Sunday, September 26, 2010

Beating the heat with Cold Crystal Noodles

It's been hot here the past couple of days, so hot that most foods seem too much of a bother to eat, much less make. And that's when I think of some of the great foods the Chinese have developed over the centuries to make even the muggiest day a reason for celebration. 

Now that Indian summer, or what the Chinese call the "autumn tiger," is upon us with a vengeance, it's time to break out the cold noodles.

My endless love for China's hot-weather foods is rooted in the years I lived in Taipei. Although I always dreaded the suffocating tropical heat of a Taiwan summer, at the same time I could hardly wait for two things: the arrival of the summer fruits, and the day when restaurants would start posting signs that said liangmian shangshi (cold noodles now available) in their windows. 

Most of the noodles were made out of good old flour and water, but once in a while there would be someone with a different take on what a noodle should be. This is one of them. 

Since they're my favorites
I christened this dish with a perfectly boring name - Cold Crystal Noodles - because the Chinese name means "the little fishes that got away," I guess because the noodles bear more than a passing resemblance to whiting. I knew that calling this dish The Little Fishes That Got Away in the event anyone ever read this blog, this could easily lead to all sorts of confusion and recriminations and exasperated finger-pointing, hence the gray flannel suit name.

A traditional treat from northern China, these translucent little strips are made out of either cornstarch or green bean powder mixed with some wheat starch. This gives them that tactile quality so treasured by the Chinese, the mouth feel that the Taiwanese gleefully call “Q” – it’s a chewiness and bounciness that, when found in any dish, is pounced on by happy Chinese people with considerable delight, and I totally agree with the sentiment. 

It’s amazing the number of Chinese dishes that have Q in them, like the big tapioca pearls called boba, chewy breads, beef tendons braised to a wobbly tenderness and then chilled with a hot sauce, delicately cooked sea cucumbers, jellyfish salads, and noodles like these. And once you learn to appreciate this texture, there’s a whole new layer of enjoyment to be found in the foods of China.

Another good thing about this dish is that it is almost a salad with noodles. You get to use as many and as much of the condiments as you wish, and these all lend their own textures to the original Q, so you have soft and crunchy and chewy all mingling together. The sauce is perfectly balanced according to your taste, and it too adds a plethora of flavors to the bowl:

Cold crystal noodles  
Louyuer  漏魚兒
Northern China
Serves 3 to 4
& they've almost gone away

1¼ cups cornstarch
10 tablespoons wheat starch
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 cups boiling water
Large pot of boiling water
Condiments (three or more of the following):
Carrots, finely julienned, blanched and chilled
Cucumbers, finely julienned
Mung bean sprouts, blanched and chilled
Chinese chives, cut into 1-inch lengths (or tender green onions julienned), blanched and chilled
Bamboo shoots, fresh or frozen, finely julienned, blanched and chilled
2 eggs, beaten, fried into thin omelets, and thinly shredded
Pressed bean curd, finely shredded
Black mushrooms, thinly sliced and fried
Cilantro, coarsely chopped
Green onions, thinly shredded

3 tablespoons roasted sesame paste
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 to 3 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1½ tablespoons good dark vinegar (like balsamic)
1 to 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 to 5 tablespoons chili oil
1. Mix the cornstarch and wheat starch together in a large bowl. Stir in the oil and mix to distribute it. Pour in the boiling water all at once and mix quickly with a rubber spatula, scraping down the sides of the bowl. After a minute, you should have a smooth paste. Cover the bowl with a towel and let the dough cool down to room temperature while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Prepare as much and as many of the condiments as you wish. I usually go with about a cup each of the vegetables. You may blanch the vegetables in the noodle water after the noodles have been cooked, then rinse them in very cold water to stop the cooking. Keep the condiments in separate piles or bowls and let them chill in bowls of ice water.

3. Mix the sauce ingredients together in a bowl until the sauce is smooth. Use as much of each ingredient as you like, tasting it as you go. When you are satisfied with it, set it aside.

4. When the dough has cooled down enough to handle easily, take about 2 teaspoons of the mixture and roll it into a ball. Roll it out with your hands on a cutting board until the noodle is about 7 inches long, or the width of a chopstick; the ends of the noodle should be tapered. Set the noodle aside on a rimless baking sheet and cover the finished noodles with a tea towel while you prepare the rest of the noodles.

5. Once all the noodles have been rolled out, bring the large pot of water to a boil. Place a large colander in the sink. Gently slide about 15 to 20 of the noodles into the boiling water; in about 30 seconds to a minute, the noodles will all float to the top. Take your spider or slotted spoon and scoop the noodles out of the water onto a plate, and then slide the noodles off the plate and into the colander. Run some cold water over the noodles to stop the cooking, and gently shake the colander to separate the noodles. Don’t be alarmed if there’s breakage – they’ll still taste and look just fine. Repeat this with the rest of the noodles until all have been cooked and cooled.
Zaijian 'til next summer

6. Fill a large bowl with very cold water and slide the noodles into the water so that they can chill until you are ready to serve them. If you wish, you can blanch your vegetables at this point, too; just place each kind of vegetable one at a time in the boiling water for about 15 to 30 seconds until tender, then scoop them out, rinse under running water, and chill in a bowl of cold water.

7. To serve, gently drain the noodles and distribute them between 3 or 4 bowls, reserving a few perfect noodles to place on top and disguise any breakage below. Place individual piles of the condiments on top of the noodles; arrange them in a pleasant pattern by alternating the colors. Drizzle the sauce over the top and serve. 

No comments:

Post a Comment