Threads of history

Tribune critic

Foods of good fortune traditionally mark the Chinese New Year, so usher in the Year of the Rat this Thursday with a lucky bowl of Asian noodles, edible symbols of long life.

Noodles are an easy-to-use staple food available in a mind-boggling array of shapes, sizes and textures. Noodles lend themselves to a variety of treatments, making it easy to include them in a New Year's feast. Slip silky strands of cellophane noodles into steaming bowls of soup; brown hand-cut ribbons of rice noodles to serve as a pillowy bed for all sorts of stir-fries; deep-fry squiggly wheat noodles until golden and crisp."You always have noodles on birthdays or any festivities because they symbolize longevity," said chef Jackie Shen of Red Light restaurant.

Noodles often figure at New Year's too: The seventh day of the 15-day observance is called "everyone's birthday" because everyone was considered a year older on that day no matter when they were actually born.

But noodles aren't just for special occasions; the Hong Kong-born Shen said that noodles are equally at home in simpler settings, from breakfast to a quick, late-night snack.

"For me, as an Asian, it's comfort food," said Shen, who likes

to start her Sundays by traveling to Argyle Street for a bowl of noodles in broth. Hot soup on a cold day is deeply satisfying to her.

Noodles appear to have been woven into Chinese culture for ages. Archaeologists discovered in 2005 a buried container of noodles 4,000 years old. Yellow, and made of millet, the noodles looked similar to the hand-pulled Chinese wheat noodles still made today.

The discovery of these noodles, which predate the earliest written mention of noodles by 2,000 years, added fuel to the long debate over who invented pasta first: the Chinese or the Italians or someone else.

Bennet Bronson, curator of Asian archaeology and ethnology at Chicago's Field Museum, won't be drawn into the fray. Instead, he noted that various cultures played a part in popularizing noodles around the world.

"Everyone gets a hand in it," he said. "The history of noodles is the history of the old world."

Don't tell that to Bruce Cost, the Chicago-based Chinese-food author and restaurateur.

His attitude is summed up in this passage from his 1988 book, "Asian Ingredients": "Perhaps as kind of a belated thanks, in 1972 at a trade fair in Beijing, the Italians tried to interest the Chinese in a machine that, starting with flour and other basics, produced a spaghetti dish complete with tomato sauce and cheese in about five minutes. It never caught on. What had caught on in Italy about seven centuries earlier was the Asian art of pasta-making."

Cost's position remains unchanged today.

"The Chinese really did invent noodles," he insisted.

While cultures around the world all have carbohydrates as a daily staple, Cost said the Chinese were able to take various starches and make them "into this playful food that's always appealed to eaters."

On the New Year's menu at Cost's Big Bowl restaurants, available through Sunday, is a dish he claims is the world's oldest meat-and-noodle combo. It's called zha jiang mian (Big Bowl's menu uses an alternative spelling, za jiang mein), noodles with pork sauce.

"It's always been one of my favorite dishes and it's a staff favorite," Cost said. "The Chinese know zha jiang mian, so will my American customers when they try it. And my Chinese customers will get a kick out of it being on the menu."

Indeed. The dish has been described by one food blogger, Ohio-based chef Barbara Fisher at Tigers and Strawberries (, as "being to Beijing what spaghetti with meatballs is to middle America."

Walk into any Asian market, even a smaller one like Golden Pacific Market at 5353 N. Broadway, and the sheer choice of noodles is enough to make you pause. There are noodles from, or in the style of, nearly every Asian country. The fresh varieties are refrigerated in the produce section, frozen varieties are stacked in the freezer case and dried varieties are arrayed together on several shelves.

Instantly you realize you have to use your noodle in buying and cooking Chinese noodles, especially because the labeling isn't always the clearest.

"English spelling is idiosyncratic at best," Marilyn Pocius warns in her book, "A Cook's Guide to Chicago." "Noodle names are made even more arcane by virtue of different languages and different dialects."

Take a package of commercially prepared dried rice noodles purchased at a Vietnamese grocery on Argyle Street. There were four different names, in Vietnamese, English, Chinese and Thai.

For Nancy Ryan, a Chicago-based food writer who is working on a cookbook with Shen, learning the noodle ropes was difficult. "It was easy to recognize flat wheat noodles but after that I was completely lost," she said.

Ryan had to confront the multitude of products while working on the noodle chapter. She started shopping with Shen to learn by sight the major varieties of noodles.

"Nancy was totally puzzled in the aisle," Shen recalled, but admitted that even she can be a bit overwhelmed at all the choices. "And I'm Chinese," she said, laughing.

