I’m not Asian. I’m an American, of pan-European ancestry. I’ve never traveled farther east than Switzerland. My culinary DNA is mostly Italian, but there’s true appeal in good Chinese cuisine (as served in American restaurants).
I have worked in several Chinese restaurants, and I’ve always enjoyed the balanced teamwork that Chinese food shows. A good dish will always have some sour, some sweet, some salty and some bitter. Crunchy water chestnuts snuggle up against soft noodles and crisp bamboo shoots, all unified by savory sauce.
I revisited a local Oriental market yesterday. It’s a small shop, for a place that sells the foods that 4.5 billion humans enjoy. The shelves crowded with exotic (to Western eyes) preserved vegetables, a hundred varieties of rice, and aisles of sauces.
I’ve found that most of these shops’ proprietors are knowledgeable and quite willing to explain what their mystery ingredients (many of which are not labeled in English!) are, or how to recreate a restaurant favorite. Yesterday, though, I was just killing time and shopping for whims.
Starting in the produce section, I found bags of peeled garlic cloves. Convenient! It costs a bit more to buy the pre-peeled cloves than it does to buy heads of garlic, of course, but the convenience is worth it.
Next, I grabbed Enoki mushrooms. They’re tiny mushrooms, looking like a tiny ball on the end of a stalk of grass, all the color of ripe wheat. They’re great in stir fry.
Bok choy was tempting but for whatever reason, didn’t really keep my attention, so I put it back and wandered to the next aisle: noodles.
Italians are famous for pasta; history tells me that Marco Polo brought it back from China in the thirteenth century. We owe him a debt of gratitude! I grabbed a package of flat rice noodles, looking like a paler version of fettuccine. My random dinner was taking shape.
The last aisle that I shopped was full of sauces, more than half of which had English labels. Korean barbeque sauce, oyster sauce, eight feet of varieties of soy sauce all jostle for attention. I grabbed a bottle of teriyaki (which is childishly simple to make, but I couldn’t find mirin and was feeling lazy).
On the way to the register, I found a bag of dried black fungus. When it is dry, it looks like random scraps of leather cut from an old shoe. Rehydrated, it is supple, interesting and deeply flavored. It went into my basket and I left before I could impulse buy anything else.
Once I was home, I took the last of a bag of shrimp out of the freezer to thaw, and my dinner ingredients were complete.
This meal could have come from any part of the market. I might’ve grabbed rice instead of noodles, or water chestnuts instead of (or in addition to) the black fungus. The improv nature of stir fry is one of the reasons why I prefer it to the much more measured field of baking.
Since raw (or lightly cooked) garlic is a very strong flavor, I decided to caramelize it. Long slow cooking turns garlic from a bright blast of flavor to a sweet, rich but soft one. I dropped about two tablespoons of coconut oil into a wok, added the garlic, and put it over the lowest heat my stove would do, then went away to check my email. I tossed the garlic three times in the next half hour, until it had changed from firm white cloves to soft, golden cloves with a hint of browning.
The noodles’ instructions said to soak them in hot water for ten minutes. I’ve tried that before and they come out quite underdone, so this time I soaked them for ten minutes, as directed, but then added them to the wok. Since the black fungus needs rehydration, I added it to the same zip-loc bag as the noodles.
I turned the heat up to high under the wok and added the enokis. You’ll have to trim them off of their base but that it just one or two cuts.
Enokis are small, so you’ll want to keep either stirring or tossing the veggies or they’ll burn. I sauteed them for about a minute, until the stalks were starting to relax towards limpness, and then added the (drained) noodles and black fungus.
I added the teriyaki sauce and covered the wok. This lets the whole mixture steam. Then I peeled the shrimp, stopping every few minutes to toss the veggies around to mix them.
Once the shrimp were peeled, I removed the wok cover and dropped the shrimp on top of the noodles, then tossed the wok so that the shrimp were on the bottom.
These shrimp were super mongo huge 13-15 count shrimp, so I cooked it for about three more minutes, until the shrimp were uniformly light pink, then served the mix in bowls. If they’d been the smaller shrimp that I usually use, it would have taken less time, but a local supermarket had a really good sale a few weeks ago so huge shrimp is what I had. It’s a cross to bear.
Pretty Good Impromptu Oriental Noodles
Serves two hungry people, or four as a side dish
4 oz peeled garlic cloves
2 tb coconut oil
4 oz dry banh pho noodles
2 oz dried black fungus
4 oz enoki mushrooms
2 oz teriyaki sauce
6 oz shrimp