Just about every Chinese New Year I get the urge to make Chinese food. Sometimes I keep things simple and at other times, I go all out and make a feast, and when I don’t have the urge (or the time) to cook, I just go out for Chinese food.
This year I wanted to cook, so I went to my favorite little Asian market to look for ingredients, including Chinese long noodles. After searching the aisles for several minutes all I could find were clear rice noodles and curly egg noodles. I was left with two options: 1) Admit defeat and forget about the noodles, or 2) go to the front of the store and ask the woman at the check-out counter for help. I know from previous experience that the woman at the counter, who might be the proprietor, spends much of her time barking out commands, in Chinese, to other store employees, sticking price tags on items, and working the cash register. She also understands very little English, and I don’t speak even the tiniest bit of Mandarin or Cantonese. So, my choice was clear.
I navigated my way through the narrow aisles up to the register counter to have a chat with the Asian woman.
I feel like I should, at this point, paint a picture of the scene.
The register counter is elevated above the rest of the store floor and is enclosed by wooden panels and a clear, protective plastic curtain, installed at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Every place in the store feels tight and claustrophobic and the front counter is certainly no exception. There, raised above the store patrons, behind the hanging plastic curtain, that had become blurred by grime during the last few years, sits the middle-aged Asian lady, wearing a surgical mask, covering her mouth and nose. It is reminiscent of a dystopian Terry Gilliam movie, but it also reminds me of Danny DeVito, from the TV series, Taxi.
“Do you have Wu Mu noodles?”, I asked, with my best, clear and precise diction, hoping that would help her understand me. Her response was not in English, and it sounded to me like she said, “I take jaguar.” She shook her head as if to signify that she didn’t understand my question. I rephrased my question a few more times to see if she could latch onto something I was saying. I eventually stripped it down to “Chinese noodles.”, and she perked up a little and climbed down from her perch and waved at me to follow her.
We went down one of the aisles that I had already visited and she began pointing to different kinds of noodles as I shook my head at each of her suggestions. I sensed that she was getting tired of this little game as much as I was, so I decided to try pantomime. I pretended to make noodles, by stretching my arms and hands outward and slapping imaginary noodles down on an imaginary table. She gave me a knowing look and guided me to the end of the aisle and pointed to a large box of noodles.
The box reminded me of a boxed set of record albums, big and squarish. I purchased the four-pound box of Chinese Wu Mu noodles, and I left the store feeling accomplished and satisfied.
Four pounds of dry noodles is a lot of noodles! You can expect several future posts that feature them.
Wu Mu noodles, also known as Wu Long noodles are one of the most common types of noodles in China and they are exported throughout the world. All you need to do to find them is gesticulate wildly with your hands until some kind soul guides you to them.
Wu Mu noodles are steeped in tradition. They represent good fortune and long life, and it is bad luck to break them during the cooking process or to cut them while eating them. This can lead to a lot of slurping at the table, and that’s quite alright.
This recipe only calls for a few ingredients. I made my own sauce for the stir-fry but that could easily be replaced by a store-bought sauce of your choice.
The noodles and tofu are simple vehicles for the sauce. Make your sauce sweeter by adding more Hoisin sauce, make it saltier by adding more soy, or make it spicier by adding hot sauce, or chili paste.
Ingredients for the sauce:
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup water
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon black soy sauce (sweet soy)
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
3 garlic cloves, mashed and minced
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch (or another type of starch)
1 teaspoon garlic chili paste
Ingredients for the stir-fry
12 ounces dry Wu Mu noodles (parboiled to al dente)
1 16-ounce block of firm tofu, pressed and drained, cut into 1 inch cubes,
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, thinly sliced
3 small bok choy – about 1 pound (or any other Asian cabbage), chopped
1 large carrot (or 2 medium carrots), sliced
½ onion, thinly sliced
1 large celery stalk, sliced
½ bell pepper, thinly sliced
Press the tofu to remove excess moisture by placing the tofu between paper towels and laying a heavy object on top of the top. Allow the tofu to dry for an hour, replacing wet paper towels as needed.
Dust the tofu cubes with the cornstarch.
In a large frying pan, add a little oil and set heat to high. Sear all sides of the tofu pieces until they are lightly browned. Remove from the pan and set aside. Searing the tofu is optional. I wanted the tofu to have a bit of crispy texture.
Prepare the sauce by mixing all of the ingredients. Set aside.
Boil the noodles in a large pot until they are al dente. Strain the noodles and set aside.
Prepare the vegetables by chopping and slicing and set them aside.
Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large wok.
Add the ginger and remove after a minute or two. Discard the ginger.
Add the carrot to the wok and stir for a few minutes. Add the bok choy and toss. Add the onion, celery and bell pepper. Stir until the vegetables are tender, but not overcooked.
Add the sauce and stir. Add the tofu and continue to toss for another minute.
Add the noodles and toss to coat the noodles with the sauce.
Remove everything to a large serving bowl and serve warm.