Updated: Jan 21, 2021
My memories of being a small child in China are, regrettably, almost nonexistent. I lament the fact I can't conjure the sure-to-be tender images of being taught poetry by my grandma or playing with my cousin among the water fountains of my home city of Qingdao – stories that my parents have often recounted to me over the years. But one clear stamp of my fleeting time in China remains, even if I can no longer remember it.
I moved to the UK at the age of five in a whirlwind of activity that delighted my every sense and eventually landed me in a place where life was different and new and exciting. Trees replaced skyscrapers, neat rows of soil and grass replaced concrete squares squirming with people, potatoes and floury loaves replaced bowls of rice and noodles. As is typical when you're so young, I took all these changes in my stride, quickly learning to talk to the other kids at my playschool in English and no longer feeling the need to gawp at the ducks or pigeons every time I went to the park (I was used to seeing them tucked away in cages, either at the roadside pet market or waiting to get the chop).
Despite this, my preference for the food I was brought up on in the first few years of my life has been unwavering. Whatever images and sensations of childhood dinners, snacks and cooking that were still apparently floating about in my brain, however wispy, have since taken root, deep and permanent. And with noodles, probably the most quintessential of Asian carbs (sorry, rice), there's something that is especially appealing. To me, nothing invokes an instant mouth water like the prospect of a steaming bowl of noodles, tantalisingly slippery strands nestled among fragrant meat and vegetables, all enveloped in a wafting aroma that hugs your palate and soul. 20 years on from that fateful move, I still can't get enough.
A damn good bowl
Out of the colourful and diverse pool of noodles in existence, soup noodles, for me, reign supreme. Many types of noodle dish – from ramen to pho – rely on hours of patience to develop their crucial element: the soup. Of course, the noodles themselves are also key players, each variety with its own unique taste and bite that lends itself to the overall experience of the dish. However, the soup is the epicentre of flavour, the powerhouse from which heat or sweetness or acidity seeps into the rest of the ingredients, and a truly good one will make it clear from the first sip whether the bowl is worth slurping up in one go. (Gratifyingly, it's actually customary in some Asian countries to slurp your noodles. Chopsticks can serve a dual function by also acting as a shovel of sorts for piling the starchy threads into your open mouth, so there are no excuses for getting really stuck in).
The secret to making any good broth is simple. Meat bones, dried fish, vegetables or aromatics are left to simmer away to slowly release their flavour, ultimately resulting – if done well – in broths that have a depth of colour or consistency, heady with bold fragrance and primed to smack into your taste buds with a force so powerful that it leaves them reeling. In that regard, I truly can't pick a winner between all the offerings.
The richness of ramen, made all the more luxurious by its frequent pairing with a runny yolked egg, is usually delegated as a treat for a random weekend or evening for me, preferably when it's bitterly cold outside so the steamy hit from the bowl makes your nose run and cheeks flush in an oddly delightful way. When I envision an indulgent bowl of soup noodles, Tonkotsu ramen immediately springs to mind. The creamy broth can be elevated with a bright swirl of chilli oil that gleams on top, and is achieved by boiling fatty pork bones and meat – some recipes call for trotters and chicken carcasses – for a period of hours or even days.
Ramen (unsure of type) from a mall in Hong Kong, 2015
The magic of this process isn't lost on me. Taken at face value, it seems somewhat fantastical that by simply throwing a host of ingredients together in a giant pot, and giving those elements time to develop and meld together, you can yield something as intensely delicious as Tonkotsu. If we're getting down to the science of it, the result all depends on the gradual breaking down of collagen in the bones to gelatin, which gives the broth its deeply porky taste and milky hue.
Vietnamese pho, meanwhile, is light and fresh where ramen is rich and robust. The classic phở bò employs delicate slivers of raw beef that instantly brown and curl at their edges when plunged into a bath of amber; beansprouts and coriander piled high to toppling adding aromatic bite, an authoritative fierceness of chilli and squeeze of zingy lime cutting through the subtlety. Citrus and leafy herbs aren't typically at the forefront of Chinese cuisine, but in south-east Asia, they're an essential part of the preparation and cooking of many dishes, as well as for adding that all-important final flourish. In the case of pho and its spicier counterpart, bún bò Huế, which uses rounder rice noodles, I had my eyes gratefully opened to the perfect union of raw veg and noodles, rounded off with sour and spice.
Beef pho from Pho & Bun in Soho, 2018
Never was an infatuation so instant than when I swallowed my first bite of piping hot rice noodle, simply because it's everything I could hope for from a meal: the broth is both clear in appearance and clarified in taste without the heaviness that sometimes comes with ramen, leaving you feeling refreshed and relatively guilt-free afterwards (I drink the whole lot every time, without fail, even when my stomach's bursting). The spices that permeate the liquid – star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander – can be overbearing individually but come together to create a surprisingly mellow yet complex flavour. Tender meat, seafood or tofu lend new textures and extra sustenance but don't end up commanding all the attention, instead allowing the broth to saturate their every crevice to create juicy bundles that flood your mouth. I even credit Vietnam's national dish with the revolutionary discovery that I don't, in fact, hate coriander.
