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A love letter to noodles

Joe Yonan

THE WASHINGTON POST – When I interviewed Stephanie and Mike Le about their new book, That Noodle Life, the first thing I wanted to know was this: What is it about noodles? That is, why are noodles what they, I and so many other people want to eat all the time?

Stephanie didn’t miss a beat, “I know this isn’t going to sound right, but I think they just feel good in your mouth. There’s something about the physicality of eating noodles that’s really appealing.”

Mike had another idea, “Noodles are the only food where you can eat more than a mouthful at a time.”

Ultimately, wife and husband agreed, it’s also because of the universality of noodles as a comfort food. “Everybody’s eaten a bowl of noodles at some point in their lives,” Stephanie said. “They just taste good, and they’re a great vehicle for all sorts of flavours.”

To call the Les’ new book a love letter to noodles is to sell short its passion and quirky charm.

It includes references to rap lyrics (“We love big noodles and we cannot lie”) and Star Trek (“Live long and lasagna”), a March Madness-style bracketed recipe competition, even a noodle glossary written in haikus. And then there are the recipes, for Philly cheesesteak noodles, yaki udon al pastor and Chinese Bolognese pappardelle. The book honours the traditions of Asian noodles and Italian pasta while showing how they can come together and play.

Spicy sesame chilli oil noodles. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The couple dive into the Southeastern Asian soup laksa, offer instructions for making spaghetti alla chitarra from scratch the traditional way, and feature plenty of recipes that come together in mere minutes.

It’s the latter that drew my immediate attention, particularly this recipe for Spicy Sesame Chilli Oil Noodles that employs a mere handful of ingredients and simple steps to make something that tastes wonderfully complex.

The recipe calls for any favourite noodle, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the ones in the photo, ruffle-edged dried Chinese knife-cut numbers called Shangxi planed noodles. I didn’t find them on a trip to my closest Asian supermarket, but they reminded me of a pasta I love, mafaldine, that’s shaped like a stretched-out lasagna noodle, complete with ruffles, so that’s what I used. When we photographed the recipe, our food stylist could not find either, so I suggested long fusilli, a curly noodle that looks like an old-fashioned telephone cord.

“That’s exactly what we want people do to,” Stephanie said. “Those are perfect substitutions.”

The couple does try to stick to general guidelines about swaps, “We try to sub long for long and short for short, and if it’s like a curly shape or a smooth shape, then we’ll match that, too, because a lot of sauces are meant to be picked up by noodles and their crevices,” Mike added. “Other than that, we’re not too picky about substitutions. The shape is the most important thing.”

The recipe includes one of my favourite ingredients, Chinese black vinegar, and introduced me to another, Chinese sesame paste, but offers stand-ins for both: balsamic for the former and tahini for the latter.

I’m a longtime tahini devotee, but the Chinese sesame paste is wonderfully dark and nutty and altogether something I now can’t imagine living without. In a similar spirit, while they include a recipe for a homemade (and wonderful) Sichuan-style chile oil, they also allow for store-bought chilli oil, which turns this recipe into one of those pantry champions I can’t get enough of.

It was so easy, so tasty and so fun to eat that when I watched over Zoom as our visuals team made it, right around lunchtime, my stomach rumbled and I stepped out of the frame and into the kitchen, whipping up another batch in minutes for my husband and me.
The recipe makes the perfect amount for two, but be forewarned: Anyone you serve it to might have the same reaction my husband did: “Is there more?”

Next time, there will be.

SPICY SESAME CHILLI OIL NOODLES
Chinese sesame paste – deep and nutty – and a spicy chilli oil turn these simple noodles into something complex, savoury and satisfying. If you can’t easily find the sesame paste, substitute tahini, and if you can’t easily find the black vinegar, use balsamic. The fun is in the choice of noodles: Mike and Stephanie suggest Shangxi planed noodles, ruffle-edged dried Chinese knife-cut noodles, but you can use any of your favourites. If you don’t like your sesame noodles spicy, use hoisin sauce in place of the chilli oil.

Ingredients
– Six ounces long dried noodles, preferably curly or ruffled, such as Shangxi planed noodles, mafaldine or long fusilli
– Two tablespoons soy sauce
– Two tablespoons Chinese sesame paste (may substitute tahini)
– One-and-a-half tablespoons chilli oil, preferably with chilli flakes included, such as Chinese chilli crisp
– One tablespoon toasted sesame oil
– Two teaspoons Chinese black vinegar (may substitute balsamic vinegar)
– Two scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced, for serving
– Two tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, for serving

Directions
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and cook the noodles according to the package directions. Reserve a quarter cup of the noodle cooking water and drain well.

While the pasta is cooking, in a large bowl whisk together the soy sauce, sesame paste, chilli oil, sesame oil and black vinegar.

Add the drained noodles to the sauce, tossing to coat them well. Loosen the sauce with some of the noodle cooking water, if needed. Divide among serving plates, sprinkle with the scallions and sesame seeds and serve warm.

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