Asian ingredients often have either oddball names or poetic ones. For example, Vietnamese nuoc mam literally means water of fermented aquatic animals and is translated into English as fish sauce, an unpleasant sounding term that’s at least better than fish gravy, a thankfully outdated translation of our beloved condiment. Then there are intriguing monikers, such as mouse tail noodles, which have charmed and miffed me for several months now. I first encountered the chubby, short rice noodles at Layang Layang Malaysian restaurant in San Jose, CA, where they were stir-fried with belancan shrimp paste, shrimp, egg and bean sprouts. I’d never heard of them before and was smitten at first bite as each noodle is 2 to 3 inches long, about 1/4 inch thick in the middle and tapered at the ends. Squiggly and squishy, the noodles were fun to eat and they picked up the flavors of the other ingredients well. They tasted rich and greasy in a good way. I thought that I knew the major kinds of Asian noodles, but didn’t recognize mouse tail noodles. Were the noodles some kind of Malaysian stealth ingredient?
For months, I’d look for mouse tail noodles at Chinese markets, in dried and fresh form but never came across them. My God, did the restaurant have someone make them by hand in an undisclosed location in San Jose? That didn’t seem right. The mystery didn’t get resolved until I got a copy of just-released Noodles Every Day (Chronicle Press, 2009) by acclaimed Asian cookbook author and cooking teacher Corinne Trang.
Organization, Highlights and Surprises
Noodles Every Day leads cooks through Asia’s major noodle offerings by organizing them by noodle type – wheat noodles, egg noodles, buckwheat noodles, rice noodles, and cellophane (glass) noodles. There’s a closing section on buns, dumplings, and spring rolls because those types of foods are often paired with noodles. Corinne pours her rich background into Noodles Every Day, weaving in her Chinese-French-Cambodian-Vietnamese-Indonesian-American life experiences into the recipes, thereby fostering a cross-cultural understanding of Asian noodles. She blends her enthusiasm and humor with well-honed practical knowledge into the instructions, whether they’re for preparations of childhood favorites or adult discoveries.
As a single subject cookbook, Noodles Every Day enables noodle lovers and Asian food aficionados to explore an integral part of the region’s culinary traditions. Served hot or cold, noodles can be featured in soup broth, stir-fried, salads, and fillings, and Corinne guides readers through the many options, opening our eyes to the delicious possibilities at every turn. It’s hard to keep all the noodle types straight and this book clarifies the differences, for example, between Japanese somen, udon, soba, and ramen. I didn’t know what the names of the various Chinese noodles are, and Noodles Every Day presents the names -- lao mian, shiazi mian, and dan mian, for example, so that I can ask for them at markets or restaurants. Corinne’s descriptions of the various noodles are precise and helpful, but they are unfortunately not accompanied by actual photos, leaving it up to readers to imagine what a noodle looks like at the market place. Extrapolating from the recipe photos is doable, but I wish that there had been space allowed for ingredient shots.
Nevertheless, there are some great surprises in this collection of more than 70 recipes. Corinne discusses the use of instant ramen noodles, a gutsy but realistic move since instant noodles are a valid eating option in much of Asia. (Lord knows, I've eaten instant pho noodles.) I’ve seen packages of dried shrimp and crab-flavored noodles at Chinese markets but didn’t quite trust them to have much to offer. Corinne catches my attention when she suggests preparing the noodles with shrimp and a velvety crab sauce, respectively, to compliment the delicate flavors of noodles. This makes utter sense but I wouldn’t have thought of it had I not perused Noodles Every Day.
Mouse Tail Noodle Mystery Solved
After reading the rice noodle chapter introduction and looking at the photo of Corinne’s stir-fried silver pin noodles with chicken, bean sprouts and scallion, I had another “A-HAH, DUH!” moment. The mysterious mouse tail noodles are the same as silver pin noodles, called nen dzeem fen in Chinese. I’d seen those noodles at my Chinese market. I’d always passed them up because they were mislabeled banh bot loc in Vietnamese, which normally denote a wormlike tapioca noodle used for preparations such as jackfruit, toddy palm, and pomegranate sweet soup (che Thai).
On my next trip back to Lion Foods, I picked up a package of fresh ‘banh bot loc’ in the refrigerated section. The ingredient listing included rice flour, wheat starch, and water – no tapioca starch. So these were the mouse tail noodles, the silver pin noodles that I’ve wanted. They were under my nose all along. This discovery, along with many others, is what makes Noodles Every Day a worthwhile addition to my cookbook collection. Good cookbooks provide new ideas and unexpected knowledge, and this one delivers.
Next up: Cooking with silver pin noodles using Noodles Every Day