Oodles of Noodles
Fresh and handmade, the Asian staple evokes home.
When my sister and I did something deserving—earned high marks on a report card or got through an embarrassing occasion, like the Chinese school recitals where we were forced to dance with chopsticks for some inexplicable reason—my mom made us rice noodles in chicken broth, or chicken pho. It was an all-day affair. We drove from our manicured Orange County suburb to Little Saigon, a half-dozen blocks of storefronts selling fish sauce, shrimp paste, banana-leaf–wrapped dumplings and other comestibles the expatriate Vietnamese community needed to replicate their homeland.
My mom bought noodles and herbs from a large market, then went next door to a small shop to select a live chicken from the cages behind the counter. My sister and I stayed in the car, too squeamish to enter, mentally blocking out the process that turned the godawful squawks into the featherless, cleaned and bagged hen she brought back. At home, she started making the broth while we deleafed and washed the mounds of herbs for the first course: chicken salad. Wielding a cleaver like a vengeful kitchen deity, she dismantled the poached bird into legs, wings, feet and dark meat for the salad, reserving the tender strips of white meat for the pho. By the time she’d made the ginger-garlic dipping sauce, my stomach was growling angrily.
As we ate, my mom hovered over the stove, monitoring the broth and putting a pot of water on for the noodles. She swirled clumps of presoaked rice noodles into the boiling water, and seconds later, deposited the drained piles in bowls. My sister and I heaped on pieces of chicken, fresh basil and sliced onions before my mom poured the hot broth—suffused with star anise, peppercorns, shallots and ginger—over them. Chopsticks and soup spoons in either hand, we whirled through the bowls like dervishes, mesmerized by the solemn, ecstatic task of ushering those noodles into our eager bellies. We never got around to the third course, the chicken rice, or com ga.
Although my mom’s pho was no Prozac, I’ve tried to recreate its analgesic effects any time I’ve felt particularly aggrieved or homesick. Which means I made a lot of pho in grad school. But, ironically, while my mom never rolled and cut her own noodles (“Too much trouble,” she’d say), for many chefs, they evoke a hominess and care that customers especially appreciate. It’s easy to find handmade pasta in Boston—casual and fine-dining establishments alike turn out egg doughs for tagliatelle, pappardelle, ravioli, etc. (Erbaluce and Sportello make some of my favorites.) Specialty markets, like Monica’s Salumeria in the North End and Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Davis Square, offer a wide selection daily. And home cooks with a hand-crank pasta maker (I scored mine at Goodwill years ago) can try it in their kitchens, provided there’s enough counter space.
Asian noodles are a different story in Boston. Ramen—not the Styrofoam-cup variety that sustains college students—is hard to come by fresh. Chef Yukihiro Kawaguchi of O Ya, whose parents owned a ramen shop in Japan, claims that many restaurants in Tokyo, including his family’s, prefer to outsource their production to factories specializing in noodles. One reason fresh ramen isn’t more commonplace? It requires alkaline salts (a combination of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate, sold in some Asian markets as kansui) to impart its characteristic chewiness and yellow coloring. Alkaline substances mixed with oils or fat, however, yields soap. So mishandling them or messing up the proportions can produce a slimy, soapy-tasting noodle. Even Momofuku chef/owner David Chang prefaces his recipe for home-made ramen in his eponymous cookbook with a strong suggestion not to bother. “But, and this is a big but,” he warns, “I really don’t think you need to track down alkaline salts or kansui and make these noodles. Finding the ingredients is a pain in the ass.” If you still want to try but can’t find kansui, you can make your own alkaline salt by putting baking soda in a 250-degree oven for an hour. To satisfy a craving without resorting to instant noodles, Ken’s Ramen in the Allston Super 88 Market food court, Men Tei in the Back Bay, Sapporo Ramen in the Porter Square Japanese mall and the Wagamama franchises all produce decent bowls for around $10.
