It may be too soon to call the popularization of Oriental noodles a craze, but we're getting close.
You'll notice more noodle shops around town than ever before. Ramen houses (featuring Japanese renditions of Chinese noodle soup) appear in neighborhoods wherever Japanese dine, for ramen is to the Japanese what hamburgers are to Americans. Indeed, Americans are enjoying the ready-to-reconstitute dried ramen sold at most American supermarkets.
There are Japanese noodle stands, such as the one at Mifune in Little Tokyo, serving steaming bowls of udon , the fat pasty noodle, and soba, the firm buckwheat noodle, both of which Japanese consider snack food for breakfast, lunch or supper. Made of alimentary paste (usually flour and water), udon can be compared, with a stretch of the imagination, to long, hollow strands of Italian macaroni. Soba is much like whole-wheat spaghettini and can be used similarly.
The Japanese fascination with things Italian in recent years helped create Curry House, a worldwide specialty noodle house chain that features Japanese noodles with toppings no Italian would ever guess possible. Who has ever seen a poached egg sitting on a pile of sea-weeded spaghetti in Genoa? The noodles, manufactured locally as well as imported from Japan, are a close copy of Italian spaghetti. Most Japanese grocery stores carry a variety of noodles in fresh, frozen and dry forms.
Metropolis, a Japanese-Italian restaurant in West Hollywood, serves a perfectly round portion of squid-ink pasta--about the size of a tennis ball--in the center of a deep Japanese bowl. Chaya Brasserie in Los Angeles also specializes in Italian cuisine, but the results cannot escape the restaurant's Oriental roots. Many of its pastas are served as cold salads and have a definitively Japanese appearance.
At Curry Club, a Japanese curry house on Melrose Avenue featuring rice, you'll find a cold Italian pasta salad with a Japanese twist--it's seasoned with soy sauce and miso.
Oriental noodles are being internationalized by American entrepreneurs as well. At Chin Chin, in West Hollywood, and its close clone Chopstix, in Los Angeles, both streamlined dim sum cafes with Anglo merchandising know-how, noodles are prepared by Oriental chefs but often are takeoffs, not strict interpretations, of Chinese noodle dishes. For instance, Crazy Coconut Noodles are tossed with coconut sauce, barbecued meat, chicken or shrimp at Chopstix. A crunchy lemon noodle salad is a concoction of noodles tossed with rice sticks, fried won-ton skins and raw vegetables.
At Chin Chin, an Oriental vermicelli noodle also used in chow mein dishes, is teamed with preserved Chinese radish and a peanut sauce made with chile oil and soy sauce for a dish that can be eaten hot or cold.
Other American cafes in the Los Angeles area, among them the Authentic Cafe, Stepps and Chez Melange, specialize in "crossover" foods--dishes that may be a blend of various cuisines. A menu at any of these restaurants is sure to include several Oriental noodle dishes requiring a paragraph or two of description. Otherwise, who could figure it all out just looking?
At Chez Melange, for instance, manager Robert Bell reports that some crossovers may team Japanese food with Southwestern ideas. An example is the Oriental sesame noodle salad given here.
Roger Hayot, owner of the Authentic Cafe, uses wasabi with Indonesian kecap manis, a sweet soy sauce seasoning considered a staple in the Indonesian saute repertoire, to create the chicken-noodle saute dish given here. The chicken is fried Chinese style with cornstarch coating then combined with shiitake mushrooms, peanuts, chiles and ginger.
Old-fashioned Cantonese chow mein and lo mein also are enjoying a revival. Appreciated for the pasta-perfect effect they have on health, dining satisfaction and budget gratification, these dishes should enjoy a long-lasting comeback.
Rice sticks, a loose term used for Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese noodles made with rice starch as well as to describe Oriental vermicelli noodles, sometimes are added to steaming soup with various toppings. They also can be served cold with peanut sauce or pan-fried and topped with vegetables, meat or fish. All are worth rediscovering for fast and easy meals to prepare on a busy day.
The rice sticks used in Southeast Asian cooking originated in China, where Marco Polo also was said to have been smitten with the fanciful noodle before introducing it to his Venetian patrons.