How many millennia would it take for our favourite cousin the chimpanzee to invent noodles? What first gave someone the idea? Obviously a product of an economic system with time on its hands, division of labour, and a history of dough or starch making. Dough balls or their starchy equivalents, made from pounded cereal or roots, are found across the basic foodstuffs of the world, baked, boiled or fried. Whoever thought of flattening them out and cutting them to ribbons, or extruding them through some primitive colander to create long pliable worms which when dried would keep for ages?
The Chinese naturally make first claim. They would and why not? Earliest finds of noodles are reputed to be 4000 years old. It has been tradition to suggest that Marco Polo brought the idea back to Italy from Cathay but it’s more likely that the Italians already had pasta by that date. Either way, noodles are a simple, flexible, economical and convenient form of carbohydrate that is eaten daily in many forms by hundreds of millions of people.
Our word ‘noodle’ is apparently German, the Chinese call it ‘mein’ (wheat noodle) or ‘fun’ (rice noodle). The most ubiquitous form of noodle is probably ramen, the dried wheat noodle bought in packets for pennies with its own instant soup mix as a quick lunch snack. Invented in Japan after the war it is common worldwide and gives our own pot noodle a much more interesting provenance than it deserves. Packaged ramen is not necessarily healthy; the noodles contain saturated fats, salt and lye water, (a form of caustic soda used in food processing) and the soup base often includes monosodium glutamate.
Noodles are eaten in a variety of forms, as soup, in sauce, or fried, and usually in combination with meat, fish and vegetable. Historically wheat or millet noodles, dumplings and buns were a staple food north of the ‘rice-line’ which divides China climatically along the Yangtse; rice and rice noodle displaced them in the hotter, wetter south.
Chow Mein with Duck and Chinese mushroom
Basically chow mein is a mixed fried noodle dish, similar to fried rice. There is a ‘Hong Kong’ version where the noodles are fried until they are crispy on one side, and a ‘soft’ noodle version where they are stir fried or braised. It can be made with combinations of chicken, duck, prawn, squid, pork, char siu (red-coated barbecued pork), mushroom, onion, bean sprout; ‘mixed meat’ or ‘special chow mein’ invariably includes a selection of them. Unlike fried rice all ingredients are shredded to matchstick or baton shapes.
Duck and Chinese mushroom are both strong tasting, and this dish is rich and goes well against a lighter chicken or fish dish. Chinese dried mushroom is now widely available and is also found in its natural form as shiitake or Japanese mushroom.
Prepare the mushrooms by trimming their woody stems and soaking them in hot water for at least an hour. When they have rehydrated, squeeze excess water out, and slice thinly. Keep the water they have soaked in.
Prepare a duck breast by slicing thinly, and then cutting each slice into three slivers, and marinade in a tablespoon of dark soy sauce and a tablespoon of rice wine or light sherry, plus a half teaspoon of five spice powder. Put aside.
Rinse and drain two handfuls of bean sprouts. Slice an onion lengthways into long slivers.
Prepare a coating sauce from two tablespoons of light soy, a tablespoon of rice wine or light sherry, a teaspoon of sesame oil, a couple of tablespoons of mushroom water, and a pinch of salt, pepper and five-spice powder.
Finely chop a thumb sized piece of ginger and a garlic clove.
How you proceed further will depend on the type of noodle you use. These can be pre-cooked (straight to wok) in which case they need little cooking; dried in which case they need soaking and draining; or fresh which can be boiled for 2-3 minutes and again well-drained. Thin round plain or egg noodles are well suited, flat noodles are often found in soup noodle dishes (Tang Mein), and udon noodles (thick white Japanese noodles) can also be used.
As with all stir-fried combination dishes the cooking takes a lot less time than the preparation.
Heat a wok with a tablespoon of peanut or other light oil. When smoking, add duck and mushroom together with the ginger and garlic mix. Keep stirring for 1-2 minutes and remove when cooked through.
Add another tablespoon of oil, and reheat the wok until it is smoking. Add the onion and keep stirring until it changes colour. Add the drained bean sprouts and a teaspoon of sesame oil. Keep stirring until they begin to break down and have folded into the onions. Keep the wok hot. At this point add the meat and mushroom and stir in.
Follow with the prepared and drained noodles, folding in and keeping the contents moving. Add the sauce and stir well until all contents are coated and hot and ready to serve.
Total cooking time is probably no more than six minutes. Chinese mushrooms offer a unique flavour and the whole dish will be rich, the noodles should be well-coated with the sauce but not swimming in it.
Rice Noodles and Singapore Vermicelli
The first time I cooked rice noodles I produced something resembling wallpaper paste, this is not surprising as they are high starch cousins. I know a number of people who rate Singapore Vermicelli above fried rice or chow mein and it is worth trying. It is a stir fried dish but the fine rice noodles (vermicelli) are a bit less robust, can stick together, and benefit from more tossing than stirring.
Singapore Vermicelli apparently has no connection to Singapore; they are probably a nineteenth century adaptation of a local dish with a nod in the direction of the Indies by the addition of a tablespoon of mild curry powder and red chilli. The dish we are familiar with in the UK is generally much drier than chow mein with no added sauce, other than that the cooking process is similar.
The noodles which are prepared by soaking in warm water for fifteen minutes then drained, cooled, and dried are added last to sliced and stir-fried onion, carrot, capsicum, chilli, pork, chicken, prawn and egg, and well stirred, tossed and teased to get a good distribution of ingredients and yellow curry coating and colouring throughout the noodle. Although it looks like a bulky dish it is remarkably light.