The History of Noodles
Noodles were invented some 2000 years ago, shortly after the technique of flour milling reached China via India along the new Silk Road (Between what is now Afghanistan and Xian). Some historians might refute the probability that Marco Polo, enamoured of this strange food, brought it back to the Venetian Courts and spawned pasta that took off in myriad shapes. Chinese or Italian claimants to its invention notwithstanding, noodles really belong to the world.
Early Han Chinese ate mostly wheat and soy bean products, considered to be coarse food by the middle and ruling classes. Round about the ninth century, noodles began the feature more in the common people’s meals, filtering down from the imperial palace kitchens which had the means of milling flour. Whatever, this new food improved the diet of the general populace and its popularity mushroomed.
During the Tang dynasty (618 – 906), the Middle Kingdom enjoyed a tremendous boost in the new development of cookery. Tang emperors welcomed new ideas and ingredients into their palace kitchens from as far a field as Samarkand, Turkestan, Persia, the West, Indo-china, and South-east Asia. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), China was enjoying unprecedented affluence and provincial cities were filled with eating places and noodle houses. Above all else, there was an empirical approach to cooking with specialisation of cooking techniques that have far from dimmed through the next seven centuries until the present day.
The noodle realm is one that has afictionados who will wax lyrical about this or that concoction, by whichever hawker (usually) or restaurant. This fervour has spawned many a protracted argument that sometimes borders on the hysterical. “The chilli sauce is not right, not enough black vinegar, fishballs not springy enough, mingy on fried lard ad infinitum. “And so the argument rages on. The stage for superlative noodle cookery has always been at hawker stalls in Singapore and Malaysia.
There are so many different types of noodles, sold both dry and fresh, that even seasoned cooks can be confused about which comes from which grain or how best to prepare them. The basic types are as follows:
Generally known in Mandarin as mien or wheat vermicelli. These come in ribbons of various widths. They may be fresh or dried, made with or without eggs, some have lye water added which manifest in the strong yellow hue. Fresh ones take only a few minutes to cook to al dente texture, and dried ones may be boiled for anywhere between two and five minutes. Today, some wheat noodles may be made from a mixture of both wheat and rice flour.
Wheat threads or miensien in Mandarin or mee sua in Hokkien, are fine, pale, biscuit-coloured and usually come in skeins bound with a thin red thread and contained within boxes. They cook very fast and very popular within the Fujien (Hokkien) community as traditional birthday noodles.
Ee-fu noodles are a very popular Cantonese variety that are usually fried with seafood and mushrooms. These wheat noodles are also served stir-fried with stock and a sauce or with fried egg-white lathered atop. They are better known in the West as a result of the dominating number of Cantonese restaurants.
These are also known as kway teow (Hokkied), hor fun (Cantonese) or guo tiao in Mandarin and usually sold fresh, generally in 1.5 cm widths. Or they can come as rice sticks (dried) and are also popular for its indefinite shelf life. Vermicelli (mi fen in Mandarin or bee hoon in Hokkien), is much thinner than the rest and ranges from very fine to coarse.
Mung bean vermicelli (fensi in Mandarin or tanghoon in Hokkien) are radically different from other noodles being made from a mixture of mung bean (beansprouts in unsprouted state) and wheat flour. They always come dry and need only be soaked for a few minutes.
Soba (buckwheat noodles) are peculiar to japan and made from buckwheat that grows in the cold, mountainous regions where rice. Barley, and wheat cannot grow. Udon are thick wheat flour noodles. When sold fresh, are called nama udon. The Japanese also consume somen, which are thin wheat flour noodles. Kishimen are broad, flat noodles and harusame is similar to the Chinese mung bean noodles but slightly thicker and generally described as cellophane noodles.