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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

For garnishes:

Vietnamese hot sauce or other hot sauce, such as Sriracha

Hoisin sauce

Bean sprouts

Lime wedges

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.

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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)

Serves 6

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.

To make the noodle sauce: combine soy sauce, honey and sesame oil and stir well.

Fill a deep pot with water and bring to a boil. Stir in the noodles, return to a boil and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Drain, add noodles to the sauce and toss to coat.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add carrot and onions and sauté until barely tender, about 4 minutes. Stir in steak and marinade and cook until tender, 6 minutes or so. Stir in spinach and noodles and cook until spinach just begins to wilt, a minute or so. Serve immediately with kimchi on the side.

Note: There are tools to make this task much easier. You can use a mandoline, of course, but seek out a julienne peeler, of which there are many variations. I like the one from Kuhn Rikon.

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Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup from the Peranakan culture, a merging of Chinese and Malay populations in Malaysia and Singapore. It’s made with a nut-based coconut curry paste. This paste is gold! Make a big batch and keep it on hand, frozen. The spice paste can be made ahead and refrigerated for four days or frozen for four months and has many delicious uses. I’ve used zucchini and roasted butternut squash here, but use whatever vegetables you like.

Shrimp and Noodle Soup with Laksa

Makes 4 to 6 servings

3 cups low-salt, defatted chicken stock

1 pound large (16-20 size) shrimp, peeled and deveined and shells reserved

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 tablespoons rice wine or sake

3½ cups coconut milk, stirred well

1 cup laksa paste (recipe follows), or to taste

2 tablespoons peanut or other vegetable oil

1 small zucchini, cut in long julienne

4 ounces thin rice vermicelli noodles soaked in warm water for 20 minutes

Fresh lime juice to taste

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Garnish: Cilantro leaves and green onions sliced on the bias

Heat the stock to boiling, add the reserved shrimp shells and simmer for 5 minutes, covered. Strain, discard shells and set stock aside. Halve the shrimp lengthwise. Stir soy sauce and rice wine together and toss with shrimp to lightly coat. Set aside to marinate for a few minutes.

Heat the stock and coconut milk in a deep saucepan and whisk in the laksa paste. Add oil to a wok or large skillet and heat over high heat. Add shrimp and stir-fry, in batches if necessary, until barely cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Add zucchini and noodles to warm bowls. Top with shrimp. Taste stock mixture and adjust with lime juice, salt and pepper to taste. Ladle hot stock over noodles and serve immediately, garnished with cilantro leaves and green onions.

Laksa Paste

Makes about 1 cup or more

2 tablespoons chili garlic sauce (or to taste — see note below)

⅓ cup chopped onion

⅓ cup chopped and toasted macadamia nuts or blanched almonds

¼ cup peeled and finely chopped ginger

2 tablespoons coriander seeds, crushed

1 teaspoon shrimp paste or 2 tablespoon fish sauce (or to taste)

Juice and zest from 2 limes

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

½ cup or so coconut milk

Add all ingredients except coconut milk to a blender and process for a minute or two or until very smooth. Add mixture to a small saucepan and cook over moderate heat for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly. It should be very fragrant. Stir in coconut milk and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months.

Note: Chili garlic sauce is available in Asian markets and the Asian section of some supermarkets. Lee Kum Kee from Hong Kong is a widely distributed brand.

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Any cooked protein can be substituted for the chicken here.

Chiang Mai Chicken Noodles

Makes 4 servings

For the noodles:

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 medium onion, peeled, halved and sliced; or 6 shallots, cut crosswise into thin slices

4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 tablespoons red Thai curry paste

14 ounces (1 can) well-stirred coconut milk

1 cup chicken stock

2½ cups cooked chicken, cut into large dice

1 teaspoon light brown sugar, or to taste

2 teaspoons fish sauce, or to taste

Juice of 1 lime, or to taste

12 ounces dried Chinese wheat noodles

For garnish:

2 scallions, white and light-green parts, cut on the diagonal

1 small red chile pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into very thin strips

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Lime wedges

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the onion or shallots and cook for about 6 minutes, until golden.

Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes, stirring, then add the turmeric and curry paste. Cook for 1 minute, stirring, until the spices become fragrant, then stir in the coconut milk and broth. Once the mixture starts to bubble at the edges, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes.

Stir in the chicken; cook until heated through. Add the sugar, fish sauce and lime juice; taste and adjust the amounts of those three ingredients to your taste. Keep warm.

Cook the noodles according to the package directions. Drain. Divide the noodles among individual bowls. Spoon the chicken curry over each portion, then garnish with the scallions, red pepper and cilantro. Serve hot, with wedges of lime.

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Cecilia Chiang was the founder of the Mandarin, an immensely influential restaurant in San Francisco that opened in 1961. She helped change how Americans thought about Chinese food. To this day, the imprint of her cooking can be found all over American-Chinese food. Her son founded the P.F. Chang's chain, and the son of one of her chefs founded Panda Express. Mandarin became a shrine for food-world luminaries such as James Beard, Marion Cunningham and Alice Waters, who said Chiang had done for Chinese cuisine what Julia Child had done for French cooking. Chiang died last year at the age of 100. This simple dish is adapted from her recipe and was one of the most requested special-order dishes at the restaurant.

