The Other Noodle Tradition

Pasta has such a strong connection to Italy that we (in the Western mould) tend to forget other cultures have similar traditions, not least the Asian Far East. Popular legend states that it was the 13th-century Venetian explorer Marco Polo who brought noodles back from his 24 year sojourn in China, connecting the two traditions. However, this is a spurious story that may have originated with a 1920s or 30s Spaghetti advertisement. That also brings to mind the famous 1957 BBC spoof documentary for April Fools of the Spaghetti harvest from trees in Switzerland, told with absolute believability that had many initially convinced. Both, however, bits of misinformation.

In fact, pasta was known in ancient Greece and Rome, specificially the wide, flat lasagne noodle. But, according to some food historians, it was the Arabs in the 5th century AD who devised strips of dried pasta as convenient foodstuffs for long journeys, bringing it more into a form (around the Mediterranean) that we know today.

The Eastern tradition of noodles is just as ancient, if not older than that of the West. The first written record for noodles (typically made of wheat) is in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). However, archaeological evidence suggests an even older date – back 4000 years. Excavated remains of these earliest noodles were found to have been made of flour ground from millet. Today, the most common noodles in China are made from wheat or rice flour or from mung bean starch.

rice_noodles_feature

Laghman Lamb & Pepper Sauce with Rice Noodles
This is my simplified adaptation of a northern Chinese Uighur sauce from Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid. This sauce would also not be out of place in the Mediterranean – except for the cooking method in a wok and the last minute sprinkling of rice vinegar.

Serves 4

  • 250g lean lamb
  • 2 Tablespoon vegetable or peanut oil
  • 2 shallots
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 400g tin of plum tomatoes
  • black rice vinegar (see note below)
  • 200g rice noodles – such as those used for Pad Thai

Cut the lamb into small pieces as you would do for a stir fry. Chop the shallots finely and mince the garlic. Set both the meat and the shallots/garlic aside. Remove the core from the peppers and cut into strips.

laghman_sauce_prep

Heat the oil on high in a wok. At the same time set some well-salted water on to boil in a large pasta pot.

Fry the shallots and garlic, stirring for about a minute. Add the lamb and cook until browned – approximately 5 minutes. Toss in the pepper strips, stir and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the plum tomatoes and their juices, breaking up the tomatoes as you stir. Check for seasoning and add salt if required. Turn the heat down, cover the wok and let the sauce cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, soak or cook the noodles according to the instructions on the packet.

laghman_sauce

Drain the noodles. Uncover the wok, put the noodles directly into the sauce, gently stir to coat. But note that, because of the smooth surface of the rice noodles, the sauce does not cling in the same way as noodles made with wheat flour. Serve immediately in bowls and sprinkle with black rice vinegar.

Note:
Black rice vinegar, a complex aged vinegar, is difficult to find in many supermarkets or is considered an expensive indulgence for a rarely used condiment. However, a number of helpful substitutes have been posted on the internet that can be made with more readily available ingredients you may already have in your kitchen: 1 part rice vinegar (white will do, but preferably brown) and 1 part balsamic vinegar (of a decent vintage, but not too aged or it is too sweet).

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Always Have a Plan B

I had originally intended to post about homemade rice noodles to go with the Laghman sauce from Beyond the Great Wall. Actually, I did make the noodles – fresh rice noodles from the southern province of Guizhou made with rice flour, described as hand rolled in the book. Needless to say (since they do not appear here), they were an abysmal failure. The dough was easy enough to work with, but they did have a tendency to breakup when cooked and bits stuck together. What I ended up with was something like very badly made leaden, irregular-shaped, small rice flour dumplings swimming in rice glue. Not pretty, and certainly not edible. To be fair, it is my only failure cooking from this book. Though, this was perhaps not the fault of the instructions. I should have heeded the telltale warning attached to the recipe indicating that water was an enemy of these noodles at a crucial point in their preparation. I may try again, learning from these mistakes. On the other hand, the homemade wheat noodles described in the same chapter were perfect the first time I made them. This meal was saved (and was delicious, by the way) by using store-bought rice noodles. Definitely a safer option!

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12 comments

  1. This dish looks delicious KW and some fascinating noodly tidbits here! That spaghetti hoax always cracks me up! I am impressed you tried making rice noodles, I have watched TV chefs do it and they seem quite temperamental. One of my ‘things to try one day in the future when I am feeling brave’. Ha!

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    • The noodles were temperamental – as was I after cooking them. Picture red face, a deep scowl, and steam coming out of my ears. Well, not quite that cartoon-like, but it felt like it. I guess the moral of this story is that things don’t always go as planned, you need to think on your feet, and then pick yourself up and try again. Have I missed any clichés here?

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  2. Asian noodles are ubiquitous in Oz, from take-way noodle chain stores to high end hand made, probably now as common as Italian pasta. I admire your attempt at rice noodles. I once tried gluten free dim sum wrappers which were like eating rubber. I keep promising myself another attempt, but sometimes the commercial product is the right choice.

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    • Asian noodles are readily available here, too. In fact, I have a really good Thai supermarket walking distance away. I always have a packet or two of rice noodles (and other Asian wheat based noodles) in the pantry. And, I’m so glad that I did as it really saved the meal!

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    • Thanks! I guess we all need to learn lessons in the kitchen even if we’ve been cooking for some time now. Since I can’t see myself ever stop experimenting, it is inevitable that there will be a few failures now and then. I suppose that is what I was really trying to say in this post. No one is perfect all the time.

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  3. John Dickie, in ‘Delizia’ has an excellent and long discussion about the historical roots and routes of Pasta.
    I think Black vinegar is worth buying- it is a wonderful ingredient and not expensive for your many OZ readers.

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    • It is wonderful that you have access to such great Asian food products. I looked all over our Asian stores here and could only come up with brown rice vinegar. Really must look at Delizia which is sitting on my shelf – thanks for the reminder! Wrote this post “off the cuff” as was feeling a bit disgusted with myself for the noodle failure. But, thought it worth sending a message that not everything works out as it should and, yes, disasters do happen. The important thing is to keep trying.

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