The Fine Art of Slurping
Notes From New Hampshire Noodle Bars
Noodle history is surprisingly contentious. Some claim China or Italy was the first country to make noodles, although many historians suggest it was Arabs on the Silk Road who brought them into China and later into Italy.
That history is complex and evolving. In 2005, scientists discovered a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles in China. Whether the origins are Etruscan, Han, Babylonian or some civilization yet to receive its due, we can safely add noodles to the list of foods that can survive the apocalypse, along with the Twinkie and the fast-food hamburger.
Wheat was not largely cultivated in China until the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.). As a result, some early Chinese noodles were made with millet, a grain used mostly to feed livestock. Other early noodle ingredients include buckwheat, a gluten-free grain related to rhubarb and sorrel — it is still used to make soba.
Asian noodles in general are unlike Italian pasta in key ways. Arguably, the differences in pastas are cosmetic, while Asian noodles have defining taste characteristics. Choosing Italian pasta for a dish is like choosing an actor to play the role of Spider-Man; the actors are interchangeable. Choosing noodles for an Asian dish, however, is like casting Iron Man. There is only one option.
This story is about just a few of the noodles that represent still-evolving Asian culinary culture in all its complexity. I would have eaten more. But alas, if there were bowls enough, and time … [Please note that at the time of publication, the restaurants noted in this article were offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their websites for updates.]
When I’ve gone to Buba Noodle Bar, I’ve gone for the spicy miso ramen.
Located on Lowell Street in Manchester, N.H., the restaurant is a quaint, one-story joint. The front of the restaurant is small — not much more than a bar and about a dozen tables. Diners seated toward the back of the establishment can catch glimpses of the kitchen staff spooning broth and tossing in handfuls of garnishes.
Chef Trumin Nguyen is the owner of Buba Noodle Bar. Nguyen is a young guy who speaks through an enormous Cheshire catlike grin. He spent his formative years in Vietnam, cooking meals for his siblings while his parents were trying to make ends meet. His family lived in a poor community where noodle bowls were affordable dishes he could make for all meals.
Nguyen says he spent 15 years working on his beef pho recipe. Dedication to mastering a single dish like this was not uncommon where he grew up. In his hometown, street vendors were plentiful, working by themselves and often unburdened by the standard health and safety regulations for food that we have in America. Therefore, you have to stand out. A sign of a good day, he says, was to close up early because you ran out of product.
When he started Buba Noodle Bar, Nguyen only intended to offer Vietnamese food. But with hopes of making the restaurant more attractive to an American audience, he hired a multicultural cooking staff and expanded the menu to include dishes from other East Asian countries.
I took all this in and couldn’t help but feel guilty. Though Nguyen is extremely proud of his spicy miso ramen recipe, it would have been a mistake to pass on the pho.
Beef pho is unique in that the dish defies the limitations of one meal. It’s not uncommon for Vietnamese to have beef pho for breakfast and dinner.
I thought of all my wasted years eating Frosted Flakes and Pop-Tarts and realized that my breakfast was never really that grrrrrrrrrrrrreat.
The steaming bowl carried the scent of basil and mint. I didn’t pick up on the chiles — which Nguyen says he imports from his hometown — until I took in a mouthful of broth. The heat wasn’t overwhelming, but it had a nice tickle.
The dish had a few types of meat in it, including rare steak, meatballs, flank and brisket. However satisfying and delicious the meat is, it isn’t the main focus of the dish.
The word “pho” refers to the rice noodles used in the soup. The main focus is the broth, which is rich and extremely flavorful. For broth to be such an extreme focus of the dish, it’s important to use a noodle such as banh pho. Because the rice noodles are so thin and light, they absorb the flavor of the broth.
Udon is a Japanese noodle that is made from wheat flour. Unlike ramen and soba noodles, udon is extremely thick.
For udon, I traveled to You You Japanese Bistro on Broad Street Nashua, N.H. On a Friday night, the place was slammed.
I was seated at the end of the semicircular bar and watched everyone enjoying sushi and mai tais.
I could see the pearly-white noodles curving over the rim of the bowl as the bartender was bringing over my soup. The dish came with spicy beef and an assortment of vegetables, but the enormous noodles were the first thing I consumed. Udon doesn’t play well with others; it isn’t a submissive taste and it doesn’t incorporate with the other ingredients. You order udon because you’re fiending for udon.
A look at noodles wouldn’t be complete without ramen, which is surging in popularity these days. Ramen has become more of a culture than a cuisine. Check out all the ramen blogs run by its fanatical devotees.
Ramen is unique. When dried, it looks like the inexpensive instant noodle blocks favored by frugal college students. But when fresh, the shape softens and the noodles expand.
Ramen is also a wheat noodle, but what makes it stand out are the alkaline salts that give it a distinctive curly shape and yellow color. Some noodle houses will wash ramen in egg yolks to emphasize that color.
Ramen is susceptible to being overcooked. In contrast to the rice noodle’s ability to absorb the rich flavors of pho, and the chewy toughness of udon that adds texture as much as flavor, ramen needs to be eaten very quickly. Once the boiling broth hits the noodles, the timer starts.
It is common, therefore, for ramen eaters to go after the noodles first. It’s also not unusual for ramen eaters to slurp. Sure, you may get whacked in the eye by a rogue noodle or have some broth spill onto your crotch, but eating ramen at its perfect temperature is a mindfulness practice that distracts from such inconveniences and potential injuries.
My ramen experience was hosted by Noodz in Manchester, N.H. Noodz is an Asian fusion place in the heart of Elm Street. The restaurant serves classic fare like bao buns, dumplings and sake. On the shelves to the right of the register stand maneki-neko (the famous waving feline statues) and numerous copies of David Chang’s groundbreaking cookbook “Momofuku.”
Noodz brands itself differently from most Asian restaurants in the northern Merrimack Valley. Craft beer cans line the countertops and the restaurant’s signature black, white and electric pink colors are branded on hats and T-shirts. A sake machine stares down the customer with the enticing attraction of a siren song. One of the newest features of the restaurant is a build-your-own noodle bowl — a transgressive notion to purists.
The tonkotsu pork belly ramen is the restaurant’s flagship dish, tonkotsu referring to the pork bones that are used to give the broth its silky texture. The dish includes succulent pork belly, a delicious soft-boiled egg, and crunchy bean sprouts. The rich broth has an irresistibly creamy consistency.
One of my favorite parts of the ramen experience is the practice of slurping. While it violates Western notions of table etiquette, it makes me giggle under my breath like a kid who’s done something naughty in church.
After each ramen meal, no matter how full we are, putting down the chopsticks induces a state of melancholia. This is a soup that’s rich in taste and history. Cultural touchstone dishes such as ramen have a deep past while providing tantalizing glimpses of a possible future.
Buba Noodle Bar
You You Japanese Bistro
Noodz Ramen & Noodles