Americans Love… | SF Chronicle Article

Americans love all kinds of Asian noodles

Americans getting tangled up by the bowl full

By Tara Duggan | SF Chronicle

September 1, 2013

Craig Lee, Special To The ChronicleCold noodles as seen in San Francisco, California, on August 21, 2013.

Earlier this summer, I visited the wheat farm in eastern Oregon that’s been in my grandfather’s family since the late 1800s. As we drove out to the family’s acreage outside Pendleton in 100-degree heat, the moonscape-like fields were a monotone of beige tufts. A week later, the wheat would be harvested, milled and put onto a barge on the Columbia River to head to the Pacific.

What’s different in the 21st century is that my relatives’ wheat goes straight to Asia, most likely into noodles. Meanwhile, back here in the United States, we are slurping up Asian noodles whenever we can.

We love them dunked in broth for soups, and thrown into hot woks to tangle with charred vegetables and meats. And as we approach what accounts for real summer in much of the Bay Area, we love them cold.

You see examples of cold noodles in all kinds of Asian cuisines, not all of them made of wheat.

In Korea, diners enjoy naeng myun, buckwheat noodles topped with thin strips of meat, vegetables and a slurpable broth dotted with chunks of ice to keep it extra cold. Diving in with your chopsticks brings to mind ships traversing the icy waters of the Arctic Circle.

A dip in the sauce

Many of us order Japanese buckwheat noodles in restaurants, where they are served cold with a dashi-based dipping sauce. Zaru soba is an easy dish to make at home, especially when you follow cooking teacher Sonoko Sakai’s recipe, first brewing a dashi broth and then seasoning it with mirin and soy.

When you are ready to serve, pour the sauce into individual bowls so each person can season to taste with grated daikon, wasabi, sesame seeds or shichimi pepper. Boil the noodles, drain them, ice them down and then drain again – Sakai says to do this at the last minute lest the noodles go sticky and limp. Distribute the noodles to plates so that each guest can dip a chopstick full of noodles into the savory broth.

In Southeast Asia, most noodles are made of rice flour and range in width from thin vermicelli for cold Vietnamese noodle bowls, to linguine-like noodles for pho, to flatter versions that are delicious in stir-fries.

Bun noodle bowls

Bun Mee, a Vietnamese sandwich shop in Pacific Heights, offers a small selection of bun noodle bowls. Tossed with shredded lettuce, cucumbers, pickled vegetables and herbs, the cool rice vermicelli become a salad base for hot grilled shrimp. It’s served with nuoc cham, the Vietnamese dipping sauce composed of fish sauce, vinegar, lime juice and sugar, to douse it all in.

To make the dish at home, cook and chill the noodles in advance, make the pickled vegetables and nuoc cham ahead, then grill the shrimp to order.

Cold dan dan

San Francisco’s M.Y. China is known for its hand-pulled wheat noodles, which cooks twirl and stretch in front of rapt diners at the Westfield Centre restaurant. But its cold dan dan, made with thin dried wheat noodles tossed in chile-garlic sauce and topped with ground seasoned pork and shredded vegetables, are just as memorable.

Unlike the hand-pulled noodles, it’s a dish that’s easy to replicate at home, at least after a trip to an Asian market for a few key ingredients. And, as I sit down to a bowl of dan dan, I can’t help but wonder if some of the wheat in my noodles might have originated on a little farm in Oregon.

Cold Soba Noodles With Dipping Sauce

Serves 4

This version of zaru soba comes from cooking teacher Sonoko Sakai of Common Grains, who advises to cook the noodles at the last minute so they don’t turn limp. The homemade dashi broth that goes into the dipping sauce is easy to make but requires a trip to an Asian market for ingredients like kombu and bonito flakes. Add the optional seasonings to taste.

  • Dashi Broth
  • 1 piece dashi kombu (6 to 8 inches long)
  • 1 quart water
  • 2 cups dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)
  • Dipping Sauce
  • 1/4 cup light color soy sauce (Usukuchi-shoyu) or regular soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup mirin (sweet sake)
  • 1 cup bonito flakes
  • Garnishes and noodles
  • 8 ounces daikon radish, grated wasabi or wasabi paste
  • 4 green onions, sliced thinly
  • – Optional garnishes: Roasted sesame seeds, grated ginger, chopped seedless umeboshi (salted plum), shichimi pepper (chile pepper seasoning mix)
  • 4 bunches dried soba noodles (100 grams per person)

For the dashi broth: Using scissors, make several crosswise cuts in the surface of the kombu to help extract the flavor.

Place the kombu and water in a medium saucepan and let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Turn heat to medium and cook until the water almost boils. Using tongs, remove the kombu just before water boils to avoid a fishy odor.

Turn the heat to low, add bonito flakes and let simmer for a couple of minutes. Do not stir because it will cloud the dashi, which should have a light golden color. Strain through a very fine-mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth and discard the solids. Makes 3 1/2 cups of broth, which will last in the refrigerator for 5 days.

For the dipping sauce: Place 2 cups dashi broth, the soy sauce and mirin in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn off heat. Add the bonito flakes and let the flakes sink to the bottom. Strain the broth and discard the bonito flakes. Let the broth cool to room temperature. Store in the refrigerator 3-4 days.

For the garnishes and noodles: Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the noodles.

Peel and grate the daikon, then pour out most of the juice so that the radish is juicy but not runny. Put it in a small bowl along with a bowl of green onions and place any other garnishes in bowls. Pour the dipping sauce into individual serving bowls.

Once you have set the table and set out the garnishes, prepare a large ice water bath. Cook the noodles in the boiling water for about 5 minutes, or according to manufacturer’s directions, until al dente. Drain and rinse the noodles under cold running water. Transfer to the ice water and let chill 1-2 minutes. Drain the noodles well and serve on a flat bamboo mat or plate.

To serve: Let everyone help themselves to the soba noodles. First, put some grated radish (about 1 teaspoon) or wasabi, the green onions and any desired garnishes into the dipping sauce. Pick up about 1-2 mouthfuls of noodles with a pair of chopsticks, dunk them into the sauce and eat.