To be completely honest, I would find it hard to do without noodles. If I had to go gluten-free, noodles would almost certainly be the deal breaker. Giving up bread would be hard, and beer, even harder. But going without noodles? That would really sink my battleship. So, out of fellow-feeling for my gluten-free friends, who endure what I sometimes think of as a permanent Lent, I have been giving some thought to a life without wheat that is still not a life without noodles.
If your experience of noodles has been limited to Aisle 7 of the supermarket, with its neatly marshaled brigades of blue boxes standing at attention near the canned tomatoes, you might think that wheat and noodles are inseparable. Those boxes of pasta might be made from durum wheat, or semolina wheat or even whole wheat (if the manufacturer's feeling particularly puritanical). Nevertheless, from wheat they come and to wheat they invariably return.
But if you take a drive (a short one, I hope) to the nearest Asian grocery, there you will find enough wheat-free noodles to feed a gluten-intolerant army. There are mung bean noodles. There are rice noodles. There are sweet potato starch noodles. There are even strips of jellyfish that look like noodles and strips of frozen beef tripe that look like noodles, but we don't have to go there if you don't want to.
T. Susan Chang for NPR
T. Susan Chang for NPR
When it comes to wheat-free noodles, rice noodles are the crossover stars. They're easy to cook. They come in a vast assortment of sizes and lengths. My local Asian grocery has a whole wall of them. I typically go cross-eyed trying to choose the right noodle, but really, it's hard to go wrong. They all cook similarly — you soak them in warm water for 15 minutes and they're ready for their close-up, in a stir-fry or whatever you like. It's possible to boil them, but you have to be careful and quick about it, because they turn to mush if they're in too long. That's a crime, because properly cooked rice noodles have a silken surface and a chewy finish that laps up sauce rather than slip-sliding away from it. Have you had pad Thai? Chow fun? Pho, the noodle soup of Vietnam? Then you've had rice noodles — and probably loved them.
Mung bean noodles go by many names — cellophane noodles, si fun, vermicelli, bean thread, glass noodles. If you have kids, though, they have only one name: "see-through noodles." You may not have thought about this, but most of the solids we eat are opaque (Jello, jelly and jellyfish being exceptions). So these fine, transparent, slightly amber-tinted noodles have a gee-whiz factor that makes them hard not to stare at, twirl around or suck down with a loud slurping sound. They soak up soy sauce like nobody's business, too. Because of their fine consistency, you have to soak them in cool water; then it's only 20 minutes or so until you're in business.
Sweet potato noodles are mysterious. Their strange translucent elephant-gray coloring, their length (2 feet long) and their spaghetti-like diameter set them apart from bean threads, their nearest counterpart. You soak them in hot water or boil them briefly before frying them. In the pan they turn from gray to gold as you add seasonings, and they develop an elastic yet substantial texture. It's also traditional to chop them into bite-size lengths, right there as they cook (although it feels distinctly strange to advance upon your wok with a pair of scissors and is probably 14 kinds of wrong in wok orthodoxy). I know of only one dish to make with sweet potato noodles — the Korean dish known as chap chae, an amalgam of spinach, sirloin, black mushrooms and sesame. But it is so good I could happily eat it for a week without tiring of it.
It's not that there aren't Asian noodles that contain wheat. Without wheat, there would be no udon or ramen. There would be no lo mein or Singapore noodles or even wonton, if you want to call that a noodle. But my point is that even from a gluten-free perspective, noodles give you countless squiggly, slurpy reasons to celebrate. And in a food climate where "free" so often is simply a euphemism for "doing without," finding something to savor without restraint is the best kind of good news. That's what I call freedom.
Chap Chae (Stir-Fried Sweet Potato Noodles With Beef, Spinach And Sesame Seeds)
I've used many chap chae recipes over the years, so my version has elements of all of them. As with pretty much any stir-fry, most of the work is in the prep for this dish. You could do the rinsing, chopping, soaking and marinating hours ahead of time, leaving only 15 minutes of stove time for later. Be sure you keep the wok very, very hot and well oiled as you stir-fry, so nothing sticks.
