best natural foods

Japanese noodles / Korean noodles

Japanese noodles, unlike pasta and Chinese noodles, come in just a few main varieties - udon, soba, somen and ramen. Korean noodles are mostly variations of these.

All Japanese noodles are basically straight and cut to roughly the same length - about 8 inches or 20 cm. This uniformity is probably a reflection of Japanese culture.

The only exception is modern instant noodles, which is a type of ramen. It is curly and usually sold as square or rectangular cakes.

Of course there are many sub-varieties. And whilst udon, ramen and somen are all wheat-based, soba may be made from either 100 percent buckwheat flour, or from different proportions of buckwheat flour and wheat flour.

This is Part II of a longer article that looks at the many different types of noodles in Asian cuisine. Click here to read Part I, which considers Chinese, not Japanese noodles.

Let's now look at the different types of Japanese noodles...

Udon noodles

Udon is a thick, wheat noodle popular in Japan. It can get quite thick. Fresh udon, especially, can get to the thickness of five or more strands of spaghetti, although dried udon tends to be slimmer, probably because it not practical to make and to cook fat dried udon. The texture of udon is quite the opposite to that of Italian pasta - starchy, not at all firm or crunchy.

Udon is most commonly served in a clear broth made from dashi soup stock made with kombu seaweed, shoyu (soy sauce) and mirin (sweet rice wine used mainly in cooking). However, it is also sometimes fried, called yaki udon. And as with other types of Japanese noodles, udon may be served cold during summer.

Healthier Japanse noodles

The natural health and organic foods movement has given rise to several healthier types of Japanese noodles, including wholewheat or wholemeal udon and brown rice udon. These are not too different from regular Japanese udon. Although made with whole flour containing fibre, these Japanese noodles are not particularly hard or chewey.

Korean udong - spelled with an extra 'g' - is usually much thicker than Japanese udon. This seems to be the most widely eaten among Korean noodles. The Koreans seem to like their noodles thick and fat. The Korean version of instant noodles is also much thicker than other varieties from Japan, Hong Kong or Southeast Asia.

Soba noodles

Soba, unlike other types of Japanese noodles, is not wheat-based but made from buckwheat - or a combination or buckwheat flour and wheat flour. Among Japanese noodles, soba is also the only type that comes flavoured - most commonly with green tea or mugwort, a medicinal herb which the Japanese call yomogi.

And while the Japanese might eat various cold Japanese noodles like cold udon, somen, or soba, the best known cold Japanese noodles are cold soba, called zaru soba. Zaru refers to the bamboo mat on which cold soba is served, with ice underneath.

Buckwheat, the grain used for making soba, grows in very cold climates such as Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese large island. Buckwheat has warming - as well as drying - properties and long ago, buckwheat soba was only consumed in the far north, not even in Tokyo. This could be a reason why cold soba is more widely consumed, as it mitigates some of buckwheat's warming properties.

People living in hot tropical climates would not do well to eat soba noodles, or buckwheat as a whole grain, too often. Howver, those who feel cold due to poor health may benefit from it. Likewise, people with health problems such as water retention might benefit from the drying properties of buckwheat and soba noodles.

Soba is thinner than spaghetti, about midway between spaghetti and angel hair pasta. Because of its thin strands, it is fairly quick cooking and most varieties cook in less than five minutes.

Somen noodles

Somen might be considered the Japanese version of angel hair pasta or Capellini, as it is a very fine wheat noodle, usually white in colour. But it might be more accurately described as the Japanese equivalent of Chinese la mian, or pulled noodles. Because while other types of Japanese noodles are cut, somen is pulled.

In terms of texture, it is soft and smooth, somewhat like Chinese mi suah. And like mi suah, it cooks very quickly in one or two minutes.

The Korean version of somen is called Somyeon. This is usually made into Bibim guksu, which is one of the most popular traditional noodle dishes in Korean cuisine. The dish is both cold and hot - cold in temperature, but very hot in terms of spiciness, with the addition of hot chilli peppers!

It is also called guksu bibim or goldong myeon, all of which literally mean "stirred noodles" or "mixed noodles." The dish is especially popular during summer.

Instant Ramen noodles

Are instant noodles necesary?

Instant noodles are widely touted for their convenience but I ask... is it really that much more difficult to prepare other noodle or pasta dishes.

For a simple noodle dish, all you need to do is boil water... and while waiting for the water to boil, cut some vegetables.

Once the water boils, throw in some quick cooking noodles or pasta, like ramen, somen, soba, mi suah or angel hair -- together with some vegetables and meat or seafood. It's useful to have, eg, minced meat in the chiller for quick meals like this. Otherwise, just break in an egg.

