We had dinner with one of my sisters last week, and we started talking about what food is weird to whom. Her friend’s son spent his first eating years in the care of a Trindadian nanny. As a consequence he likes a big hot mess of curry whenever he can get his hands on one, but won’t eat Chinese food because it is “spicy and slippery and strange.” One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, as they say.
One of the nice things for me about eating dinner at someone else’s house (other than encountering a meal I did not shop or chop for, and the company) is seeing what constitutes the comfort zone in other people’s diets. I like getting a peek at what ingredients and processes and combinations are second nature to people, and love it when some of that filters over into my own bag of tricks. After one of our children was born, my friend Kim brought a meal over that included a raita, an Indian salad of yogurt and cucumber and cumin. None of these ingredients were exotic to me, but since I didn’t cook much Indian food at that time, the idea of making this simple and very satisfying thing out of them--just because it was tasty, and not as part of an elaborate Indian feast--was a game-changing moment. My son loves raita now. When he was a baby and prone, as all my children seem to be, to little malaprops, he called it “ice cream.” So of course we still call it that, years later, much to the confusion of anyone visiting when it’s on the table.
Maybe fish sauce is outside your comfort zone, or at least outside your kitchen. I have always loved what is salty, especially what is Asian and salty, so I always have it around. I think there are people in the world with very strong opinions about the right brand vs. the wrong brand, but I am not that fussy. I do always buy this one:
but that is because the first time I did, my toddler at the time fell in love with “the lipstick baby” on the label, and for a while, said goodnight to him every evening.
So if you don’t have it around all the time, seeing it on the ingredient list here may make you think, hold on, this is very exotic and not how things normally go, so I will need to make a lot of special trips and clear a big chunk of my calendar to make time to produce this.
In truth almost every grocery store in the land seems to have it now, and it doesn’t cost much, and it never goes bad (it smells like it already has when you get it, but that stays constant over its entire shelf life.) I love the way it adds a resounding note of savory goodness to these noodles, but you can make them with plain old tamari and they will be plenty tasty.
This is what I make when I wish I could have Pad Thai--a hot bowl of very savory noodles. Pad Thai is hard to make at home, for me--you have to make it in tiny batches or it sticks and globs up and makes you crabby. These noodles are not fried, and consequently behave much better. If you have ever ordered “Singapore Mai Fun” in a restaurant, this will taste familiar. If you are a purist, stick with the rice noodles, but I love the nutty taste and swashbuckling cross-cultural renegade option of the soba noodles.
stay at home take-out noodles
2-3 bunches of baby bok choi, or a mixture of napa cabbage and spinach, chopped (about 3 cups)
2-3 carrots, peeled and coarsely grated (about ¾ cup)
1 15-oz block of firm tofu, cut in ½ inch cubes and patted dry
1 clove garlic, minced
1” fresh ginger, finely grated, if you have it and you like it
a handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
3T canola oil, plus a little extra
½ t salt
1 t curry powder
A pinch of chili flakes, if you like it hot
1 pound thin rice noodles or soba noodles
Bring a large pot of water to boil and cook the noodles until tender. Drain and rinse with cold water, then return to the cooking pot and toss with a shot of oil to keep them unclumped.
Heat the 3T oil in a large skillet until rippling, and toss in the tofu cubes and salt. Stir and fry for about 5 minutes, until the tofu is lightly golden all over.
Add the garlic and ginger and stir for a moment until the fragrance comes up. Now add the bok choy and carrots and the curry powder and optional chili, and stir and fry until the cabbage just wilts. Toss in the cilantro, half a cup of water and the fish sauce, and stir to mix. Toss this into the cooked noodles and use your tongs to get the noodles good and coated. Heat through, and adjust the salt and heat to your liking. Serve it with a little hot sauce on the side, if that floats your boat.