T. Susan Chang for NPR
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Makes 4 servings
1/2 to 3/4 pound beef sirloin (about 1-inch thick)
6 or 7 dried black mushrooms (dried shiitake mushrooms, available at Asian groceries), or fresh shiitakes
1 pound Korean sweet potato noodles
1 bunch spinach or 1/2 pound baby spinach leaves
1 tablespoon hulled white sesame seeds
1 small yellow onion
2 medium carrots
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup soy sauce (or gluten-free tamari)
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons peanut oil, divided
Place the beef in the freezer while you're working on the other ingredients. That will make it easier to slice. Soak the dried mushrooms in boiling water, weighting them with a plate or the bottom of a bowl so they stay beneath the surface of the water. Soak the sweet potato noodles in plentiful hot tap water (if you're working several hours ahead, soak the noodles just before stir-frying. They take about 10 minutes to soften up).
Wash the spinach in several changes of cold water and trim the stems; you can leave the stems if you're using baby spinach.
Toast the sesame seeds briefly in a small, heavy skillet over medium heat. They're done when they show just a bit of golden browning.
Halve the onion and slice thinly. Peel and julienne the carrots (easiest if you halve them lengthwise first, then slice into 1/8-inch thick slices, then cut into matchsticks). Halve the scallions lengthwise and cut into 1-inch lengths.
Squeeze out the dried mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut off and discard the stems and slice the caps 1/8-inch thick.
Take out the partially frozen beef. Holding your knife parallel to the cutting board, slice the beef into two 1/2-inch-thick halves. Then slice against the grain into strips about 1/8-inch thick and about 2 inches long. Place the meat in a nonreactive bowl. Drain the noodles.
In a small bowl, mix together the garlic, soy sauce or tamari, brown sugar and sesame oil for the sauce. Spoon a few tablespoons of the sauce onto the sliced beef and toss thoroughly. Add about 1/4 cup of the mushroom soaking liquid to the sauce (you can discard the rest of the mushroom liquid).
Place a capacious wok over high heat. When it begins to smoke, add half the peanut oil (1 1/2 tablespoons) and the onion, carrots, scallions and mushrooms. Stir-fry for about 2 minutes, until just becoming tender. Push to one side of the wok.
Add a little bit more of the peanut oil, swirl it about and spread out the marinated meat in a single layer at the bottom of the wok. Let it sit briefly to develop some browning, then mix in with the vegetables and push to one side of the wok.
If the wok is dry, swirl in the remaining peanut oil. As soon as it is smoking-hot, add the drained noodles. Pull the meat and vegetables back atop the noodles, mix together, and add the sauce. Stir-fry, mixing well. Finally, toss in the spinach and sesame seeds and serve.
I've always thought this was my grandmother's recipe, but when I went back and looked at my notes from cooking with her, I saw they bore no resemblance to what I do. You may know this dish by its popular name, "ants climbing trees," which has always struck me as needlessly exotic-sounding. It's just ground pork and noodles, folks! I like to put in green peas for a vegetable so I can give it to the kids and call it dinner. The one challenging ingredient in this is the Tianjin preserved vegetable, truly one of the more perplexing things you can look for in an Asian grocery. It's a brown, pickled and shredded Chinese cabbage that sometimes comes in foil packets and sometimes in a jar. The picture on the outside doesn't look like what's on the inside, and very often there isn't a single word of English on the label. I can't read Chinese, so about the half the time I end up with some other weird pickled vegetable in foil, which I just go ahead and use anyway. It's always really good just the same.
Soak the bean thread noodles in cool water. They'll soften in 15 to 20 minutes. Season the ground pork with the soy sauce or tamari, the rice wine, the sesame oil and a pinch of white sugar. Toss thoroughly. Mince the garlic cloves and ginger and roughly chop the Tianjin preserved vegetable if using. Halve the scallions lengthwise and chop finely, keeping the white parts and green parts separate. Drain the noodles.
