Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
If you look at dining tables across the globe, virtually every culture has some type of noodle dish. From the wheat, rice, buckwheat and mung bean-based noodles in Japan, China or Korea to the primary rice and corn starch noodles of the Philippines, Vietnam and Southeast Asia to the wheat-based pasta and spaetzle of Europe, these starch-based strands are perfect for holding onto sauces, broths and other flavors.
Though the early assumption that Marco Polo brought noodles back from China has largely been discounted, I believe I know the true origin of noodles. And it starts with bread. If you’ve ever tried making bread by hand (not in a bread machine), you know that initially you may add too much liquid to your dough, and as you knead the mass, a lot of the outer dough starts sticking to your hands. And how do you remove that semi-crusted film from your hands? You rub your hands together. I bet that sometime during the Middle Ages, some cook did exactly the same thing, and there just so happened to be a simmering pot of liquid that those strands of bread dough fell into and after several minutes — Voila! Noodles! During the same time, perhaps some cook in Asia was making mochi, and they removed those sticky bits of rice flour the same way over simmering water. Rice noodles! And while my theory won’t hold water for a food anthropology thesis or dissertation, I’ll bet it’s pretty close!
The Favored Son
Though you likely will get a wide range of responses when asking diners in Hawai‘i what their favorite noodle is, I’m sure across the rest of the continental U.S., the response will be unanimous for that wheat-based noodle, specifically with Italian roots. Whether it’s spaghetti with Sunday red gravy in Jersey, linguine with clam sauce, multi-layer lasagna or fettucine Alfredo, it likely will have Italian roots.
Other than Dad’s annual home cooked spaghetti dinner, the Tatsumoto household didn’t indulge in the classic Italian pasta dishes, likely because Mom had an aversion to fresh garlic – that’s why Dad’s bottle of kimchi had to be double wrapped in produce bags to prevent that aroma from permeating the other foods in the refrigerator. And Dad’s spaghetti was as basic as they get – ground beef with Lawry’s packaged sauce mix then topped with Kraft parmesan cheese, which was packaged in what appeared to be a long toilet paper roll with green wrapping. Therefore, when I moved to Waimänalo to live with Obaachan during my undergraduate years, tried getting creative with Italian pasta and actually purchased frozen linguine with clam sauce. After heating it in the oven then peeling back the seal, I immediately was repulsed by the emanating odor. Because Mom rarely cooked with fresh garlic and definitely not with copious amounts like in this frozen linguine with clam sauce, the pungency of that much garlic turned me off enough that I didn’t even taste it. I simply buried the linguine with clam sauce in Obaachan’s garden. I didn’t sample a real Italian pasta dish for several more years.
The Home Team
I’m sure everyone has sampled the ubiquitous somen salad that likely appears at every family potluck party. It’s a great dish as somen virtually takes no time to cook and a cold salad is the perfect prescription for the dog days of summer… which lasts about nine months in Hawai‘i. And it can be tailored to any diet by varying the toppings and even the noodle itself. Vegetarian? Leave out the char siu, kamaboko and surimi and substitute aburaage or tofu. Vegan? Also leave out the egg and add more veggies. Want it more refreshing? Add more vinegar and less oil. Celiac disease? Substitute somen with rice or mung bean noodles (obviously it will now be a somen-free somen salad).
And who hasn’t sampled the freshly made udon noodles from Jimbo Restaurant that unfortunately was a casualty of both the pandemic and property redevelopment. Thankfully both fresh and dried udon can be found at most supermarkets. I actually re-created a curry udon dish that Obaachan used to make and demo’d the dish some 20+ years ago at Hawai’i’s Food & New Product Show at the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall (representing Times Pharmacy). And unless you have celiac disease, I’m sure everyone has sampled at least one of the many noodles created by the Uki family’s Sun Noodles, which are served at many ramen restaurants and at retail at every supermarket. We also still consume our annual toshikoshi soba right before the New Year though I’m particular about the soba I purchase. Because the base of soba is buckwheat flour, I always look for a brand that lists buckwheat as the primary ingredient – most brands list wheat flour as the primary ingredient, and you want the softer buckwheat noodles to break as you chew them to symbolize breaking any bad luck accumulated over the expiring year. Though my current favorite noodle is Okinawan soba, which unlike buckwheat-based soba, is shaped more like udon, and since its wheat based, has a pronounced chewy texture. Sometimes I eat it as is, heated in a little broth, on other occasions, I stir fry it almost like an Italian pasta.
The Rice That Isn’t
Everyone knows that other than chicken and ginger, the perfect chicken long rice requires dried long rice noodles found at most supermarkets. However, these long rice noodles aren’t produced from rice at all. They are produced from mung bean starch with or without potato starch. Arguably, you can even use gluten-based “chicken,” but it still requires these mung bean noodles. A benefit of these noodles is that even those with celiac disease on gluten-free diets can consume these bean-based noodles. The noodles are also hardier and don’t tend to dissolve readily into liquid if you overcook your dish.
Canton, Bihon or Miki?
What we call pancit is actually a wide range of noodle dishes based on the type of noodle used. Pancit canton noodles are wheat and egg based and resemble udon. Pancit bihon uses transparent, thin rice-based noodles while pancit miki uses wheat-based noodles that look like yakisoba noodles, and you can find these both dried and fresh (from Sun Noodle) at the supermarket. Because I don’t have any known Filipino ancestry (though 23 and Me lists 0.3% Filipino & Austronesian DNA for me), I simply try to re-create a version of pancit that I thought was delicious. So I use a combination of the bihon and miki noodles with thinly sliced carrots, celery, onions and shiitake.
Noodles from Potatoes?
I always used to think that the Korean noodle dish, japchae was made with long rice. It had the same transparent appearance and slid down your throat so easily. It was only much later that I discovered that traditional japchae was made with dangmyeon noodles, which are created from sweet potato starch. The dangmyeon noodles do require five to seven minutes of simmering then draining and rinsing but unlike other types of Asian stir-fried noodles, japchae first combines the cooked veggies and proteins, which are mixed with the sauce then the drained and rinsed dangmyeon noodles are hand mixed to incorporate all of the ingredients. This ensures an equal distribution of all the flavors instead of having the noodles simply clump up into a tasteless mass.
I didn’t really address the world of Italian-based pasta noodles but that subject alone is a column or two just by itself. And I’m sure everyone has sampled many Italian pasta dishes… just remember that fresh garlic does have a pungent aroma and flavor…
Ryan Tatsumoto is a retired clinical pharmacist. However, he and his wife still enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”