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Flipping your noodle

Pan-fried Chinese pasta provides a crispy bed for meat and vegetables

By Nina Simonds
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2009

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When Lee Mu-Tsun, the Cantonese chef and teacherwho taught me how to make crispy pan-fried noodles, prepared the dish, he was simply mesmerizing. His technique involved tossing a cake of noodles high in the air. He held the wok firmly with both hands, dropped it a few inches, then casually tossed the cake out of the pan and toward the ceiling so that it landed back in the wok on the reverse side. All the students in his class were awestruck.

You don't need to be as theatrical to produce fine crispy Chinese noodles. Make them with all kinds of egg pasta, an assortment of savory vegetables, meat if you like, or even seafood.

Noodles are an extraordinarily versatile food and a staple of everyday Chinese life. They're cheap, they lend themselves to the whim of the cook or what's available that day, and most important, they're filling. That's why in China you find noodles in small, humble shops as well as large, refined restaurants. Noodles can be modest creations, served simply in a broth or stew with simple garnishes, or they can be extravagant affairs topped with expensive seafood, meat, and vegetables.

When I studied cooking in Taiwan many years ago, the chef prepared the dish in much the same way I still do today. He boiled a batch of thin egg noodles, drained them, and put the hot noodles into an oiled pie pan. Once cool, the noodles formed a compact "cake." He poured some oil into a well-seasoned wok, heated it until it was near-smoking, and dropped the noodle cake into the pan, swirling it around over high heat. When the noodles were crisp and golden, he effortlessly flipped the noodle cake into the air and over so that the other side could cook until brown ("Two Sides Brown" was the name of a favorite noodle dish that I ordered every time I went to a Cantonese restaurant near the cooking school).

When the noodles were done, he flipped them onto a heated platter and set about making a stir-fried dish of chicken with vegetables in a savory sauce. The result was superb: Crisp and tender noodles were smothered with a colorful mélange of shredded vegetables garnished with slender pieces of chicken, all coated in a garlicky soy sauce.

In China each region has its own noodle variety: In the north, where noodles are believed to have originated, traditional flour-and-water noodles are hand-thrown, a skill that is becoming more and more rare. Hand-thrown noodles have a silky texture that is especially appealing in soups and sauces. In a cooler climate, wheat-based staples are more common than rice so noodles are consumed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They also may be made with other grains such as sorghum and oats.

In western China, wheat flour noodles and bean threads or cellophane noodles (made with mung bean starch) are especially popular. The famous Sichuanese classic "Ants on a Tree" is a dish made with ground pork and cellophane noodles. Once cooked, bean threads become almost gelatinous since they soak up the liquid they are cooked with. In eastern China, where food is generally more refined, delicate noodles made from rice are enjoyed in soups and stir-fries, or deep-fried into crispy nests where they may form a bed for stir-fried mixtures. And in the south, egg noodles are more the norm in dishes like "Two Sides Brown" or soups.

Wherever Chinese noodles are prepared and whatever form they take, they are usually long and they are always slurped with relish. It is believed that noodles impart a wish of longevity to those who devour them.

Nina Simonds (Joanne Rathe/Globe Photo) Cooking teacher and author Nina Simonds tosses egg pasta in a wok as she puts together her recipe for crispy pan-fried Chinese noodles.