Combine the ingredients for the sauce and mix together well.
Place a wok over high heat and swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the scallion whites and marinated pork and stir-fry until lightly browned. Don't worry about going for a deep brown crust. Lift out of the wok with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Over low-medium heat, refresh the wok with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add the ginger, garlic, preserved vegetable and chili bean sauce. Let the flavors mingle for a minute or two. Raise the heat to high and add the drained noodles. Toss the noodles thoroughly with the oil and aromatics, then add the sauce. Once the noodles have absorbed the sauce (this will happen quickly), add the reserved pork.
Finally, toss in the scallion greens and frozen peas. Stir-fry just until the peas have thawed and serve.
I adore this recipe from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook (Sasquatch Books 2009). There, the authors suggest using pork, chicken, beef or shrimp). All are delicious, but just to see how it would turn out, I tried using extra-firm tofu. It's great, so that's what I've included here. If you decide to use meat (and I recommend you do, sometime, if you're a meat eater), freeze it for 30 minutes or so and then cut it into 1/8-inch-thick slices.
T. Susan Chang for NPR
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Makes 2 servings (to double, stir-fry in 2 batches for best results)
7 ounces large dried "rice sticks" (wide rice noodles)
8 ounces extra-firm tofu
8 ounces Chinese broccoli
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more as needed
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce, divided, plus more for serving*
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (also called kecap manis)*
1 tablespoon oyster sauce*
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, plus more for serving
Ground white pepper
Crushed dried red chilies for serving
*Available at Asian markets. Note: A number of fish sauce brands are gluten-free (San-J and Squid are among the more widely available ones). As for oyster sauces, I understand Lee Kum Kee Panda Brand (it has a distinctive green label) and Choy Sun are gluten free, and there are others. If you prefer to substitute, you can use tamari for the fish sauce and tamari plus your sweetener of choice for the oyster sauce, in a pinch.
Soak the dried rice noodles in hot tap water for 6 to 8 minutes. They should be soft and pliable but not falling apart. Tip into a colander over the sink, rinse under cold running water and drain.) Set aside.
Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch slabs, then cut the slabs into 1/2-inch strips. Halve those crosswise, and you should have chunks of tofu 1/2-inch-by-1/2-inch-by-2 inches or so.
Separate the Chinese broccoli into leaf and stem pieces. Cut the stems into 2-inch pieces and halve the thicker ones lengthwise, as they take longer to cook. In a heatproof bowl, soak the broccoli in boiling water until wilted but not fully cooked, about 30 seconds. Rinse under cold running water and drain.
Preheat a large wok or skillet over very high heat for about 30 seconds. Swirl in the oil and heat until smoking. Add the tofu in one layer, followed by the garlic and 1/2 tablespoon of the fish sauce to flavor the tofu. Let the tofu sit long enough to develop a little golden-brown crust on one side. Push the tofu to one side and crack in the eggs. Let the eggs cook undisturbed until the whites start to turn opaque, about 15 seconds, then stir gently to mix with the tofu. Push the tofu and egg mixture up one side of the wok.
Toss in the noodles and spread them across the bottom of the wok to make as much contact with the hot surface as possible. That's how you get the nice charred noodle bits and the unmistakable burnt flavor peculiar to foods fried in a searing hot wok. Add more oil if the noodles stick to the wok. Mix the noodles with the tofu and eggs, and stir everything swiftly around the wok.
Add the remaining fish sauce, the sweet soy sauce, oyster sauce and sugar. Sliding your spatula to the bottom of the wok, turn and toss all the ingredients to coat evenly with the seasonings. Add the Chinese broccoli and vinegar and toss with a couple more flourishes until well mixed and the broccoli is cooked through but the stems are still crunchy, 1 to 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired.
Divide the noodles between 2 plates and sprinkle with white pepper. Serve with fish sauce, vinegar and crushed chilies on the side.