Katie Chin, the Los Angeles-based caterer and co-author of "Everyday Chinese Cooking," will display packages of noodles required for certain recipes when she teaches a cooking class. Or she'll give students a photograph of a specific noodle to take with them to the store.

"Take baby steps and start small," she tells novice noodle cookers. "The first step would be to make lo mein, you could use spaghetti or Chinese noodles, and then work your way up the Chinese noodle chain."

Shen recommends experimenting with noodle types, playing with different thicknesses, trying fresh instead of dry, using rice flour noodles instead of wheat, and so on.

"I would like people to try different noodles because they're really healthful," she said. Rice noodles are a good alternative for those who can't tolerate wheat or gluten, she said.

For Shen, there's excitement in the range of noodles out there and the dishes that can be made from them. She always finds something new to try when she shops.

"The most amazing is this," a smiling Shen said, holding a palmful of tiny shell-shaped pastas made from rice flour. "They're absolutely beautiful."

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Oodles of noodles

Chinese noodles are sold fresh or dried. There are three broad classifications: wheat noodles (mein or mian), rice noodles (fun or fen) and noodles made with other starches, including mung bean and tapioca. Some noodles incorporate other ingredients, from dried shrimp to minced vegetables to eggs, oil and even lye water. Chinese noodles can be found in Asian food markets, specialty stores and even supermarkets.

Katie Chin, co-author of "Everyday Chinese Cooking," believes Western and Chinese noodles are interchangeable for most "mainstream" recipes.

Package label information for Chinese or Asian noodles can vary widely. Some noodles are sold under Chinese names (the spelling and pronunciation can vary by region), other Asian names or English.

Cantonese egg noodles (dan mein in Cantonese): Popular in China's Guangdong province, ancestral home to many in Chicago's Chinese community. Sold fresh or dried in various widths and lengths. Fresh noodles may be refrigerated for up to one week. Boil either variety in water until cooked; run under cold water to stop the cooking before proceeding with the recipe. Some fresh noodles are precooked and ready to be used in stir-fries and other dishes without a preliminary boiling.

Cellophane noodles or bean threads (fun sze): These thin, dried vermicelli-like strands are made from mung bean starch and need a soaking in hot water before using. They also can be deep-fried.

Chow fun noodles (sha har fun): A fresh, wide rice noodle used in stir-fries and usually sold folded up in uncut sheets that you cut into strips before cooking.

Hokkien noodles (hokkien mein): Thick yellow wheat noodles from China, now very popular in Malaysian and Singapore cooking. Cook before using.

Long life noodles or longevity noodles (sow mein): Very long, dried wheat noodles often served at celebrations because of their good-luck symbolism. Cook before using.

Rice noodles (hor fun): Sold dried or fresh in various widths. To use the dried, soak in warm or hot water according to package directions. Dry, unsoaked rice noodles also can be deep-fried. Fresh noodles can be cooked as is, but refrigerated noodles may need a warm water rinse to soften and loosen up.

Rice vermicelli (mai fun): Generally thinner than rice noodles. Often called rice sticks. Soften in hot water before using. Dry, unsoaked rice sticks puff up dramatically when cooked in hot oil; use the cooked strands as a bed for various dishes or incorporate into salads.

Shanghai noodles (Shanghai mein): Thick, fresh wheat noodles. Cook before using.

Sources: "The Chinese Kitchen," by Deh-Ta Hsiung; "Asian Ingredients," by Bruce Cost; "A Cook's Guide to Chicago," by Marilyn Pocius; "The Oxford Companion to Food," by Alan Davidson; "The New Food Lover's Companion," by Sharon Tyler Herbst.

Cooking help

If you are unable to translate the directions on the noodle package, cook them like pasta: Fresh noodles, depending on thickness, will require 2-3 minutes' boiling time; dried, 10-12 minutes.

Stir-fried egg noodles with shrimp, chili and bean sprouts

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

"It is so simple to lightly sear some peeled prawns and toss them into a Hokkien noodle dish, yet the result is rather exotic," writes chef Kylie Kwong in "Simple Chinese Cooking." Shaoxing rice wine and fresh Hokkien noodles are sold in Asian markets; substitute other noodles if needed.