Beef and seafood pho from Q&T Vietnamese Kitchen in London, 2018 (I think this was my first time trying pho)!
While pho is a classic noodle soup in that it involves a lot of boiling beforehand, another of my favourites, Korean cold noodles (Mul Naengmyeon), can be rustled up a little more quickly. If opting for the speedy version, combining instant beef stock with vinegar and garnishing with slices of cucumber and Asian pear, pickled radishes and cooked beef gives the sharp yet sweet tang that I find so delectable. Making the beef broth from scratch requires more patience, soaking then simmering brisket in water for an hour or so, sometimes with a dash of soju (Korean rice wine).
A lifelong love of all things sour – one that was so intense that I used to drink vinegar straight from the bottle as a child (really), to the bewilderment of my grandad – was what initially led me down the path to Korean cuisine. Now, it's impossible for me to resist heaping kimchi onto everything and stocking up on various bright pickles every time I'm at the Korean supermarket. I first tried cold noodles at a small family-run Korean joint in Qingdao, a typical case in that it is a wholly unexceptional place to look at but offers well cooked and generously portioned dishes for little more than a few pounds for the entire meal. I ordered the buckwheat noodles, not quite knowing what to expect. I felt even less sure when they arrived, mere minutes later, a mound of glistening grey sitting in the metal bowl, surrounded by ice cubes like an odd, gelatinous island. But I was soon sold. Chewy in a way I had never experienced before, the noodles had so much bounce to them that you don't really chew them so much as lightly clamp down on them with your teeth before letting it all slip down your throat. Admittedly, that might not be the most appealing of descriptions, but I was as good as hooked.
Mul Naenmyeon from somewhere in China (not the place I first tried them but still utterly delicious, especially with the kimchi all mixed in), 2016
The noodles' addictive texture is achieved by plunging them into ice water immediately after cooking. Added to the chilled broth, fresh salad veg and ice cubes, naengmyeon makes for a delicious and pleasantly cooling meal on a summer's day, especially when you're in almost 40 degree heat. That's another great thing about this dish: I can happily chomp my way through as many bowls as I like in the peak of July, without fear of almost passing out from the combined heat of the food and sun.
Then there are the near-limitless types of Chinese soup noodles that I can credit with first cementing my obsession. From the lip-tingling, spicy/numb 'ma la' sensation (propelled into the mainstream by Sichuan cuisine) of Chongqing noodles or 'little noodles', as they're called in Chinese, to the comforting beef noodle soup popular throughout the country, the variety on offer in China alone begs that noodles can almost be considered a cuisine in their own right. In Qingdao, being a coastal city, I was often treated to noodle soups boasting salty, meaty morsels of seafood, such as 'ga la', a type of Chinese clam, baby octopus and delicate, springy fish balls resembling floating spheres of snow.
Beef shank noodle soup from OISOI in Sheffield, 2017
Getting stuck in
My love affair with noodles, combined with the recent coincidences of part-time employment and pandemic-induced lockdowns, has meant that I've had ample opportunity of late to explore the world of noodle making for myself. While I haven't yet attempted pho (due to nothing else than lacking a big enough pot or hob, and being too lazy to go to the butcher's), various noodle creations have begun to grace my dinner plates, and some are confidently here to stay (see photos below – weirdly enough, none of them are soup noodles). I have to give most of the credit for the recipes I've tried so far to molecular biologist-turned-chef Pippa Middlehurst, whose Instagram posts I frequently drool over, and her cookbook, Dumplings and Noodles, a birthday gift.
Handmade noodles (clockwise from top left): Kalguksu (Korean knife-cut noodles) in chilled chilli sauce; zha jiang noodles with Quorn mince; dan dan noodles with seasoned pork mince; cumin lamb pulled biang biang noodles.
Maybe, having studied a similar subject at university, I'm subconsciously trying to follow Middlehurst's path in life. It doesn't seem like a bad gig: the familiar narrative of molecular bonding takes on a fresh level of intrigue when applied to the science of noodle making, plus the process from start to finish is a lot of fun. Considering I've been able to waffle my way through an entire blog post without giving much thought to what I'd say, it seems clear that my noodle craze isn't going away any time soon. I eagerly anticipate all the new carby creations that are to come and apologise in advance to my flatmate who will probably see nothing but flour-dusted worktops for the next few weeks.
EDIT: Having just trawled through old social media posts for appropriate noodle photos, I've been painfully reminded of how devoid my life is of such delicacies and experiences right now. That's perhaps ironic, given that part of the reason I started this blog was to escape the reality of being in a third national lockdown. For now, home creations that allude to some kind of semi put-together restaurant aesthetic will have to suffice. Wish me luck.