Nosh Box: Cold Weather Noodling
Japanese ramen soup with chicken, egg, chives, and sprouts.
While not the coldest month, January marks the first full month of winter. Among ways to ward off seasonal chills, one of the best is also one of the oldest, as well—as one of the easiest and least expensive: a cup or bowl of toothsome noodles steaming in a rich, savory broth.
Origin of Noodles—According to food historians, noodles emerged more than 2,000 years ago. However researchers disagreed whether the Chinese, Italians, or others invented this lengthy pasta.
Then totally upsetting the noodle cart—and further stringing out the debate—National Geographic News recently announced, “A 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles unearthed in China is the earliest example ever found of one of the world’s most popular foods. . . . It also suggests an Asian—not Italian—origin for the staple dish.”
Asian Noodles—Because most readers are familiar with domestic and European pastas, we’ll focus elsewhere. Best known among Asian noodles are those from China and Japan. The flours or starches used to make these include wheat flour, rice flour, potato flour, buckwheat flour, cornstarch, as well as soybean, bean, or yam starch.
Chinese—Like many countries, there are plentiful north-south divisions in China. As one example, the north grows wheat, while the south grows rice. But for Chinese noodle-lovers, there’s no conflict. Among the most popular Chinese varieties, cellophane noodles are made from mung-bean starch, egg-noodles are usually wheat based, and there are rice-flour noodles as well.
Japan—Japanese varieties include harusame, made from cornstarch and potato flour; Ramen, wheat-based egg-noodles; and soba, which includes part buckwheat flower.
Other Players—Additional Asian noodles include Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Saimin, while often mistaken for a kind of noodle, is not. It’s actually Hawaiian noodle soup with multicultural roots derived from Japanese ramen, Chinese mein, and Filipino pancit, swimming in hot dashi (Japanese soup stock), then topped with sliced scallions.
Soup Stock—The linchpin of flavor in any soup is the stock—especially so in a noodle soup. When meat or fish is simmered in water with vegetables, herbs, spices, and other seasonings, the strained liquid portion is stock. Browning the contents in the oven before simmering produces a brown stock.
Stock Hack—While meat and poultry stocks can simmer for hours or days, fish stock finishes in less than an hour. And aromatic vegetables simmered too long can take on a “tired,” or even bitter taste. They also disintegrate, which clouds the stock. To be safe, cook each of these types separately, combining them after they’re done, as your taste or recipe dictates.
Local Sources—For top-of-the-line house-made noodles, visit Itani Ramen owned and operated by Hopscotch chef Kyle Itani at 1736 Telegraph. He has brought Japanese ramen culture to Oakland. Chef Itani says, “I set out to mirror the Japanese ramen experience, one where a bowl of ramen is affordable, served quickly, and always soulful and satisfying.”
Other outstanding locals include Shandong at 328 10th St., in Oakland’s Chinatown serving hand-pulled noodles; and Osmanthus, an Asian-fusion eatery at 6048 College in Rockridge.
D.I.Y. —The recipes is simple, and the fixings are at the local market. So a cup or bowl of noodle soup is a slam-dunk for home cooks, no matter where you fall along the culinary learning curve.
Last But Not Least—About 16 million students attend college in the U.S. And most achieve a certain Zen by fueling their adolescent growth spurt with noodles from sealed cellophane packets or Styrofoam cups. Just add boiling water, and the contents of the flavor pouch, to cure hunger pangs, thumb a nose at nutritionists, and save money for the important collegiate stuff—like pizza and a brewski. Whether it’s for nourishment or nostalgia, a 24-pack of Nissin Cup Noodles, in chicken, beef or shrimp flavor, sells at Costco for $7.29, about 30¢ per serving.