Cecilia’s Garlic Noodles

Makes 4 servings

Kosher salt

1 pound fresh, ⅛-inch-wide Chinese wheat noodles

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

6 large garlic cloves, finely minced

2 tablespoons or more soy sauce

3 teaspoons or more oyster sauce

1 package fresh enoki mushrooms, roots discarded (optional)

Tender cilantro sprigs

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Fluff the noodles and cook until they are just tender, about 2 minutes. Strain but do not rinse. Don’t worry if they clump; they’ll separate in the wok.

Heat a large wok or nonstick sauté pan over high heat. Add the oil and a pinch of salt and swirl the pan to coat the bottom. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly until the garlic is golden brown, about 30 seconds. Be careful not to burn or the garlic will be bitter. If this happens, start over.

Add the noodles and soy and oyster sauces. Toss until everything is mixed well and heated through but not browned, about 1 minute more. If the noodles are sticking together, add a tablespoon of water. Add the enoki, if using, and taste for seasoning, adding salt and more soy and oyster sauces if you think it needs it. Serve immediately, garnished with cilantro.

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Shirataki noodles are Japanese and are made from the konjac yam, also known as devil’s tongue or elephant yam. The word shirataki means “white waterfall,” which describes their appearance. They have little flavor on their own but take well to spicy broths and sauces. The noodles come in both dry and wet forms, and I’m using the latter here. They are generally available in Asian markets in the refrigerated section. You can use vegetable stock and sautéed mushrooms in place of the beef to make it vegetarian.

Shirataki Noodles with Beef

Makes 4 servings

4 cups rich chicken stock

1 cup water

1 tablespoon agave syrup or honey

1 tablespoon finely grated or minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoon soy sauce, or to taste

Two 7-ounce packages fresh shirataki noodles, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus lime wedges for serving

Salt and freshly ground pepper (preferably white)

½ pound trimmed beef tenderloin, sliced very thinly across the grain (see note below)

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, or to taste

½ cup roughly chopped basil, preferably Thai

¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro

¼ cup scallions, sliced on the bias

1 cup mung bean sprouts, rinsed

Chili garlic sauce such as Sriracha

In a large saucepan, combine the stock with the water, agave syrup, ginger and soy sauce and bring to a boil. Add the noodles and simmer over low heat for 2 minutes. Add lime juice and season to your taste with salt and pepper.

Divide the noodles between 4 bowls. Add the beef and ladle the hot broth over. Drizzle with the sesame oil and top with the basil, cilantro, scallions and bean sprouts. Serve with lime wedges and chili garlic sauce for each guest to add as they like.

Note: Wrapping the beef in plastic and freezing for an hour or so makes slicing easier.

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If you’ve ever been to Japan in the summer, you know it can be really hot. Cold soba noodles with a dipping sauce are a common snack or light meal. The basement levels of department stores serve as food courts for shoppers to pick up something to eat on the spot or to take home so they don’t have to heat up their tiny kitchens. You’ll find many versions of this recipe there. Soba is made from wheat and buckwheat, and the sauce is based on dashi, the omnipresent Japanese stock. It’s a broth made from dried kombu seaweed and bonito flakes. All kinds of recipes exist, and you should try making your own because it is among the fastest and easiest stocks you can make. You also can use chicken stock or instant dashi granules, widely available in Asian markets.

Cold Soba Noodles with Dipping Sauce

Makes 2 to 4 servings

Salt

1 cup dashi or chicken stock

¼ cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons mirin

8 ounces soba noodles

For garnish:

Finely grated or minced ginger

Wasabi

Minced scallions

Toasted and slivered nori and sesame seeds

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook noodles until tender but not mushy. Drain and quickly rinse under running cold water until very cold. Drain well.

Combine dashi or stock, soy sauce and mirin. Taste and add a little more soy sauce if the flavor is not strong enough. Serve noodles topped with garnishes with sauce on side for dipping (or spooning over).

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This recipe was inspired by Charles Phan of The Slanted Door in San Francisco. The technique of drying the noodles after soaking yields a noodle with texture, a bit chewy and not soggy.

Dungeness crab with Cellophone Noodles

Makes 4 servings

4 ounces dried cellophane noodles

2 tablespoons peanut or other vegetable oil

3 tablespoons sliced shallots

⅓ cup chicken or shellfish stock

2 teaspoons oyster sauce

1 teaspoon fish sauce

½ teaspoon chili garlic sauce or to taste

½ teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 cup fresh picked Dungeness crab

For garnish:

Toasted sesame seeds

Cilantro sprigs

Green onions, cut on bias

Soak the noodles in hot tap water for 10 minutes. Drain and let sit in a colander for an hour or so or until the noodles feel dry to the touch but are still flexible.

Heat a wok or large nonstick sauté pan over high heat until a drop of water evaporates immediately. Add the oil and heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the shallots and sauté, stirring until softened and just beginning to brown. Add the stock, oyster sauce, fish sauce, chili garlic sauce, sugar and sesame oil and cook, stirring for a minute or two.

Add the noodles and continue stirring for another couple of minutes until the liquid is absorbed. Top with fresh crab and garnish with sesame seeds, cilantro and green onions. Serve immediately.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com

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