And although udon, soba, chow and lo meins, and other Asian noodles are arguably easier to make, many restaurants—including Chinatown fixtures and Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger noodle bar—prefer to buy them from local manufacturers like Ho Toy Noodle Inc. on Essex Street and Sun Hing Noodle Co. on Lincoln Street. (You can find Ho Toy’s noodles in Sun Sun supermarket, around the corner from the factory. Sun Hing’s rice noodle sheets are available directly from their storefront; just ignore the signage declaring it’s wholesale only.) Winsor Dim Sum Café is an exception; the small eatery makes steamed rice noodles, which you order off a checklist, and they’re remarkable air-light wrappers for the sweet soy and shrimp.
A standout noodle-maker is East by Northeast’s chef/owner Phillip Tang, who learned the craft firsthand in his parents’ Chinese restaurant. Before opening his Cambridge eatery, he experimented by serving different flour combinations to his friends and family. “I think there’s something very homey about it,” Tang says of the process of handmaking fresh noodles. “It involves a lot of love. It’s not done for convenience—a lot of labor goes into it. For Asian people, it’s comfort food. But it’s comfort food for other people, too.” His short-rice-noodle recipe (see sidebar) calls for dough cut into gnocchi-like pillows, which are boiled, then fried for a crisp and chewy bite. Like fresh pasta, handmaking the dough allows Tang to create shapes and textures not available with manufactured varieties. The rotating specials might include lamb meatballs, green beans and tomato-ginger chutney over egg noodles, or chili-garlic cold noodles with eggplant and napa cabbage. Heartier, meatier sauces work especially well with his noodles, which he serves on the firmer side.
Tang tends to eyeball his measurements when making dough, pouring with the assured confidence of someone who can execute damage-control techniques on the fly. While the chef side of him strives for perfection, he fights against the fussy fine-dining urge. “There’s a certain backlash against fine dining,” Tang says, explaining why he gave up on his initial idea of marking each short-rice noodle with a fork, gnocchi-style. “We try to strive for homey, Chinese comfort food, but elevated.”
In the precision category of cooking, O Ya’s Kawaguchi gets out a scale when measuring the flours for his soba (I converted his recipe for home use; see sidebar). He learned to make the buckwheat noodle when a former employer imported a Japanese soba master to teach his staff. In Japan, it’s not uncommon for noodle-makers to train for decades in their specialized craft, focusing their efforts on only one kind of noodle (soba, udon, ramen), but Kawaguchi doesn’t claim that kind of knowledge. “I don’t have any traditional equipment,” he says, pointing to the hand-crank pasta machine he uses to churn out small-batches. Because buckwheat flour isn’t derived from grain, he adds all-purpose flour to make it easier to handle. “Soba is easy to break,” Kawaguchi says. “It’s really hard to make it long. That’s the key.” His adaptable, simple style fits with O Ya’s modern, experimental dishes; whenever he makes soba, he also makes a batch of squid-ink noodles as well.
For unconventionality, it’s hard to top Ginger Park’s Patricia Yeo, whose kimchi udon requires kneading—by feet. Instead of water, Yeo adds strained kimchi liquid (the pickling juice the Korean cabbage comes in) and uses a stand mixer to incorporate it into the flour. Then the tough, dense dough is wrapped in clean plastic bags and deposited on the floor, where it’s stomped until malleable. Sous chef Kevin Burleson uses his 200-pound frame and size-12 (shoeless) feet to knead and flatten the solid brick. It takes him a good 15 minutes to achieve the desired elasticity, so he estimates at least double that for the home cook. Yeo realizes the process might conjure some unsavory associations in the minds of diners, and possibly health inspectors (which is why she hasn’t discussed it before this article), but nevertheless stands by the quality of the outcome. As she should. The kimchi udon, served with whatever fresh seafood is available, is distinctive and delicious, its flavor punched up with sautéed kimchi.
The short-rice noodles, soba and udon reflect easy, medium and difficult recipes to try. Make them yourself when dry, store-bought varieties won’t do. Or mom’s isn’t available.
