Use your noodle

Make fresh Asian noodles at home

November 18, 2008

Is there any more delicious way to entangle yourself than to get lost in the world of Asian noodles? They’re inexpensive, infinitely customizable, and quick-cooking. It’s easy to slurp through countless bowls without a rerun. And among the most seductive are the fresh noodles, which go into dishes like the Thai classic pad see ew and the Japanese favorite sukiyaki, as well as udon in all its forms.

The only trick is buying the right noodles and knowing how best to cook them. I spent a happy morning at Uwajimaya, Seattle’s oldest and best Asian supermarket. Not only did the store offer dozens of different packages of fresh noodles, but the noodles were shelved in two different parts of the store depending on their ingredients.

It took a fair amount of shopping and cooking to figure out a noodle taxonomy. I enlisted the help of cookbook author Corinne Trang, whose latest cookbook, Noodles Every Day: Delicious Asian Recipes From Ramen to Rice Sticks, will be published in April.

yaki udon noodles
A plateful of homemade yaki udon.

Here’s the good news about Asian noodles: anything goes. “Selecting a specific noodle for a specific dish is not that strict in Asian food cultures,” says Trang. “Classifying Asian noodles is not like classifying Italian pasta.”

That said, Trang does offer two general rules of noodle use:

  1. Use thin noodles in broth because they tend to fall apart when stir-fried.
  2. Use thick noodles with heartier sauces and ingredients.

“You would not generally combine braised oxtail with a thin vermicelli-type noodle,” Trang says.

Quickie Asian noodle taxonomy

  • Udon are the easiest and most fun of all Asian noodles to make at home, but commercial udon are also good. Homemade udon are similar in hearty chew to the hand-shaved noodles you may have had at Chinese restaurants. Fresh Shanghai noodles are also in the big fat noodle category.
  • Fresh rice sheets are relatively perishable and are generally sold on Styrofoam trays in the form of large folded sheets that you can cut into noodles yourself. They’re best for making stir-fried dishes like the Thai pad see ew, which is notable for combining sweetened soy sauce (hurrah!) with thick slippery noodles (yay!).
  • Shirataki is Japanese for “white waterfall.” The pretty name does not hint at the fact that these noodles are made from the root of a plant whose Latin name means “misshapen penis” and which is a close relative of the stinking corpseflower. But they’re good, really! These noodles are usually sold in a plastic bag or chub and are best in broth. They’re the classic noodle for the Japanese hot-pot dish called sukiyaki. Trang suggests trying them in a light kombu-soy-mirin broth with chrysanthemum leaves, shiitakes, and shrimp.
  • Thin wheat noodles may be spaghetti or fettuccine shape. They may contain egg or not. (They may also look like they contain egg but actually contain FD&C Yellow No. 5. Check the ingredients.) Egg doesn’t make a big difference. These are general-purpose noodles, good for stir-fries, fried noodle cakes, and soups. This is the most diverse category of noodle, made domestically and imported under many names from various countries, but in practice they are totally interchangeable. One brand I like is Wang Asian-Style Vermicelli, from Korea.
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Udon and sukiyaki at home

After a couple of weeks figuratively immersed in a bowl of noodles, I’m still not tired of them, although I was a little winded after my daughter Iris and I spent the afternoon stomping udon.

Homemade udon, you see, are made from an extremely stiff dough. If you try to knead the dough in a food processor or stand mixer, sparks will fly. If you try to knead it by hand, you will need physical therapy. So drop a heavy weight on the dough: yourself. Put the udon dough in a zip-lock bag, flatten it out with your feet, repeat. (Check out Lara Ferroni’s photo how-to if you get confused.) Downstairs neighbors unhappy about the stomping? Offer them fresh homemade noodles.

Our homemade udon was a hit: intensely chewy, muscular noodles so good, you could eat them with nothing more than a bit of sesame oil. Triumphant, I moved on to homemade sukiyaki, something I’d never attempted before. The reason shirataki noodles are good for sukiyaki is because it’s impossible to overcook them: you can let them cook in the hot soup for an hour and they’ll retain their snappy texture. And wow, what a soup: sweet soy-dashi broth, noodles, cabbage, onions, and baby turnips, giving off fragrant puffs of steam in an electric frying pan at the table. If you can think of a better winter soup than this, I want to hear about it.

What about the beef, a requisite ingredient in sukiyaki? We cooked it hot-pot style at the table. Iris, who is age 4 and has not mastered chopsticks, loved swishing a piece of raw beef in the broth with her fork. She declined to join me in dipping the cooked beef in beaten raw egg, which is a sukiyaki tradition. I thought the egg touch was great; if you’re looking for new ways to use those ultra-fresh farmers’ market eggs, here you go.

Finally, there are two rules of etiquette associated with Asian noodles. First, as you probably already know, slurping noodles — especially Japanese noodles in broth — is encouraged. Second, when serving shirataki, do not use the terms “stinking corpseflower” or “misshapen penis” at the dinner table.

Okay, I admit it, I totally broke the second rule.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 6 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Nov 20, 2008 at 12:26 AM PST

You can stir-fry rice vermicelli - they are quite strong. Just presoak the dried noodles in hot water for a few minutes. They’re lovely with dark soy sauce, spring onions, chopped red chillies, mung bean sprouts, chives, shrimp and bits of pork fat. Add a bit of chicken broth at the end if you like your noodles saucy.

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Nov 20, 2008 at 6:58 AM PST

I was talking about the fresh noodles. Dried starch noodles are very hardy, yes. Sounds like a great recipe.

3. by Hank Sawtelle on Dec 10, 2008 at 10:46 PM PST

Glad I stumbled upon these noodle recipes; they look great! I think the name “amorphophallus” is actually Greek, not Latin.

4. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 11, 2008 at 7:20 AM PST

Hank, you are absolutely right. “Latin name” can refer to any scientific name, whatever its derivation, but in this case it’s inapt and I should have just said “scientific name.” Enjoy the noodles!

5. by Hank Sawtelle on Dec 11, 2008 at 8:46 AM PST

Wow, I’ve learned more about konjac, and now binomial nomenclature. I always learn a ton from reading your stuff!

6. by KAREN HYAMS on Dec 26, 2011 at 2:32 PM PST

If you have a smartphone, get the “asian market shopper” app. It’s inexpensive and really helpful, and will give you tips on what brands are best and why. I also used it once to just cruise Uwajimaya, which was super fun. I’ve become much more comfortable with Asian markets over the years, but I still appreciate all of the support I can get while I am in one.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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