Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chinese Noodle Making Adventure

A recipe is its own language.  With a reliable standardized set of precise measurements and concise directions a recipe will yield a consistent result, if applied accurately.  This terrifies some people.

This perhaps is why there are 3 types of people in this world: those that follow recipes, those that don't, and those that don't cook at all.  Changing the way I make food is just far enough out of my comfort zone to feel thrillingly adventurous.

I am a recipe cook.  It's a cliche to admit learning cooking "at grandmother's knee."  But I really wonder how many people really do learn how to cook from an older relative. (Which I should mention that most of my grandparents' and great grandparents' generation never used a recipe, and as a consequence, took the secret code of their dishes with them to the grave.)  I didn't learn much about cooking from the older relatives. 

My mom did, however, teach me how to read a recipe through a 4-H project.  The first cooking project that I took was called "The Road to Good Cooking."  The manual explained good cooking habits, especially measuring and food safety by using traffic sign metaphors.

This is why I am a recipe cook.  (Perhaps this is also why I'm a good driver.)

Even when I'm creating my own dish, the urge to write it down, to record the precision of how the ingredients merge and emerge into a coherent dish is strong.  So, when Chen told me that there is no recipe for Chinese noodles, that you only mix together water and flour, I was skeptical.  When he explained that the technique to make them involved hand stretching, as he gestured a stretching motion with his hands I thought that I'd never be able to master noodle making.  If you can't write it down into a recipe, how can I translate it?  Sometimes a word by word recipe isn't strong enough to convey the technique.  Sometimes you need hands or practice by the side of a master.

Chen started the Chinese noodles by adding water to all purpose flour.  With incredible dexterity, he mixed the dough with chop sticks until a stiff dough formed.

Then, we kneaded the dough for about 20 minutes.  This is the stiffest dough that I have ever worked with.  The kneading the dough though develops the strands of gluten, which allows the dough to stretch with the elasticity of a fat rubber band.

This dough is about twice as stiff as an average bread dough. It begins rough, but as it's worked developed a smooth solidity.  Here is Chen and me getting a bit of a workout kneading the dough.

 Next we patted the dough into flat disks about 1 inch thick and 8 inches in diameter.

Then, the Chen cut the dough into 1 inch wide batons.

Next, he coated the dough batons in vegetable oil, then wrapped then in plastic wrap.  It is important to let the dough sit for at least two hours, so we had plenty of time to sit and drink tea and eat silver ear mushroom soup.

Finally, we patted each baton flat with our fingers, and then rolled it out with a special Chinese-style rolling pin.

From there, the dough stretched and snapped like elastic as Chen pulled both ends.

Then the noodles were cooked.  Instead of timing the cooking Chen showed me how to let the noodles come to a boil, and then add cold water until it stopped boiling.  Repeat this twice, and then by the third time to pot of noodles comes to a boil, they are ready.

The noodles were fresh, pleasantly chewy, and readily absorbed the spicy/salty toppings both Lan and Chen had made.

From top, clockwise: pork and peppers; ground beef, potato, onion mushroom; fried tomato and egg with ginger.

My Chinese noodle-making adventure showed me a new way to learn a recipe.  And, I am richer for the experience because not only did Chen share food, but knowledge of how to make that food which will stick with me long after I've eaten.

How about you?  How have you learned to cook?  Do you know any special techniques that can't be learned by a recipe?  Who taught them to you?


MaryKate said...

Not only did I not have a grandmother to show me the way of cooking. My mother didn't really let the children in the kitchen. I learned to cook the hard way: recipes, nerve, and a lot of failed tries. I've gotten better but I'm still experimenting. I suppose, then, you are one of my kitchen teachers, by way of computer screen. That noodle-making looks fun...

ELI said...

I can't believe that you made your own noodles by hand, that is so impressive. I come from an Italian background, and my husband and I make our own pasta, but we use a rolling machine. I wish my Grandfather was still around to help me with the pasta—I was too young to care when he was still cooking. Now I just use memory and old notes to piece the process together.