Finally, season with shoyu or soy sauce and, if you have, toasted sesame oil or some other aromatic oil.

This may take just a few minutes more than preparing instant noodles. Can't you wait?

To me, the real value of instant noodles lies in its low cost, as it provides a meal for just a few cents. For the very poor, this has become an important, although not very nutritious, food.

Ramen is nowadays almost synonymous with instant noodles. But in reality, Japanese historical records show that ramen was eaten as long ago as the 17th century. Instant Japanese noodles are, in fact, instant ramen. There is now also instant soba - which some health foods companies are marketing.

The idea of instant noodles is to have the noodles pre-cooked and infused with oil, so that it can be stored for a long time and re-cooked quickly, in less than five minutes. It also comes with a packet of dried soup stock.

Instant noodles are generally attributed to Momofuko Ando, founder of Nissin Foods Japan, who started to market them in Japan in August 1958. The level of convenience was raised another notch in 1971 when Nissin introduced instant Cup Noodles.

Many Japanese consider instant noodles to be the most important Japanese invention of all time (with Karaoke coming in second). However, the idea of instant noodles can be traced back to the Chinese Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912). Varieties included Yimian noodles and Chicken Thread Noodles.

Modern instant noodles have truly become popular worldwide. Because large scale production has driven costs down, instant noodles have become an important food for the poor. But needless to say, a meal of instant noodles is not very healthy. It consists mainly of refined starch, while the soup stock is typically high in salt as well as MSG.

Some instant noodle makers, one of them being Singapore-based Koka Corporation, have developed healthier versions of instant noodles. The ramen noodles are not deep fried, but steamed and air-dried. And the soup stock contains no MSG,

Some brands of instant Japanese noodles also come with minute amounts of dehydrated vegetables. I once asked the boss of Koka why they don't give more vegetables and his answer was clear - high costs! That tiny amount of dried vegetables cost more to produce than the noodles!

It is also worth noting that, with instant noodles now produced worldwide, there is great variation in the quality as the people of different countries prefer their noodles in different ways. Some like them soft, some like them firm.

As mentioned earlier, Korean instant noodles are the thickest and most firm. They also come in the biggest packets, of about 120 grams per pack, compared with other brands that come in 80 grams or 100 grams packets. Personally, I find Nissin, the original instant Japanese noodles and some Korean brands to have the best texture, almost equivalent to al dente.

Other Japanese noodles - Konnyaku

Shirataki and Ito Konnyaku are types of Japanese noodles that are low in carbohydrate, low in calories and high in fibre. They are made from the konjac plant, called Konnyaku in Japanese and also known as Devil's tongue in English. These Japanese noodles are also called konjac noodles.

Konjac has a starchy root. It is sometimes called a "yam" but is actually not related to yams. The noodles contain mainly water and glucomannan, a water-soluble dietary fibre.

Shirataki or konnyaku noodles, as well as konnyaku that comes as a rectangular block, are usually sold packed in plastic bags, in its own liquid. This liquid should be drained and the konnyaku rinsed before using. Konnyaku is often used in oden, a Japanese clear stew that contains daikon radish, tofu, fishcake and other ingredients. It can also be fried with vegetables and other foods.

Konnyaku being low in calories and high in fibre may sound like a good thing. But it is also low in nutrients, containing very little vitamins, minerals, etc. So do not eat too much of it. In the 1960s, a Japanese journalist and writer was rumoured to have died of malnutrition because he tried to lose weight by eating large amounts of konnyaku!

Kuzu noodles

Kuzu noodles, similar to glass noodles, are another form of Japanese noodles. They are translucent when dry and totally transparent when wet.

Kuzu is a huge, man-size root of the kudzu vine, which is a climbing plant. (The plant is called kudzu while the root is called kuzu.) Nutritionists describe kuzu as having "little nutritional value", but kuzu starch is highly valued in macrobiotics for its medicinal properties. Among other things, kuzu has been scientifically proven to alleviate alcohol hangovers.

Kuzu starch, which is also used in cooking as a thickener, is an expensive starch. Likewise, genuine kuzu noodles are costly are sold mainly in health stores. Cheap varieties are made (or at least mixed) with potato starch. Kuzu noodles are prepared by simply pouring boiling water over them and leaving them to soak for 10 minutes. They are usually served in a light broth or as a dessert noodle.

Korean glass noodles

In Korean cuisine, glass noodles are usually made from sweet potato starch and are called dangmyeon, dang myun or similar names. They are commonly stir-fried in sesame oil with beef and vegetables, and flavoured with soy and sugar,

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