I will never forget the flavor of Mr. Chang's red-cooked beef noodles. There were hundreds of food stalls in Taipei that specialized in noodles, but none was more famous than Mr. Chang's, a tiny place not far from the university where I attended classes in Mandarin Studies.
Chang always stood at the back counter, where a huge caldron of beef slowly cooked in a fragrant braising liquid, filling the small shop with the pungent odor of cinnamon, star anise and soy sauce. Next to the beef pot sat another large pot filled with boiling water for cooking the noodles.
As each order came in, Chang would deftly grab a handful of fresh noodles and drop them into the boiling water, where they cooked in minutes. Using a bamboo colander, he would quickly strain them into a deep, earthenware bowl and ladle a generous portion of the red-cooked beef with its fragrant sauce on top. The final touch was a handful of leafy vegetables that cooked instantly in the hot broth. And for the mere price of 75 cents, it was a delicious and filling meal.
Noodles, as I was to learn during my three-year sojourn in Asia, are an extraordinarily versatile food and they are not just enjoyed in soups. They are equally relished pan-fried, soft-fried and deep-fried. They are served as a snack, side dish or as a filling meal by themselves.
In northern China, where wheat rather than rice is the main grain, flour-and-water noodles are a daily staple. In the south, noodles made of flour, egg and water are served primarily as dim sum with other foods, but they also appear on tables as a meal in themselves. In all parts of China, they are eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner and snacks.
Traditionally, in northern China noodles were hand-thrown, and this art is still practiced in some restaurants in China, Hong Kong and the United States. For hand-thrown noodles, a relaxed flour-and-water dough is repeatedly stretched and wrapped in a braid-like shape until the dough magically divides into thousands of fine strands. Hand-thrown noodles are wonderfully delicate and have a silky texture. They may be round, flat or hollow, like macaroni.
Flour, egg and water noodles, which are more popular in southern and eastern China, generally are made by machine, and the variety of shapes and sizes is endless. But other ingredients are used to make Chinese noodles too.
There are noodles made of rice powder or flour--known as mifen , rice vermicelli and rice sticks--which can be thin or thick. Very thin rice sticks are stir-fried or used as garnishes, in soups or deep-fried to golden nests for stir-fried dishes.
Bean threads or cellophane noodles-- fen si-- are made from the starch of mung or green beans. The translucent noodles are very high in protein. Once cooked, they turn transparent and acquire a smooth, gelatinous texture. Bean threads can be stir-fried, braised or served as beds for salads and cold platters. Like rice noodles, they may also be deep-fried and used as a crisp nest for stir-fried dishes.
Noodles are even made of tofu. Bean curd noodles may be cooked and tossed in a dressing with other shredded vegetables for a light salad. Many Asian markets in this country carry fresh tofu noodles.
In many dishes, when the Chinese varieties are unavailable, Italian noodles such as spaghettini, vermicelli, fettuccine and linguine may be substituted.
Noodles are also popular in China for their nutritional appeal, in addition to being an inexpensive, high-carbohydrate fuel food. What's more, they symbolize longevity, and Chinese custom dictates that they be made long so that diners may attain longevity and their hair will turn as snowy-white as the noodle.
CRISP-FRIED VEGETARIAN NOODLES 1/2 pound thin egg noodles, such as spaghettini or vermicelli Sesame oil 1 1/2 cups reduced sodium chicken broth 3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons rice wine or sake 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 2 tablespoons cornstarch 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic 1 1/2 tablespoons minced ginger root 10 dried Chinese black mushrooms, softened in hot water 20 minutes, drained, stems discarded, caps cut into fine julienne strips 3 cups finely julienned leeks 2 cups shredded carrots 1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine or sake 4 cups bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
Heat 1 gallon water in large pan until boiling. Add noodles and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain. Toss with 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Immediately transfer noodles to round cake pan or pie plate. Press top to level noodles and let cool.
Combine broth, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, 1 teaspoon sesame oil and cornstarch in bowl. Blend well. Heat well-seasoned wok or skillet until very hot. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil and heat until nearly smoking. Invert noodle cake into pan and cook until deep-golden brown, swirling pan from time to time to keep cake from sticking. Flip noodle cake over and brown other side. Transfer noodles to heat-proof serving platter and keep warm in oven at 200 degrees.