are good for, along with some notes about how to have my noodle lifestyle*. (You may e-mail me for questions about non-Asian noodles various hot sauces; I am very into them.)

Basic kitchen ingredients:
  • Garlic (good for non-broth noodle preparations).
  • Scallions (these don't keep as well as garlic, but they are good for topping a dish).
  • Sesame oil and soy sauce.
  • Hot sauces: I try to have a chili garlic sauce for flavoring, a black bean sauce for flavoring, and Lao Gan Ma chili sauce in oil for spiciness.
  • Having dry Sichuan peppers around is also good for flavoring broths and stir-fries. (Since they are dry, you are responsible for spreading the flavor.)

Basic preparations:
  • Broth. You can make a vegan broth by quartering an onion, cutting a carrot into small pieces, and boiling with water for 20-30 minutes. It is very easy to make a chicken broth by putting pieces of chicken (frozen or fresh) into the broth in the beginning. The broth is pretty robust to overcooking; cook until everything looks done and the soup tastes flavored. Adding salt is a good idea; I also like to add some dry Sichuan chili peppers. You could cook the noodles in the broth, but keep in mind that noodles may absorb a lot of water, so it is usually best to cook the noodles separately. A cool thing you can do to flavor broth is to stir-fry some shallots and put them in the top/bottom of the bowl.
  • "Dry." I usually just throw together a basic noodle sauce using sesame oil and some hot sauces. I usually use a combination of chili garlic sauce and chillies in oil. It is sometimes also fun to grind up some dry peppers to make the sauce spicier. You may also use soy sauce for flavoring. With the right repertoire of hot sauces and some experimentation, it becomes very easy to get the flavor to suit your mood very quickly.
  • Stir-fried. I'm not a pro at this, but you can get pan-friable noodles and stir-fry them with a little bit of water in the pan. One idea for topping the noodles is with scallions and chicken or seitan; you should cook the noodles separate from the other stuff.

Noodle varieties:
  • Wheat (udon) noodles are medium thickness and good for either the broth or dry preparations.
  • Buckwheat (soba) noodles can be served cold/dry or hot in broth. They are quite good with some sesame oil/miso, but since I am Chinese (Hunanese) and not Japanese I opine that everything can be improved by hot sauce. :)
  • Mung bean starch noodles come in various thicknesses. They are okay for broth, but I find they serve the best purpose for "holding" flavor since they themselves don't have too interesting of a flavor. These are a good substrate for a spicy chili/oil sauce.
  • Somen are very thin wheat noodles that can be served cold with some sort of sauce or hot in broth. I love somen in broth; somen has a good enough flavor that it is good with some hot sauce, but it is always fairly clear to me that it was not meant to be eaten that way.
  • Egg noodles come in either thick or thin varieties. Both kinds are great in soup; thin egg noodles often come in a pan-friable variety--but you have to read the label to make sure.
  • Fresh Shanghai noodles are thicker and absolutely great for making dan dan noodles or variations thereof. It is fairly easy to make some approximation of dan dan noodles with some dan dan sauce (or combination of chili garlic/chili oil/black bean sauce) and garlic.
  • Rice noodles in Chinese cuisine usually come in thick and thicker and are great both in soups, as a substrate for spice, and in stir fry. (For the thicker variety, look for fresh noodles.)

Some notes on cooking noodles:
  • Noodles will often overcook if you let them stay hot for too long; if you are concerned about this you should drain them and rinse them with cool water before proceeding to the post-cooking step.
  • Noodle varieties have very high variance in how long they take to cook and how much they tend to expand. Once you get the hang of things, it tends to be pretty consistent.
* Most of what I say is calibrated for cooking for one to two people. With noodles I'll usually make a vegetable and then have either a couple of poached eggs, some chicken or tofu sausage, some seitan, or some chicken (which I prepare with black bean sauce, sesame oil, and chili sauce).

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