I would like to say that it was the Chinese who invented noodles back in the day, but I wont because I don’t know for sure, and plus my boss is half Italian and I really like my job. But certainly, in Asia, noodles started in China and migrated to all the other countries that took the amazing concept, and changed and adapted both the way to make them, and how to serve them. Noodles in China are symbolic of longevity because they are long.
Wheat noodles – mostly made from wheat flour and water, and sometimes salt. There are many kinds, but the two most badass wheat noodles are the hand-pulled laai mein and the hand-cut dai xiao mein. Laai mein is made from a dough which is stretched between two hands, and using the doughs own weight, is twisted, folded and repeated until the whole mass transforms into long thin strands. Dai xiao mein is made from a firm block of dough and shaved with a knife directly into a large pot of boiling water. It’s a technique which takes year of practice since it needs to be done extremely fast so that you don’t over cook the first noodles and undercook the last. I haven’t found any place in Copenhagen that makes these kind of noodles (so tell me if you have…) but whenever I visit New Zealand, I go to Eden Noodles Café in Auckland. This is the definition of a greasy spoon, Sichuan-style with more than 20 different ways to have your hand-cut noodles, including the popular Dan Dan noodles with minced pork and peanuts in a spicy, oily and vinegar-laced sauce. If you’re curious, you should also try the ‘slobbery chicken’, ‘chicken shreds’ and ‘sliced cowhells’.
Egg noodles – made from wheat flour, egg, water and salt – usually machine cut, and can come in many shapes – thin, thick, hollow, flat, round. I like lo mein egg noodles as a stir fry with beef, broccoli, bean sprouts and oyster sauce. Again, I haven’t found a good egg noodle dish in Copenhagen, but it’s impossible when it’s my Mum who makes the best stir fried lo mein.
Rice noodles – can be fresh or dried, and made mostly from rice flour and water, but can have other starches such as tapioca starch. Rice noodles became very popular in South East Asia, becoming key dishes in various countries such as Pad Thai in Thailand, Pho in Vietnam and Khmer noodles in Cambodia. Fresh, thick, rolled rice noodles can be found at my favorite Chinese joint in Copenhagen, Noodle House. But it cannot be guaranteed that you’ll get the fresh homemade noodles, it depends if they had time to do it. But order number 11 – steamed rice rolls with taro and chilli pork spareribs, which comes in a sizzling clay pot.
Bean thread noodles – you can find these in a dried form in your local Asian supermarket. They are a type of thin, transparent noodle made from mung bean starch. A famous, traditional, Sichuan dish comprised of bean thread noodles is called ‘ants climbing trees’. The unusual name is supposedly because it bears resemblance to ants climbing trees, with ground meat cooked in a soy and chilli based sauce mixed between the noodles.
Soba – this is the King of all noodles in Japan, also known as the ‘healthy noodle’. Soba is a thin noodle made from Buckwheat flour and is usually mixed with some proportion of wheat flour also. Real soba masters will usually grind their flour, then mix, roll and cut the noodles by hand. Soba is usually served chilled with a dipping sauce, or in a hot broth. I think the best soba I had was in Japan, at a 540 year old soba restaurant called Owaria in Kyoto.
Udon – a thick wheat flour noodle also served hot in a dashi based broth, or cold with a dipping sauce. To make the noodles, you need to knead the dough with your feet, using all your body weight, since the dough is so stiff. Best I have ever tried in Japan was Yamamoto Menzou in Kyoto – but it wasn’t without a 2 hour wait! Best udon in London, hands down, is at (now closed) Koya – but don’t worry, the udon still exists at Koya Bar, right next door. And you can even go for breakfast, with bacon and eggs udon available from 8am!
