Thursday, May 10, 2012

Yunnan's stir-fried rice noodles

When it comes to starch in Yunnan cuisine, only one immediately comes to mind: rice noodles. 

People who are not familiar with these often get them mixed up with cellophane noodles (also called mung noodles or fensi). And this is perfectly understandable because in their dry state they look very similar: brittle, white, and translucent.

Rice noodles, though, are favored more in the south of China, while cellophane noodles reside comfortably in North China's many cuisines. Taiwan has some truly wonderful brands (particularly the ones made in Puli), and you will also find them made in China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. The main difference -- besides quality, of course -- is thickness and whether the noodles are fresh or dry.

Textures & flavors abound
The dry noodles come in two basic shapes: thin round and thick flat. They are pretty much interchangeable when it comes to taste, although sticklers will say, for example, that Taiwanese fried mifen must be of the thin and round variety. If there are no sticklers around, it's pretty much your call.

Whenever you find fresh rice noodles in your Chinese grocers, think of this recipe and snag a package. Fresh noodles are ethereal and completely worth seeking out. If, on the other hand, you just have some dried mifen lurking in your pantry, it works beautifully here, and it doesn't matter whether it is thick or thin. This really is a forgiving and very accommodating dish.

In fact, you should think of this is merely a template for further explorations. Once you've mastered the minimal skills required for stir-frying rice noodles, let your imagination and appetite soar.

Today, for example, I decided I couldn't face another breakfast of eggs and toast or another bowl of oatmeal, so we had these rice noodles topped with fried eggs. Luscious.

Fresh wood ear
The noodles end up being a bland but plush background for an assortment of wonderful flavors. I had some fresh wood ear mushrooms in the fridge (we are lucky enough to live in mushroom country), so a bunch of them went into the wok. They too are bland, but they act as a nice, neutral setup for all the fireworks that are going on:

Red chilies explode, but in a nice way. The ones I used were the little dry Thai chilies that really only show off their heat if they gang up on your tongue; here, they mingle with everything else and so just shimmer away. The fermented black beans are nice salty punches of umami, scenting each bite as they burst and then disappear. Likewise the cilantro offers a pleasant funk, while the green onions lend their usual herbal note.

It's a wonderful combination.

Yunnan's stir-fried rice noodles
Yunnan chao mifen 雲南炒米粉
Serves 2 as a main dish

6 ounces dry rice noodles or 12 ounces fresh rice noodles
Boiling water, as needed for dry rice noodles
10 fresh or dry wood ear mushrooms, or other mushrooms
Small bunch of cilantro
5 small dried chilies, more or less
2 tablespoons fermented black beans
1 green onion, trimmed
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil

1. If you are using dried noodles, place them in a large work bowl and cover them with boiling water. As the water cools a bit, loosen the strands. After about 10 minutes, check the noodles; they should be loose and plump. If not, cover them with more boiling water. When the noodles are white and slithery, rinse them in a colander under cool tap water. Drain them and shake them dry. (If you are using fresh noodles, fluff them up so that they are in loose strands that don't stick together.)

2. Clean the mushrooms and trim, if necessary. Cut them into bite-sized pieces if they are large. Rinse the cilantro, shake dry, and trim off the ends; chop it coarsely. Break the chilies open and shake out the seeds, and then crumble them into pieces no larger than a quarter inch. Lightly chop the fermented black beans. Cut the green onion thinly on the diagonal.

3. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the mushrooms, cilantro, chilies, black beans, and green onion, and stir-fry for around a minute. Toss in the softened dried noodles or the fresh noodles and continue to stir-fry over high for around 5 minutes until the noodles are lightly browned. Add the soy sauce and sesame oil and toss some more; taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot.

Today's breakfast

Wood ear mushrooms are becoming more popular now in Chinese markets, but if you don't have them in your area, dried ones are easily reconstituted. Just remember that a tiny dried wood ear turns into an enormous one after it is soaked in boiling water. If you do happen to soak more than you can immediately use, just drain them and store in a plastic bag on top of a paper towel in the fridge for a day or two.

Fresh rice noodles will be fine if kept in the fridge unopened for a couple of days, although they will lose some of their softness.

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