The noodle seems a simple thing, just flour paste of some kind that keeps well dried and offers the basis of a quick meal. As Americans, we probably first knew it as a fat, limp thing in canned noodle soup. As Detroiters, we also knew it well as the centerpiece of Prince spaghetti day.
But it wasn’t until the addition of several authentic ethnic cuisines — most noticeably, Asian, other than “Cantonese” — to the mainstream over the past 20-some years that we’ve really gotten to known the noodle.
I first confronted it early in the same time frame during a trip to Japan. On that sojourn, I was treated to a one-pound Australian lobster tail appetizer, with Champagne sauce and real gold-leaf garnish; prawns the size of a child’s forearm, grilled and served with cold sake, the crushed, crisped heads reserved for me, the special guest; plump oysters served in the home of an oysterman who’d brought them in from the rafts an hour before.
But in the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima I also discovered the noodle shop. Take a stool, order the type — soba, udon, ramen and more — the broth and garnish, and a tall beer. A very fine, casual lunch could be had cheap. I took to soba in a big way, with its mildly dusky buckwheat flavor, and preferred its thinness to the broader, less flavorful udon (sorry, purists, but they remind me of Campbell’s chicken noodle noodles).
Soon after returning, two serendipitous things happened. A true-to-home Japanese restaurant opened downriver to cater to the influx of Japanese auto execs. During lunch there with one of them, I was invited to order first and chose soba with shrimp and vegetables. He looked at me with surprise, and even a little relief, and said, “I’ll change my order then,” and called for a big bowl of noodles too. “It’s what I really wanted,” he said, explaining that he was a little embarrassed to order “peasant” food while on a business lunch.
And soon after that, I discovered Noble Fish in Clawson, a wholesaler of sashimi-quality seafood with a small retail business in the front — a tiny sushi bar, and a food market that might just as well be on any street in Tokyo. It was, and is, one of the best Asian food sources in metro Detroit, though many of the items it sells can increasingly be found on area supermarket shelves.
So I could have garnished noodles at home, anytime, with the ingredients found there. By far, my favorite — and that of my family — became soba with bits of pork, shiitake mushrooms and vegetables.
The recipe is below. Although the original calls for making the fish broth dashi by steeping dried bonito flakes and kombu seaweed in boiling water, perfectly good instant dashi granules can be found in any decent Asian food section. If you’re in an Asian market and like shiitakes, look for them dried and in larger amounts for far less money than you’ll pay in a gourmet food store. Chill the pork in the freezer for a half-hour or so and it’ll slice thinner, easier. Be sure to use light soy sauce instead of dark, or the soup will taste too heavy. And mirin, so you know, is Japanese sweet rice cooking-wine. For the record, the soup stock that you’ll make from this recipe is called kakejiru.
I’ve found that none of this dish — soup or noodles — reheats well, so cut the recipe in half if you can’t eat half-a-dozen servings in one sitting.
It may look like a lot of fuss. It’s not. And it goes down a lot easier than grilled crushed prawn heads.
Japanese Garnished Noodles
(Adapted from Japanese Cooking, by Peter and Joan Martin)
For 6 servings
6-12 dried shiitake mushrooms
3/4 pound lean pork
3/4 pound carrots, peeled
1/2 pound raw spinach
3 green onions
6 cups dashi
1/2 cup light soy sauce
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash MSG (optional)
1 pound dried soba noodles
Cover dried mushrooms with boiling water; let soak until soft (about 20 minutes). Tear
or cut off hard stems, then slice each cap into strips. Strain and save the soaking
Cut pork into 1-inch square cubes, then slice each thinly.
Thinly slice carrots, crosswise.
Rinse spinach and cut off any tough stems.
Slice green onions diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces.
Combine strained mushroom soaking liquid, dashi, soy sauce, mirin, salt and MSG (if using); bring to a boil. Add mushrooms, pork and carrots; reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add spinach and green onions and simmer for another minute or two.
Meanwhile, bring to a boil several quarts of water, or enough to amply cover the noodles. Add them, stir and return to boil. Pour in one cup cold water; return to boil. Repeat twice more. Drain noodles in a colander and rinse under cold water. Set aside.
When the soup is finished, reheat noodles by pouring boiling water over them. Divide among six deep bowls.
Ladle broth, pork and vegetables over noodles in each bowl and serve immediately.Ric Bohy is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org