Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hong Kong style alkaline egg noodles

I'm a big fan of noodles, and so when there was a discussion recently on eGullet about the use of alkaline water in Chinese food, it got me to thinking about some of the great southern style noodles that call for a bit of alkali in the dough. 

This solution (basically potassium chloride and bicarbonate of soda dissolved in water) raises the pH of the dough and gives it a nice, chewy bite. 

Called jianshui (alkaline water) or xuejianshui (snow alkaline water) in Chinese, this can be found in most Chinese groceries in a canned goods aisle.

The secret ingredient
When I think of Cantonese style pasta, my mind immediately goes to one thing and one thing only: Green Onion and Young Ginger Noodles, which has the simplest of sauces. 

For years, it has been my great personal barometer with which to test any new Hong Kong style restaurant, because nothing can hide in this dish. Basically just fresh noodles, young ginger, green onions, oyster sauce, and oil, it is an inspired combination that allows each ingredient to be enjoyed to its fullest.

Over the next few weeks -- when fresh young ginger is just beginning to show up in the market around here and green onions are at their best -- is the perfect time for this extraordinary dish.

Oyster sauce with ginger & green onions
When you buy young ginger, look for Hawaiian ginger, which tends to be less infused with chemicals than the Chinese ones. The ginger should have pink tips, as this shows new growth, and if you are lucky, the rhizomes will be gently infused with some more pink when you slice them.

The best young ginger has a creamy skin that is so tender that it does not have to be peeled. Just wash whatever amount you want to use, dry it off, and then slice it as thinly as you can with the grain. Then, shred these slices very, very finely to form a chiffonade. In this way, the ginger will lose any fieriness and practically melt in your mouth.

Noodle "nests"
The green onions likewise should be cut into as fine a julienne as possible. To do this, I cut each onion into 2-inch lengths and then lightly smack them with the side of a cleaver. Then, I just cut them lengthwise into as fine a shred as possible. This too makes them unobtrusive and more liable to meld into whatever you are preparing.

In this dish, the sauce is just about the simplest one around: fresh peanut or vegetable oil cooked with some oyster sauce. If you are a vegetarian or are allergic to shellfish, try one of the vegetarian oyster sauces, which are quite good. 

The oil is briefly fried to form shouyou, or "cooked oil." Any dish that has vegetable oil added to the final dressing is generally cooked first to remove any raw flavors, and here I fry it for a minute with the oyster sauce to bring out the brininess in the bottled sauce while cooking away the "canned" flavor. It's a small step, but it is one that I heartily recommend instead of pouring oyster sauce onto your food directly from the bottle.

Korean all purpose flour
Hong Kong style egg fettuccine
Gangshi danmian 港式蛋麵
Guangdong, Hong Kong
Makes 20 ounces fresh noodles, or about 4 servings

½ teaspoon alkaline water (jianshui)
2 tablespoons filtered water
2¼ cups Korean all-purpose flour
3 large organic eggs
Extra flour for rolling out the dough

1. Pour the alkaline water into the filtered water before mixing it into the flour and eggs. When these form a soft dough, cover it with a cloth and let it rest for about 30 minutes to relax the gluten.

"Lace" in the dough
2. If using a pasta machine, cut the dough into quarters, pat each piece liberally with some of the extra flour, and run them one at a time through the lowest setting on the pasta machine. Fold up each sheet into thirds (like a business letter) and turn it 90 degrees so that the folded edges are on your left and right. Fold it again once more so that it is no wider than the rollers on your pasta machine. Dust it lightly with flour and run it through the rollers again at the lowest setting; repeat this until there are no tears or "lace" in the sheet, and the dough looks soft and silky. 

3. Lightly sprinkle the dough with flour and increase the setting to "2," and run it through the rollers as before. Repeat until it is once again silky and increase the setting to 3 and so forth, up to at least the middle setting, which should be "5." Then, lightly dust the sheet, fold it once on itself, and let it rest under a cloth while you repeat these steps with the other three pieces of dough. If you are rolling this out by hand, use the largest rolling pin you have to roll the floured dough out into a thin sheet; this will probably be easiest if you divide the dough into four pieces, as with the machine. Cover each piece with a clean towel while you work on the other pieces.

Silky dough
4. Cut the dough using your pasta maker or by hand into long ¼-inch strips. Dust the noodles heavily with flour (you can sift it off and use it again later on, if you wish) so that they do not stick to each other. If you are cooking the noodles right away, proceed to the next step. If you want to make these noodles ahead of time, dry them in small "nests" by forming eight loose piles of heavily floured noodles on a clean cloth. (Don't dry them over a rack, as the dough is very brittle and will start to break as soon as it dries.) When the noodles are completely dry, store them in a closed container, preferably in the fridge.

5. To cook the noodles, bring a large pot of salted water to a full boil, and have another couple of cups of boiling water ready on the side. Add the noodles and stir gently until the water boils again. Cook the noodles until barely tender, then drain them into a colander set in the sink. Rinse the noodles with cool running water, and then toss them with the extra boiling water. Drain and serve or use in a dish that shows them off well, like the next one:



Favorite HK noodles
Green Onion and Young Ginger Noodles 
Cong jiang laomian 蔥薑撈麵 
Guangdong, Hong Kong
Serves 4

The above recipe for fresh noodles, or about 20 ounces fresh egg noodles
One 3-inch "finger" of young ginger
4 green onions, trimmed
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil
½ cup oyster sauce

1. Cut the ginger into fine threads (see the discussion above). Cut the onions into 2-inch lengths, smack lightly with the side of a cleaver, and shred lengthwise as finely as possible.
Simmer the oyster sauce and oil

2. Cook the noodles as directed, and while they are boiling, place the oil and oyster sauce in a large saucepan or wok and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the oyster sauce for about a minute. Remove from the heat.

3. Drain, rinse, douse the noodles with that extra boiling water, and drain thoroughly. Dump the noodles into the saucepan with the oyster sauce and add half or more of the ginger and onions. Toss the noodles with the sauce until each strand is coated. Divide the noodles among 4 bowls or plates, sprinkle with the rest of the ginger and green onions, and serve.

Tips

Buy green onions that have fresh rootlets; the whiter and firmer they are, the fresher the onion. Also look at the tips, which should have no rotting or withered areas.

Store green onions wrapped in a damp paper towel, placed in a plastic bag, and plunked in the veggie bin. This will keep them happy for a least a few days.

Beautiful young ginger
Fresh young ginger has a very short shelf life, so enjoy it like you do the daffodils: now. It will be content with a few days in the fridge if kept wrapped up in plastic wrap, but moisture of any type spells a death sentence for this defenseless rhizome.

Unlike older ginger, young ginger should not be frozen, as its transcendent qualities just don't survive the deep freeze.

Likewise, while some folks recommend storing young ginger in Shaoxing rice wine, I haven't enjoyed it that way at all; the ginger's fragrance and sprightly texture gets lost, and the wine doesn't take on any gingery flavors, so I don't see the point in wasting perfectly delectable ginger this way. If you are faced with extra young ginger, get some good frozen jiaozi dumplings (preferably pork or lamb) and dip them in some tasty vinegar before tossing some of these ginger threads on top. Yum.

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