Ramen – what most people think about when they think noodles is that nasty and cheap ‘cup noodle’ that you buy at any supermarket in Copenhagen. It might not be the most healthy and organic foodstuff available, but I have to admit, instant noodles is my favorite hangover food, with Mi Goreng (an instant version of the popular Indonesian dish with the same name) and Shin Ramyun (Korean spicy ramen) being my top picks. Instant ramen is a commercial product, invented by Momofuku Ando in Japan in the 1950’s. David Chang’s noodle shops and empire is named after this legendary guy. Ramen noodles are made with wheat flour, salt, and an alkaline solution called kansui, which is a type of mineral water containing sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate. It is this ingredient that gives ramen noodles their signature yellow color, and a springy texture. There are an endless variety of different ways in which ramen is served, with all kinds of different toppings, which is why, for me, ramen is so interesting. But the main ways of serving ramen is in a hot broth based on salt (shio ramen), miso (miso ramen), soy sauce (shoyu ramen) or it can be a silky delicious soup made pork and fat emulsified together over a very long period of time (tonkotsu). There are too many good ramen places to mention in Tokyo – if I had to choose, maybe Konjiki Hototogisu (but there’s even too many to say, and I don’t remember the names of most of the places I went to!) If you can’t make it all the way to Japan, visit Kanada-Ya in London for a great tonkotsu ramen.
Sweet potato noodles – these noodles are similar to the bean thread noodles described above, except made with sweet potato starch. There is a famous Korean dish called japchae which is stir fried sweet potato noodles with vegetables and sesame oil.
Kanom jin – this is a type of fresh rice noodle made with fermented rice starch, usually served cold, with curry and fresh toppings of herbs and vegetables and some pickles but can also be eaten in a soup. My family makes a chicken curry based on coconut cream, with potatoes, and sometimes carrots and eggplants, which we eat kanom jin noodles with, and dip crispy baguettes in (best!). Kanom jin is an intensive and laborious process which includes 3 stages of fermentation over several days, then grinding the rice and collecting starch, drying the starch, cooking to partially gelatinize the starch then pounding the starch into a homogenous dough. And that’s not all! After the dough is formed, it is whipped into a thick, shiny and sticky cream, which is filtered to remove lumps then pressed through something similar to a potato ricer, straight into boiling water. After the noodles are cooked, they are cooled in cold water and wrapped up in little bundles ready to serve. This process can take up to 12 days to complete! Luckily, in Thailand, you can buy them at almost every food market and shop. Best place for kanom jin in Bangkok is at the local market, Khlong Toei. This is a 24 hour market for all your produce, meat and fish needs. It is a noisy, dirty, crazy place which is a must-visit in Bangkok. To the side of the market there is a outdoor food court which have many kanom jin stalls with the different types of curry available in large pots, and tables with large plates of condiments – follow your eyes and nose to get a good plate.
Bahn pho – these are rice noodles which are usually found fresh in Vietnam, but usually found dried, in packets, elsewhere. They can be thin or thick, where thinner is usually used for soups, and thicker ones for stir fry. The famous Vietnamese dish, pho bo, is the ultimate bowl of noodles for me, and when I lived in Canada, pho was the usual post-service meal as there were many 24-hour pho shops. Pho bo is a rice noodle soup, based on a beef broth and typically topped with raw beef in thin slices, beef balls, braised beef, bean sprouts and fresh Thai basil, other herbs and a wedge of lime. Best pho is at Au Petit in Vancouver, which was my typical Sunday morning brunch.
Bahn cuon – these are a type of freshly steamed noodle, made with a batter of rice and tapioca starches. The batter is steamed on a flat, very fine-meshed cloth, in a thin layer, and filled with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms, then rolled up. Usually you eat the rolls with fresh mint, bean sprouts, chilli, fried shallots and Vietnamese ham, dressed with a fish sauce dressing. One of my Aunts who lives in New Zealand, knows that it is one of my favorite foods, and whenever I visit, she will bring to me this totally illegal bahn cuon ‘takeaway’ run by a Vietnamese family, who make it fresh everyday, and sell it out of the back door of their house. It is really really good! So if you ever go to Auckland and want to eat this, contact me, and if you’re lucky, I could hook you up!
By Lisa Lov