6 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
4 teaspoons shallots
4 teaspoons garlic
1 pound mussels and clams, cleaned
½ pound squid, cleaned and cut into bite-sized pieces
4 tablespoons sake or white wine
1 recipe kimchi udon noodles (below), boiled for 25 seconds and drained
2 cups kimchi
2 tablespoons scallions
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. 2. Add shallots and garlic. 3. When fragrant, add shellfish, squid and sake. 4. Cover, then turn heat to high for a couple of minutes. 5. Add noodles, kimchi, scallions, and salt and pepper. 6. Toss in hot wok until noodles are coated and everything’s mixed.
Kimchi Udon Noodles
1 cup kimchi liquid, strained (mix 3 ounces of Momoya Brand kimchi base with enough water to make a cup)
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1. Mix flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer affixed with a paddle attachment. 2. At speed 2, pour in liquid a little at a time until dough comes together when squeezed. 3. Place dough in a clean, large plastic bag and wrap tightly. 4. With your shoes off, knead the hard dough with your feet, using heels for added weight. 5. After about 10 minutes, remove the pressed dough and fold edges inward, overlapping them. 6. Return the dough to bag and knead for another 10 minutes. 7. Repeat the procedure again for a total of 30 minutes of kneading. 8. Remove the dough and let rest covered in plastic for 45 minutes. 9. Lightly flour the dough and work surface, and roll it out with a pin until it’s thin enough to feed through the thickest setting on a pasta machine. 10. Roll through twice on thickest setting, then finish on one setting smaller. 11. Fold the dough, now about ¼-inch thick, over and cut by hand into ¾-inch wide lengths. 12. Place on floured baking sheets and cover with plastic wrap until ready for use.
4 tablespoons canola oil
1 recipe short-rice noodles
½ cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 onion thinly sliced
½ cup shredded carrot
1 cup bok choy, roughly chopped
¼ cup sweet-bean paste
1. In a sauté pan, heat oil until lightly smoking. 2. Carefully add rice noodles and cook until bottoms become lightly browned. 3. Add the shiitakes and onion to pan and sauté for 3–4 minutes until onion softens. 4. Add carrot and bok choy, and sauté until bok choy is tender. 5. Turn off the heat and add the bean paste. 6. Toss until everything's evenly coated.
2 cups rice flour, plus a few tablespoons to dust the work surface
¼ cup glutinous rice flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups boiling water
3 tablespoons canola oil
1. Combine rice flours and salt in a mixing bowl. 2. Add boiling water and mix carefully with fork or chopsticks until water is absorbed and the dough sticks together. 3. Add canola oil and work into the dough. 4. Allow the rice dough to rest for at least an hour covered in plastic wrap. 5. Lightly dust your work surface with rice flour. 6. Working with small amounts of the dough, roll into ½-inch thick logs, then cut into ½-inch lengths, roughly the size of gnocchi. 7. In a pot of boiling water, boil the noodles for 10–15 minutes or until cooked through. 8. These noodles can be rinsed and cooled to be eaten later or used immediately.
1 cup soba flour (¼ all-purpose flour, ¾ buckwheat flour)
½ cup cold water
1. Sift flour into a bowl. 2. While mixing by hand, add a little water at a time until dough just comes together. 3. Knead by folding edges into center and flattening down with base of your palms. 4. Shape into a patty about the size of a hamburger, then cover with plastic wrap and let rest for a few minutes. 5. Dust flour over dough and work surface. 6. Flatten the dough into a disc and, with a rolling pin, roll into a rectangular shape. 7. When dough is about 1-inch thick, cut vertically into fifths. 8. Feed each piece through the smallest setting of the pasta-maker and place delicately on paper towels, taking care not to ball them up. 9. Cover with another layer of paper towels and plastic wrap. 10. To serve, boil for no more than a minute. 11. Chef Yukihiro Kawaguchi recommends serving traditionally with soy, dashi, mirin, fish stock and sugar.
**To make squid-ink soba, mix 1 teaspoon of squid ink (sold in jars) with the cold water and proceed with recipe.