Asian-inspired noodle dishes to warm up this winter
The world of Asian noodles is vast. There is some dispute over who originally came up with the idea of mixing water and flour to create noodles. The Arabs claim to have been the first to use dried pasta as a means of preserving flour during their trips across the desert. But regardless of the origin, we know the Chinese have been feasting on noodles for at least 2,000 years, since the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.). China also is credited with having introduced noodles to every part of Asia, if not the rest of the world.
Each Asian cuisine has its specialties, which often are driven by street food vendors. Every imaginable ingredient is used to make noodles. Archaeological evidence suggests that though wheat was present in China 4,000 years ago, it was not widely cultivated until the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907). This gave rise to the use of other available flours, such as sweet potato, yam, rice, cassava, buckwheat, mung bean, rice, potato, millet, fish paste and many more.
The Chinese believe every meal should contain equal amounts of fan (grains and starches) and t'sai (fruits and vegetables). One of the grain dishes they rely on to provide this harmonious dietary balance is noodles.
Like Italian pasta, Asian noodles vary in width; they can be as thick as straws or as thin as toothpicks. When it comes to length, however, they are usually served long and uncut. This is because in Chinese tradition, long noodles symbolize the prospect of a long life. Noodles are commonly served at birthday celebrations, and fresh noodles are regularly placed at grave sites.
Most important is that Asian noodles are delicious and generally inexpensive. Here are some of my favorite dishes.
This is a poultry variation of the famous beef-driven pho soup of Vietnam. It is a simple soup to make but its quality depends on the flavorful broth. It illustrates the love of fresh herbs and greens in that part of the world. You could substitute any green or herb you like. If you've never been to an Asian market, maybe it's time to see what's there.
Hanoi Chicken Noodle Soup (Pho Ga)
Makes 4 to 6 servings
8 cups chicken stock
⅓ cup coarsely chopped fresh ginger
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
4 whole star anise
4 whole cloves
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole fennel seed
2 tablespoons brown sugar (or to taste)
3 tablespoons Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce (Nuoc Mam), or to taste
⅔ cup fresh cilantro sprigs
⅔ cup fresh mint and/or tender Thai basil leaves
1 pound chicken breasts or thighs, bone in and skin off
4 ounces thin rice noodles
12 ounces baby bok choy, chopped
¼ cup finely slivered (on the bias) scallions
Vietnamese hot sauce or other hot sauce, such as Sriracha
Thai bird chiles, thinly sliced
In a medium stockpot, bring chicken stock to a simmer over medium heat. Add ginger, garlic, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, fennel seed, sugar, fish sauce, ⅓ cup each of the cilantro and mint leaves and the chicken. Bring to a simmer, cover and continue to gently simmer for 10 to 12 minutes. Off heat, allow the chicken mixture to cool, covered, for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, soak the noodles in hot water for about 15 minutes, until they have softened. If necessary, cook them in lightly salted boiling water until just tender, a minute or so. Drain and rinse well with cold water to stop the cooking.
Remove chicken meat and discard bones. Slice each breast thinly and set aside. Strain the broth, return it to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add bok choy and simmer for 2 minutes or so.
Divide noodles and chicken among six bowls. Pour hot broth and bok choy over and top with the scallions, remaining cilantro and mint and accompaniments to your taste.
Sweet potato noodles have a delicious springy, chewy texture. They are available at Asian markets and are one of my favorite noodles. A bonus is that they are gluten-free.
Korean Sweet Potato Noodles (Japchae)
For the steak:
¼ cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound beef rib-eye, sliced across the grain
For the noodles:
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
8 ounces dry Korean sweet potato noodles (dangmyun)
2 teaspoons olive or other vegetable oil
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks (see note below)
1 small white onion, peeled, halved and sliced
4 cups baby spinach
Kimchi for garnish
To marinate the steak: Combine soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, garlic and pepper in a bowl. Whisk to combine. Add steak and stir to coat. Marinate for at least 30 minutes.