Noodles are an easy-to-use staple food available in a mind-boggling array of shapes, sizes and textures. Noodles lend themselves to a variety of treatments. Slip silky strands of cellophane noodles into steaming bowls of soup; brown hand-cut ribbons of rice noodles to serve as a pillowy bed for all sorts of stir-fries; deep-fry squiggly wheat noodles until golden and crisp.
"You always have noodles on birthdays or any festivities because they symbolize longevity," said chef Jackie Shen of Red Light restaurant in Chicago.
But noodles aren't just for special occasions; the Hong Kong-born Shen said that noodles are equally at home in simpler settings, from breakfast to a quick, late-night snack.
"For me, as an Asian, it's comfort food," said Shen, who likes to start her Sundays by traveling to Argyle Street in Chicago for a bowl of noodles in broth. Hot soup on a cold day is deeply satisfying to her.
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Noodles appear to have been woven into Chinese culture for ages. Archaeologists discovered in 2005 a buried container of noodles 4,000 years old. Yellow, and made of millet, the noodles looked similar to the hand-pulled Chinese wheat noodles still made today.
The discovery of these noodles, which predate the earliest written mention of noodles by 2,000 years, added fuel to the long debate over who invented pasta first: the Chinese or the Italians or someone else.
Bennet Bronson, curator of Asian archaeology and ethnology at Chicago's Field Museum, won't be drawn into the fray. Instead, he noted that various cultures played a part in popularizing noodles around the world.
"Everyone gets a hand in it," he said. "The history of noodles is the history of the old world."
Don't tell that to Bruce Cost, the Chicago-based Chinese-food author and restaurateur.
His attitude is summed up in this passage from his 1988 book, "Asian Ingredients": "Perhaps as kind of a belated thanks, in 1972 at a trade fair in Beijing, the Italians tried to interest the Chinese in a machine that, starting with flour and other basics, produced a spaghetti dish complete with tomato sauce and cheese in about five minutes. It never caught on. What had caught on in Italy about seven centuries earlier was the Asian art of pasta-making."
Cost's position remains unchanged today.
"The Chinese really did invent noodles," he insisted.
While cultures around the world all have carbohydrates as a daily staple, Cost said the Chinese were able to take various starches and make them "into this playful food that's always appealed to eaters."
STIR-FRIED EGG NOODLES WITH SHRIMP, CHILI AND BEAN SPROUTS
- Preparation time: 35 minutes
- Cooking time: 5 minutes
- Yield: 4 servings
Heat wok or skillet over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil to the wok; heat until shimmering slightly. Add shrimp; stir-fry until pink, about 2 minutes. Remove from wok or skillet; set aside. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil; stir-fry the garlic, red onion and ginger 1 minute.
Add the noodles, reserved shrimp, wine, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and sesame oil; stir-fry 30 seconds. Add half of the green onions, half of the chili and the bean sprouts. Stir-fry until the shrimp are just cooked through and noodles are hot, about 30 seconds. Remove ginger; discard. Serve in bowls; top with remaining green onions and chili.
Nutrition information per serving: 625 calories, 26 percent of calories from fat, 18 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 32 mg cholesterol, 94 g carbohydrates, 22 g protein, 700 mg sodium, 6 g fiber
Chef Jackie Shen of Red Light restaurant, in Chicago, who developed this recipe, recommends Chinese egg noodles for this dish, but spaghetti also can be used.
ASIAN BOLOGNESE WITH EGG NOODLES
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 pound ground pork
3 green onions, white and green parts, minced
1 piece (-inch long) ginger root, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
teaspoon sesame oil
1 cup canned tomato puree
1 tablespoon red chili sauce (sriracha)
teaspoon salt, optional
8 ounces Chinese egg noodles or spaghetti, cooked to package directions
1 lime, quartered
Mix the pork, two-thirds of the green onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, wine and sesame oil in a large bowl. Transfer to a heavy 4-quart saucepan or wok; cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until pork is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato puree and chili sauce; cook, stirring often, over medium heat until sauce reduces slightly and thickens, about 30 minutes. Stir in salt to taste if needed.
Divide noodles among 4 bowls; top with sauce. Garnish with remaining green onions and lime wedges. Squeeze lime over sauced noodles just before eating.
Nutrition information per serving: 507 calories, 34% of calories from fat, 19 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 76 mg cholesterol, 53 g carbohydrates, 31 g protein, 1,345 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
___ BRAISED PORK AND SHANGHAI NOODLES
Preparation time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
cup vegetable oil
3 pounds shoulder roast or pork belly, coarsely chopped
teaspoon each: salt, freshly ground pepper
6 carrots, thickly sliced
3 ribs celery, thickly sliced
2 onions, chopped
1 cup red wine
3 cans (15 ounces each) chicken broth
3 whole star anise
2 heads garlic, cloves peeled, crushed
2 bay leaves
1 piece (3 inches long) ginger root, coarsely chopped
1 cup hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
2 stalks gai lan or kale, chopped, blanched
1 package (8 ounces) mushrooms
1 bunch green onions, minced
2 pounds Shanghai noodles, cooked to package directions
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled, optional
8 Thai basil leaves, julienned, optional
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven over high heat. Season the pork with the salt and pepper; cook in batches to brown, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer meat to a large bowl; set aside. Add the carrots, celery and onions to the Dutch oven; cook, stirring, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Remove; set aside. Add the red wine to Dutch oven; cook, stirring up browned bits, 1 minute.
Return the meat and vegetables to the Dutch oven; add the chicken broth, star anise, garlic, bay leaves, ginger root, hoisin sauce, Sichuan peppercorns and sugar. Cook until pork is tender, about 2 hours. Transfer the meat to a large bowl with a slotted spoon. Strain cooking liquid; discard vegetables and spices. Return liquid to Dutch oven; heat to a boil over high heat. Cook until reduced to about 3 cups, about 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat; add the gai lan, mushrooms and green onions. Cook, stirring, until mushrooms soften, about 3 minutes. Transfer to the Dutch oven. Return pork to Dutch oven. Cook, stirring, over low heat until warm, about 5 minutes. Add the noodles; cook, gently stirring, 1 minute. Stir in the crumbled goat cheese. Transfer to a serving platter; garnish with basil.
Nutrition information per serving: 883 calories, 25 percent of calories from fat, 24 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 221 mg cholesterol, 103 g carbohydrates, 59 g protein, 1,182 mg sodium, 7 g fiber