Alimentary, My Dear
Noodles Like You've Never Known Them
By Tamia Nelson
August 21, 2012
If you've been following my Alimentary columns for a while, you've likely read a lot about pasta. That's no accident. Pasta figures prominently in both my paddling menus and my at‑home meals. I think I've written something like eight articles about pasta cookery in total, not counting incidental asides in other Alimentary columns. From the familiar — spaghetti and egg noodles — to the (mildly) exotic — couscous and orzo — I'd like to think I've covered the pasta scene pretty comprehensively.
What's left to write about the subject, then? Quite a lot, surprisingly. I was forcefully reminded of this while researching my recent article on gluten‑sensitive‑safe meals. The pastas that form the mainstay of my diet are all derived from wheat. But wheat products — most wheat products, anyway — are off‑limits for gluten‑sensitive individuals. So I started by assuming that pasta and noodles had no place on those folks' menus. Period. And I was wrong.
Why? Because …
There's a Lot More to Pasta Than Wheat
But first, a few words about words. Noodles are made from unleavened dough that's been rolled thin and then cut or formed into any of a multitude of shapes. It's an ancient staple food — a 4,000‑year‑old bowl of noodles was unearthed in China not long ago. Remarkably, these noodles were said to have been "well‑preserved." (How's that for a sell‑by date?) On form, then, pasta is simply a type of noodle. The name comes from the Italian word for "paste," and it reflects the fact that pasta starts out as a pasty dough. Notwithstanding this established categorical hierarchy, however, I tend to reverse the accepted order, using pasta as the umbrella term and reserving "noodle" for products which incorporate egg in the dough. At least I mostly do. Or have done, at any rate. I ought to promise to mend my ways, of course, but I fear it may be too late in the day for that. Entrenched habits die hard. You now know the right and proper order of things, though. So don't let my occasional terminological inexactitude confuse you.
In any case, while most of the noodles on the HyperMart shelves start out as a mixture of wheat and water, there isn't any law against substituting a different grain. You won't have to search long to find noodles made from rice or buckwheat, for instance, and if you're really determined you can add acorns, potato starch, and even kudzu to the list. And while the availability of these alternatives is certainly good news for the gluten‑intolerant, there's no reason why the rest of us shouldn't avail ourselves of this bounty, as well. That being the case, let's take a brief look at the state of the mart, beginning with this roster of Asian staples:
- Rice noodles
- Cellophane noodles
- Bean thread noodles
- Lo mein noodles
- Shanghai noodles
These aren't hard to find. The HyperMart and food co‑op in the little college town near my home each yielded a good crop, and while some of my finds were made from wheat or allied grains, others were not:
As you can see, there are six packets of Asian noodles in the picture, and while I've only shown one atypical pasta — a Barilla spaghetti made with wheat and oats — there are many others. These include linguini made from spelt (a primitive kind of wheat), spaghettis made with corn and artichoke, and whole‑wheat pastas in a range of shapes.
Now let's take a closer look. The rice noodles are all made from rice and water. Surprise! The instant rice noodle soup cooks up as quickly as the more familiar instant ramen, but it contains a lot less fat. The soba noodles are round and very thin — thinner than angel hair pasta, in fact. Though they're not entirely authentic — unlike proper soba they contain wheat as well as buckwheat — they have a pleasingly sweet, nutty flavor. The narrow, flat strands of lo mein noodles, on the other hand, taste quite a lot like Italian pasta, which is also no surprise. They're both made from wheat. And the Shanghai noodles, too, are made from wheat flour, with a form factor falling somewhere between the soba and the lo mein. A cautionary note: With the exception of the two packages of plain rice noodles, all the other Asian noodles contain significant amounts of sodium. I don't find them unpleasantly salty, but if you're on a sodium‑restricted diet, a little salt goes a long way. Read the labels before you buy.
It's time to do some cooking. Most paddlers are old hands at preparing pasta, but Asian noodles often require a different approach. So let's head over to …
The Test Kitchen
To begin with, follow the Universal Rule: Read the Instructions on the Package. Or suffer the consequences. (The abbreviation RIP drives home the importance of this advice.) You may be surprised at what you see. Some Asian noodles don't require long boiling, which means they cook up a lot faster than your usual campfire spaghetti. All the wheat‑ and buckwheat‑based Asian noodles that I tested cooked very quickly indeed: four minutes, tops — though it's a good idea to rinse them in clean, cold water after cooking. And with the exception of the Thai Kitchen packets of instant soup, the rice noodles aren't boiled at all. Instead, they're soaked in freshly boiled water until they're ready to eat, then rinsed in cold water to prevent sticking. That's it.
The photos below show rice thread noodles from the Thai Kitchen Spring Onion soup mix (left panel) — these are typically bundled into tight nests, with several nests in each package — alongside wide rice noodles (right panel). That's wide, by the way, not wild. Wild rice is something else altogether. In fact, it's not even rice.
Since riverside camps don't offer much in the way of culinary facilities, I always test new dishes in my kitchen at home first, to learn if (or how) they'll suffer in making the transition to the roving life. And I'd suggest you do the same with any unfamiliar foods. Asian noodles are no exception.
