Ruminations on Noodles

One of the most wonderful things about gastronomy is how it defies simple laws of economics. You can spend a hundred dollars on a lavish dish, but it won’t necessarily be tastier than a plate of food that cost mere cents. In fact, for every carpaccio of olive-scented langoustine studded with Iranian caviar, there’s an insalata caprese whose raw, insouciant flavours threaten make a mockery of haute cuisine’s meticulous calibrations.

The way I think about it is this: certain dishes (say, the langoustine carpaccio) are fine-tuned so that each component has its place, but never the boldness to disturb the dish’s decorous symphony; the whole is crafted to be precisely the sum of its parts. Yet there are other foods - generally simple, traditional, more emotionally evocative fare - which are defined by being more than the sum of their constituent ingredients. In these cases, even if most of the dish is made from inadequate ingredients, as long as one critical aspect is excellent, it’s already well on its way to transcendence.

Take pizza, for example. If the crust is good (i.e. paper thin, chewy and meltingly light, and wood-oven baked), it doesn’t matter whether you put San Marzano tomatoes or ketchup on it. The result will inevitably be delicious. Granted, I wouldn’t think much of a ketchup pizza - even if it emerged piping hot from the oven of some storied Neapolitan wood-fired oven - but you get my point.

Or look at sandwiches. One of the most memorable sandwiches I’ve ever had was layered with nasty orange Kraft-esque “cheese” and half-wilted iceburg lettuce. The fact that everything was bound in a Gosselin baguette a l’ancienne didn’t just redeem the minor atrocity of a filling; the bread rendered it utterly beside the point. Like a good NYT Magazine fluff piece, the risible content may just have been an excuse for the article’s existence.

My thoughts turn to such abstractions because I’ve been thinking a lot about noodles lately. Specifically of the Japanese variety. I don’t know of any other national cuisine so intensely obsessed with long chewy strands of gluten.

On a recent rainy day, I found myself sitting in Kyo-ya for lunch. Nabeyaki udon. Mmm. The soup had a wonderful, smoke-tinged aroma redolent with shitake mushrooms. It was clean, light, and rich all at once, with addictive undertones of fish stock beneath the mushrooms. Sadly, the swathes of noodles - obviously store-bought, bland, and overcooked - weren’t nearly so good, and the pretty huge bowl (pot?) of noodles was filling but not all that satisfying.

I had always thought of noodles as being in the same vein of food as pizzas and sandwiches. Get one simple element right, and the rest of the dish follows. Who, for instance, eats pho bo for the noodles or even the beef? They are really just placeholders (albeit essential all the same) for the glory of the soup. So what was wrong with the udon?

Maybe it’s as simple as the thickness of udon noodles, which makes them more prominent and noticeable. Similarly, the assertiveness of the buckwheat in soba noodles (which I tried on another day) leads them to take on a more crucial role than the rice noodles in pho. I don’t know too much about the process of making udon, but soba noodles are a much more complicated enterprise than rice noodles.

Hm. Either way, I think the only way to be sure is to eat more noodles.