When most people think of pasta they think of Italian food. At least I do. And the Italians certainly have many many shapes, sizes, and uses for pasta – but they really only use two types of noodles. Wheat flour based noodles with eggs or without eggs. Asian cultures, however, have many more varieties of noodles. Wheat-based noodles make up a fraction of the noodles.
Asian Noodles (to name a few):
Somen – very thin, delicate, dried, wheat-based
Udon – flat, 1/8 inch wide, wheat based but no egg, white
Lo Mein – fresh, wheat based, with egg, long and rounded like spaghetti
Chow Fun – wide ribbon, fresh, rice based
Mee Fun – very thin ribbons, fresh, rice based
Pad Thai – flat, long, ribbon, dry, rice based
Bean Thread – dried, bean starch based, cooks up translucent
Soba – buckwheat based, dry
Asian noodle varieties all have their own preparation method which varies depending on the dish, the noodle, and the region. In Italy, everyone boils pasta in rapidly boiling, salted water until al dente, drains, and then tosses with sauce (never rinse!). In Asia, certain preparations call for rinsing the noodles in cold water before tossing with sauce. Many times if the noodles are dry, they are soaked in lukewarm water for 15-20 minutes before being added to a stir-fry to finish cooking. Rice noodles are very delicate, and therefore are never put in rapidly boiling water. They are simply simmered gently until done. Soba noodles are not cooked al dente, but usually further until they are soft – another Italian no. I never knew cooking noodles could be so complicated! Seems I will be following recipes until I learn all the rules, just to be on the safe side.
One of my favorite noodle dishes is Pad Thai. This dish originated in central Thailand, like most of the American adapted Thai foods. Rich soils and abundant farm lands characterize this region. Bangkok, its major city, is a big tourist destination. If you have never had pad thai – I strongly urge you to find a good Thai restaurant and try some ASAP. It is sweet, salty, savory, spicy (sometimes mild), and just plain delicious. A bowl of noodles mixed with thinly sliced vegetables, bean sprouts, strips of chicken and/or shrimp, flat rice noodles (pad thai noodles), and of course, the sauce.
We made Pad Thai in class yesterday, and while the preparation and cooking had several steps, none were too complicated. Heat wok to smoke point with oil, add ingredient, stir and brown then remove and reserve, wipe out wok, reheat wok with more oil and repeat process with second ingredient. Repeat process until all the ingredients are cooked. At the end all ingredients are put together in the wok with the sauce until hot and then served. The cooking process all happens very quickly, so having all the ingredients prepared and nearby is important. The wok, I have come to understand, is not only an important cooking vessel in Asian foods, but considered to be an ingredient. They have a saying, “The breath of the wok”, which is a flavor dimension added to foods cooked in a seasoned wok. They take this stuff very seriously. The level of heat needed to achieve the breath of the wok is not possible in most home kitchens in America. Burners, especially electric, are just not powerful enough. Sorry, but the solution maybe to find a trusted and consistent take out restaurant as your go-to.
Nutrition Recommendations: I love pad thai, but the fat and salt content are quite high. Just about every ingredient is pan fried, separately, in the wok. Some sauce ingredients, fish sauce and soy sauce, are quite high in sodium. Portion control is important. On the good side, it does have many types of vegetables that are briefly stir fried, and therefore retain much of their nutritional value. Usually lean white meat chicken and omega-3 rich shrimp are the protein in pad thai. It can even be made with tofu for a vegetarian spin. If you are watching your calories or fat content, opt for the noodles dishes that are not stir-fried. They can be just as delicious and flavorful, but with far less calories and fat.
I have found a recipe on the Food Network website for Pad Thai. It is simliar to what we made in class, but simplified. My recommendations – use chicken stock instead of coconut milk, omit the garlic, omit the Sriracha, add 1/2 Tablespoon red thai curry paste to the pan with the shrimp, you can substitute diced chicken for the shrimp or tofu (cook chicken separately in wok before combining all ingredients). Shrimp and Vegetable Pad Thai