The next time you slurp a noodle, pause to ponder this: its history stretches back at least 4,000 years — which makes the association of noodles with long life in the celebration of Chinese New Year doubly meaningful.
According to archaeologists who uncovered evidence of prehistoric pasta at a site in northwest China, noodles made of millet had improbably been preserved in an upturned bowl in the debris of a giant earthquake. “Thin, delicate and yellow, they resembled the traditional La-Mian noodle that is made by repeatedly pulling and stretching the dough by hand,” a scientist involved in the excavation told The Guardian.
In 2021, stretched noodles still abide. And Chinese New Year, which arrives on February 12, makes a perfect excuse to explore their many forms.
Asian restaurants with “noodle” in the name are an obvious starting point for a deeper dive into Chinese cuisine in San Antonio, and Shifu Noodle at McCreless Market is one of the newest. The owners, Chrystal Yi and Wendy Jiang, hail from China’s Hunan and Sichuan provinces respectively, and their menu offers many auspicious dishes worth attention. Dan Dan, a typical Sichuan street food, is most often made with a thin, round wheat noodle and can be served warm or cold. Shifu’s version — with minced beef, peanuts and preserved mustard greens — is relatively mild, as are the fresh mushroom (flat rice) noodles with chicken, egg and the ubiquitous Sichuan peppercorns. In contrast, San Antonio’s Sichuan House cheekily labels its version on the menu as “Not Dan Dan [garlicky cold],” and they arrive unabashedly aflame with chili oil.
The array of noodle offerings is impressive at Ming’s on N. St. Mary’s, where the varieties include sweet potato, rice, egg and mung bean. The eatery is chef-owner Ming Qian’s latest and most ambitious. Consider dishes such as the Sichuan, Summer, or Lucky Dragon chilled noodle bowls, all served with a variety of greens.
Mala sweet potato noodles appear either served in a warm bowl and or in soup. Consider kabocha squash or pork belly — or both — as optional extras. The coconut curry rice noodle soup and the nouc cham rice noodle bowl represent the respective noodle cultures of Thailand and Vietnam.
Korea also takes noodle chilling seriously. Don’t be surprised if a bowl of cold and sturdy buckwheat noodles, or Japanese soba, at a Korean restaurant arrives complete with ice cubes — and a healthy dab of fiery gochujang, or chili paste.
At the cafe tucked inside Seoul Asian Market at Harry Wurzbach and Rittiman roads, one dependable option is Kalgooksoo noodle soup, grounded in knife-cut wheat noodles. The spicy Jjol Myun noodles are made from wheat with additional starch to enhance the chew. But you are hereby challenged to order the spicy Korean cold noodles at least once. Ice cubes not promised.
Although Japanese Yakisoba sounds like the noodles should be buckwheat, they’re actually a thin Chinese wheat noodle, testimony to the lack of borders in the noodle world. Look for the stir-fried dish at places such as stalwart Niki’s Tokyo Inn, where you’ll also find the traditional udon soup, comprised of thick wheat noodles in a gentle broth.
Flat rice noodles typically appear in dishes from both Thailand and Cambodia, as do the traditional “glass” or mung bean noodles. At Thai Esan & Noodle House, you’ll find both: rice noodles in the ever-popular Pad Thai and stir-fried clear glass — also called “cellophane” — noodles in the classic Pad Woon Sen.
Cambodia is represented by Golden Wat, a former pop-up project of Pieter Sypesteyn and his Cambodian-American wife, Susan Kaars-Sypesteyn. The duo hopes to reopen in Sypesteyn’s former Cookhouse space in mid-February. Once that happens, look for rice noodles with pounded fish in the Mekong Magic. Also seek out the stir-fried glass noodles with pork and mushrooms.
Looping back to those hand-pulled noodles, if you’re lucky you can catch the action through the kitchen window at Lucky Noodle House on West Avenue at Blanco Road. The hand-pulled wheat noodles come either wide or narrow — take your pick or ask a helpful server.
The wide noodles in the hand-pulled noodles stir fried with beef were at once tender and bouncy. The thinner version worked just as well in the cold noodles with abundant garlic sauce.
In fact, those proved the best for slippery slurping and trying to keep the noodle as much in one piece as possible to ensure a long life.
No cutting, in other words.
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