Andrew Coppolino takes a tour of Waterloo region's wild world of noodles
From Chinese to Vietnamese to Italian cuisine, noodles have become a staple at many local restaurants
We shouldn't believe the old myth that sometime in the 1200s Marco Polo introduced macaroni noodles to Italy after travelling through Asia on the Silk Road.
Strings of semolina dough had been eaten in Syria, Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean long before Polo's peregrinations. Cooks in the north of China had been making noodles as early as 200 BCE, and it is from those noodles that just about all the others — Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Italian – likely derived.
Those noodle descendants are found throughout Waterloo region. No matter the heritage, it's remarkable that a few simple ingredients can be made into a mass of dough that is then manipulated into a noodle that gets boiled and sauced so deliciously.
You can find crispy, pan-fried and almost browned, Hong Kong noodles or curry-seasoned Singapore noodles at Cameron Seafood. Then there's Indo-Chinese "hakka" Manchurian noodles or thick Shanghai noodles.
Gol's Lanzhou Noodles in Waterloo sends a thick rope dough through an almost magical twirling, spinning and thumping on the prep table with the result of producing dozens of thin noodles that get dropped into hearty broths.
'Plethora of different ingredients to make noodles'
In the Italian realm, Nostra Cucina will find occasion to make pasta alla chitarra.
Like it sounds, the spaghetti is made on a stringed device (the word meaning guitar), through which dough is pushed with a roller to create a square and slightly open-structured noodle to which the sauce sticks nicely. Marcel Crotoiru at Marcelo's in Cambridge also makes the occasional spaghetti alla chitarra.
For their part, Vietnamese noodles have many sizes and texture qualities.
"There's a plethora of different ingredients to make noodles. There's wheat, there's buckwheat, rice starch, tapioca starch. There's a ton. In Vietnamese, there's generally two, rice and wheat. Rice is mostly what you find," said Thompson Tran of Wooden Boat Food Company.
That includes the vermicelli rice noodle, pho [pronounced "f-uh"] which is the most popular at dozens of area restaurants. You will also find mung bean or "glass" noodles, which are stretchy and chewy in texture.
The dish ban canh is influenced by the Japanese kitchen; it's a rice and tapioca starch udon noodle. Tran says he also makes a noodle which incorporates shredded pork for texture.
"But pho is my favourite," Tran said. "It's the national [Vietnamese] dish for a reason, and it's a rice-based noodle. I also love the mung bean noodle. It has a chewy texture, but I love it."
At the new Crafty Ramen in downtown Kitchener, texture is created by some food science, the full understanding of which is not known. It, too, is a sort of noodle magic.
"Ramen noodles are pretty basic. There's kansui which is alkaline lye water, salt, sodium and potassium carbonates. We use reverse-osmosis water and Ontario wheat, mix it together and let it rest for 30 minutes," said owner Jared Ferrall.
The sandy, dry dough is then sent through heavy stainless-steel rollers to compress it.
"We call it sheeting. It gets laminated two or three times which stretches the gluten. The tensile strength is reinforced by the kansui and longer and longer gluten fibres are created throughout the dough. That's how you get that special texture."
The texture's the thing, Ferrall explains — using more or less of the sodium and potassium components will result in more chewy or more brittle noodles.
"There's been a lot of research done on kansui, but they still don't know exactly why the noodle stays better in the broth. My guess is that it has to do with the reinforcement of the gluten strands."
Pulling back the curtain on making noodles
Returning to what many people know and embrace — spaghetti — B at THEMUSEUM chef Collin Morrison relies on freshly made pasta that he sauces with a tomato and meat combination (the meat is actually local Wagyu beef).
They use a pasta extruding machine that was flown from Italy by a Toronto pasta house and is over 40 years old, according to Morrison.
"What we do is combine semolina flour and water and mix it. It's extruded through a big cast die, and short of making it by hand, it's the most traditional method," Morrison says.
As for texture, it's fairly smooth, he adds. "Overall, you'll get the grainy texture because we're using semolina. It gives it a unique texture. The cooking time is a lot shorter because it's not dried. The time goes from traditional 12 to 13 minutes down to about five or six."
In that time, you're striving for the perfect al dente "toothy" degree of doneness.
Both Dels Enoteca and La Cucina strive for that standard as they make pasta fresh in-house; at the latter of which, you can see noodles hanging in a cooler near the pizza oven.
The appetite for noodles is growing in the region, perhaps partly because they are increasingly lending themselves to gluten-free applications, which is a dietary decision gaining in popularity. Texture remains key, however.
The chewy, almost gelatinous texture of some eastern noodles just doesn't sit well with many North American palates. "I know a few people who have issues with them," Tran said.
"In southeast Asia, we love the texture," he added. "We worship it, even though it doesn't have a lot of flavour. It's all about the texture."