Of course, noodles are seldom eaten alone. They're a foundation for many meals, but they're not often meals in themselves. And what should you eat with Asian noodles? The simplest answer is the best: whatever you like. The possibilities are endless, and there's no reason why you shouldn't mix and match culinary elements from different traditions. I like lo mein noodles with pesto, for instance, and I know someone who slathers Marmite on soba. (You'll either love it or hate it. There's no middle ground. Trust me.)
And now, here are a few of my favorite things:
Amped‑Up Instant Rice Noodle Soup I use Thai Kitchen Instant Rice Noodle Soup because it's what I can get locally. (That's the Spring Onion variety in the photo above.) Luckily, it tastes good, and it lives up to its "instant" billing. This is Man Cooking at its finest. If you've ever made instant ramen, you can make this, and while the soup is OK on its own, it's better when combined with any leftover vegetables or meat you happen to find in the fridge. Not many camp kitchens boast fridges, of course — I've omitted the statutory current‑bush pun here by public demand — but you'll probably have some dehydrated or freeze‑dried vegetables in your pack. I like peas and corn. Just throw them into the pot along with the required amount of water and boil long enough to reconstitute the veggies. Now add the rice noodles, soup powder, and flavored oil from the Thai Kitchen packet. Stir occasionally while the soup simmers. After no more than three minutes, the noodles should be ready to eat. Then, if you're so moved, add canned chicken or tuna (along with the juices) and dish up. Peanuts can also be pressed into service to boost the protein content and add flavor.
You can see the end result in the photo on the left:
Wide Rice Noodles and Sesame Vegetables That's it in the right‑hand photo above. Soak the noodles as directed on the package — I use a cooking pot for this — while you sauté minced fresh garlic and ginger in a tablespoon or two of sesame oil in a second pot. (Use "hot" sesame oil if you like things spicy.) In less than a minute, you'll smell the garlic and ginger. That's your cue to add dehydrated vegetables and enough water to cover the lot. Now bring to a boil, then throttle the heat back to a simmer and cook till the veggies are soft. Lastly, combine the drained noodles and the sesame veggies, shake on a little soy sauce, and top with sesame seeds and slivered green onions — if you have them. (I didn't have the seeds when I prepared the dish in the picture. Supply shortages aren't confined to the last days of a long trip. They can beset test kitchens, too!)
Satay and Noodles Make satay with the meat of your choice (or use extra‑firm tofu). If you marinated the meat — and you probably did — don't discard it after use. Simmer it in a small pot, instead. Now prepare the noodles. (I prefer soba for its nutty flavor.) Once they're done, ladle out into bowls or onto plates. Serve the satay on the noodles, drizzling some of the cooked marinade over the top.
Cabbage and Noodles My Eastern European grandmother made this her specialty. Cabbage keeps well — it's one of the few vegetables suited to longer paddling trips — but if you opt for dehydrated cabbage, begin your prep by rehydrating it. Melt a generous pat of butter (or a suitable substitute) in a skillet, then add chopped cabbage and a small chopped onion (or use onion flakes, if you prefer). Season the cabbage with salt and a generous amount of black pepper. Now cover the skillet and heat over a moderately low flame until the cabbage is tender. Meanwhile, prepare the noodles. I prefer the wide rice variety, but use whatever you fancy. When the noodles and cabbage are both done, mix them together and serve. To add a bit of crunch, top with crushed garlic croutons or Triscuits.
Simply Noodle Soup Cook up a pot of your favorite brothy soup. When it's done, remove it from the heat and add cellophane noodles. Once the noodles have softened, serve.
Rice Noodles and Eggs Soften wide rice noodles in a large pot of freshly boiled water. When the noodles are almost ready to rinse, scramble eggs in olive oil in a skillet, scraping the cooked egg to the middle of the pan. Now drizzle a little more olive oil into the skillet and add a minced garlic clove. Give the garlic a few seconds to warm, then stir it into the eggs and remove from the heat. Drain the noodles, immediately add the eggs, and mix. Squeeze half a fresh lime over the dish, garnish with a generous portion of grated Parmesan cheese, and serve.
Stir‑Fry and Noodles Stir‑fry your favorite ingredients in a pot or camping wok — choose from among veggies, meat, fish, and tofu — adding a dash of soy sauce or tamari in addition to a little bit of plum sauce (perhaps from individual serving packets). Serve over the noodles of your choice, and garnish with cashews.
What did I tell you? There's a lot more to noodles than meets the eye of the average shopper. They may be 4,000 years old, but they still have much to offer peripatetic 21st‑century cooks.
Pasta and noodle cookery has been a recurring theme in my Alimentary series. And for good reason. Both staples are hardy travelers and great fuels. But I haven't had much to say about the more exotic members of the noodle tribe — exotic in the eyes of many Western paddlers, at any rate—including the countless varieties based on something other than wheat. Until this week's column, that is. Want to push back the boundaries of your backcountry cuisine? It's easy to do. A whole new world of noodles is as close as the nearest HyperMart. And now that you've seen some of my favorite recipes, perhaps you'll have one of your own you want to share. If so, just drop me a line and tell me all about it.