There was a domestic discussion on rice noodles. So, on the kitchen shelf perpetually sits a pack of Taiwanese Hsinchu rice noodle, and I sometimes buy a handful of fresh salted mustard green at the wet market to cook with thinly sliced pork, then, divide the quick stew into small packets and stow them in away in the freezer. By simply cooking the rice noodle in broth and reheat a pack of the stew, then you have the hearty soup noodle often seen in cha chaan teng. It’s just that I never ate it, because the pork and salted mustard green stew has to be paired with Dongguan rice noodle, it has to be. However, after the discussion, it came to the conclusion that I am the only one who cares about what kind of rice noodle is used in cooking different dishes.
Rice and water, the only ingredients in making the two noodles. Hsinchu rice noodles are finer, cooked to semi-transparent and their volume remains pretty much the same afterward. When you bite the cooked noodles, you can almost hear a crisp brittle sound of a broken fishing line that is tightly pulled. Having a firm and chewy texture, Hsinchu rice noodles are good for being cooked in broth till they absorb all the liquid without leaving a drop in the pot. Dongguan rice noodles are thicker than their Taiwanese counterparts. After cooking in broth, they gain more volume and the strands of translucent hazy moonlight turns into a pot of opaque milky liquid. Take a bite from the chopsticks, the soft and silky noodles glide down to your throat and belly right away. These are the rice noodles which should be used in pork and mustard green rice noodles in soup, Singaporean spicy fried rice noodles, and eggplant and minced pork rice noodle stew. It will be a totally different thing when another kind of rice noodle is used.
In my childhood when dim sum carts were still commonly seen at Chinese restaurants, one of the carts did not carry a bamboo steamer but a large steel plate. On the shallow shelves at the front of the cart sat pan-fried turnip cakes, taro cakes and the like, while on the steel plate, there was a knoll of “hometown stir-fried rice noodle”. When I ordered the noodles, the dim sum cart lady would have a quick stir fry of the rice noodle on the steel plate and then sprinkle some sesame seeds on it. The rice noodle was always served with a small plate of Chinese sweet sauce on the side. Whose hometown though? I always had that question in mind. Dim sum such as Chiuchow steamed dumplings and Shunde steamed dace balls have their origins stated, while shrimp dumplings with bamboo shoot and BBQ pork steamed rice rolls have the ingredients described in the titles. The stir-fried rice noodles, however, merely prefixed with “hometown”, leaving so much room for eaters to fill in the blank. The humble noodle consists of a medley of cabbage, carrots, eggs and other common ingredients, which is the reason why it needs emotionally appeal to the flavour of home, I guess? Anyways, the sweet sauce was the appeal, it didn’t really matter whose hometown the dish was from.
One day, in Kennedy Town, I passed by a grocery store with an almost bare shopfront — two baskets of eggs and packaged food, unable to be classified, on stacks of plastic baskets and carton boxes. In the shop, on the left was a wall of clear plastic boxes storing all sorts of dried noodles, and shelves displaying sauces and condiments that are staples to many Hong Kong households. You could get all you need in a Cantonese kitchen in this small store. On the right, there were refrigerators and more clear plastic boxes with dried noodles, and on boxes sat a pyramid of packages of Dongguan rice noodles that I had not seen for a long time. The dried rice noodles were wrapped in an unadorned clear plastic sheet which had a red printing and logo at the centre, and sealed with glue on two ends. I looked at the back of the pack, it read “rice and water” on the ingredient list. I took one pack from the pyramid and checked it out along with other groceries. The shop owner insisted on giving me a larger bag to put all the stuff in but I refused, explaining that my car was just across the street, and I dashed off. After settling in, I turned around and looked at the grocery store at a distance. Its faded shop sign wrote “xxxx 1924”. Almost a century old, no decoration or showcase, making use of daylight behind the wide-open gate, the shop probably closes when the sun sets.
I took three discs of the dried rice noodles out from the pack and immerse them in boiling water which turned milky in minutes. The fragrance of rice filled the air. That fragrance. I love the mellow fragrance of rice, and because of that, I love rice noodles as well. I drizzled oil over a hot wok, gave the ingredients a quick fry and put them aside, made the shredded egg, fried the aromatics, and then added the rice noodles. With a pair of chopsticks, I loosened up and stirred the noodles in the wok, added the cooked ingredients one by one before seasoning the food with salt in the end. Yes, it’s just salt. I like adding a light drizzle of soy sauce or fish sauce to my fried rice or certain stir-fried dishes just before the heat is off to elevate the umami. But for this rice noodle stir fry, only salt is used to keep the pure aroma of rice and whiteness of the noodle. A humble and plain dish just like the egg fried rice, this rice noodle stir fry takes quite some time and effort to cook in the wok but it is not up for a big price tag nor would anyone pay for it in a restauratn. Simple food like this also does not taste as complex and profound as those in fine dining. Yet, the simplicity and unadorned quality of it sometimes give a sense of grounding contentment. I kept stir-frying the rice noodles, zoned out, and the tunes of an old song (the cover version by singer Karen Mok) repeatedly played in my head, “It’s dazzling out there, it’s helpless out there.” I guess, sometimes from an unembellished flavour we come home, and see that a home is where the heart is.
Dried rice noodle 3 discs, 68g
Egg 3 pieces
Ham 4 slices, 40g
Carrot ½ stick, 40g
Yellow garlic chives 50g
Scallion A handful
Garlic 1 clove
Shallot 1 piece.
Sea salt To taste
Oil To taste
Toasted sesame seeds To taste
Chinese sweet sauce Optional
Cook and gently stir the rice noodles in boiling water until the noodle is loosened up but not yet thoroughly cooked. Drain the noodles, drizzle some oil and mix well to avoid the noodles from sticking.
In a bowl, beat the eggs until just mixed, add a pinch of salt and mix well. Heat up a wok over medium high heat until you see white smoke, lightly coat the wok with oil and turn it down to medium heat. Add the eggs into the wok and swirl it so that the egg will form an even skin. Once the egg is set, carefully flip it over and cook for another 10-15 seconds. Slice the egg into stripes. Set aside.
Slice the ham into stripes. Wash and drain the cabbage and cut it into strips. Peel and grate the carrot. Slice the garlic. Peel and thinly slice the shallot. Wash and drain the yellow garlic chives and scallion, cut them into thumb-length.
Heat up the same wok over medium heat, drizzle some oil and add the cabbage and carrot into it. Stir fry until the vegetable starts to soften. Set aside.
In the same wok again, drizzle oil generously, add garlic, shallot and the white parts of the scallion into the wok. Fry them until you smell the fragrance from the aromatics.
Add the rice noodle into the wok. Use a pair of chopsticks, loosen up and stir fry the noodles until they start to dry up a bit. Try not to break up the noodles and avoid them sticking to the wok. Lightly drizzle some oil along the edge of the wok if necessary.
Add the cabbage, carrot, egg, ham and yellow garlic chives. Keep gently stir-frying with the chopsticks until all the ingredients are well mixed and the noodles further dry up.
Season with sea salt and add the green part of the scallion. Stir fry until everything is incorporated.
Place the noodles on a plate, sprinkle sesame seeds on top and serve with the sweet sauce.
It’s raining outside, crisp and bleak. Three chubby sparrows took shelter on my balcony and I gave them the baguette bits left on my breakfast plate but they flew away. I stayed in, played Damien Rice on vinyl and made apple crumble. Repeat.