1/4 cup vegetable oil

12 large shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails left on

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

1 piece (1 1/2 inches long) ginger root, cut into 12 slices

1 package (16 ounces) fresh, flat egg noodles, cooked al dente

2 tablespoons each: Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry, soy sauce

1 tablespoon malt vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced

1 large red chili, thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 cup bean sprouts, optional

1. Heat wok or skillet over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil to the wok; heat until shimmering slightly. Add shrimp; stir-fry until pink, about 2 minutes. Remove from wok or skillet; set aside. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil; stir-fry the garlic, red onion and ginger 1 minute.

2. Add the noodles, reserved shrimp, wine, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and sesame oil; stir-fry 30 seconds. Add half of the green onions, half of the chili and the bean sprouts. Stir-fry until the shrimp are just cooked through and noodles are hot, about 30 seconds. Remove ginger; discard. Serve in bowls; top with remaining green onions and chili.

Nutrition information per serving: 625 calories, 26% of calories from fat, 18 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 32 mg cholesterol, 94 g carbohydrates, 22 g protein, 700 mg sodium, 6 g fiber

Asian Bolognese with egg noodles

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Chef Jackie Shen of Red Light restaurant, who developed this recipe, recommends Chinese egg noodles for this dish, but spaghetti also can be used. Sriracha sauce is a Thai hot chili sauce sold at Asian and specialty food stores and some supermarkets. Shaoxing wine is available at Asian markets.

1 pound ground pork

3 green onions, white and green parts, minced

1 piece (1/2-inch long) ginger root, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

3 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce

2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

1 cup canned tomato puree

1 tablespoon red chili sauce (sriracha)

1/2 teaspoon salt, optional

8 ounces Chinese egg noodles or spaghetti, cooked to package directions

1 lime, quartered

1. Mix the pork, two-thirds of the green onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, wine and sesame oil in a large bowl. Transfer to a heavy 4-quart saucepan or wok; cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until pork is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato puree and chili sauce; cook, stirring often, over medium heat until sauce reduces slightly and thickens, about 30 minutes. Stir in salt to taste if needed.

2. Divide noodles among 4 bowls; top with sauce. Garnish with remaining green onions and lime wedges. Squeeze lime over sauced noodles just before eating.

Nutrition information per serving: 507 calories, 34% of calories from fat, 19 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 76 mg cholesterol, 53 g carbohydrates, 31 g protein, 1,345 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

Braised pork and Shanghai noodles

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

This recipe, from chef Paul Wildermuth of Opera restaurant, uses gai lan, or Chinese kale, sold at Asian markets; you can substitute broccolini, broccoli, kale or Swiss chard. Shanghai noodles also are at Asian markets.

1/4 cup vegetable oil

3 pounds shoulder roast or pork belly, coarsely chopped

1/4 teaspoon each: salt, freshly ground pepper

6 carrots, thickly sliced

3 ribs celery, thickly sliced

2 onions, chopped

1 cup red wine

3 cans (15 ounces each) chicken broth

3 whole star anise

2 heads garlic, cloves peeled, crushed

2 bay leaves

1 piece (3 inches long) ginger root, coarsely chopped

1 cup hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns

1/4 teaspoon sugar

2 stalks gai lan or kale, chopped, blanched

1 package (8 ounces) mushrooms

1 bunch green onions, minced

2 pounds Shanghai noodles, cooked to package directions

4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled, optional

8 Thai basil leaves, julienned, optional

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven over high heat. Season the pork with the salt and pepper; cook in batches to brown, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer meat to a large bowl; set aside. Add the carrots, celery and onions to the Dutch oven; cook, stirring, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Remove; set aside. Add the red wine to Dutch oven; cook, stirring up browned bits, 1 minute.

2. Return the meat and vegetables to the Dutch oven; add the chicken broth, star anise, garlic, bay leaves, ginger root, hoisin sauce, Sichuan peppercorns and sugar. Cook until pork is tender, about 2 hours. Transfer the meat to a large bowl with a slotted spoon. Strain cooking liquid; discard vegetables and spices. Return liquid to Dutch oven; heat to a boil over high heat. Cook until reduced to about 3 cups, about 3 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat; add the gai lan, mushrooms and green onions. Cook, stirring, until mushrooms soften, about 3 minutes. Transfer to the Dutch oven. Return pork to Dutch oven. Cook, stirring, over low heat until warm, about 5 minutes. Add the noodles; cook, gently stirring, 1 minute. Stir in the crumbled goat cheese. Transfer to a serving platter; garnish with basil.

Nutrition information per serving: 883 calories, 25% of calories from fat, 24 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 221 mg cholesterol, 103 g carbohydrates, 59 g protein, 1,182 mg sodium, 7 g fiber

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