Noodling A to Z

This essay was originally published in Room, Volume 40.1, 2017 


Noodling A to Z

Noodle: to fool around, improvise—a tune, a recipe, an essay

Atkins, the founder of the un-carb diet (unmentioned hereafter), died at the age of 72. Ando, the creator of instant ramen noodles, at 96. Need I say more? “A” also conjures autobiography and alphabet soup, both features of this opus.

“Baked Lasagna,” he read from the menu; “How’s that sound?” “Great,” I said. Girls sought to be obliging dates in those days, and I wasn’t going to admit to my escort—a frat guy for God’s sake—that I’d never eaten lasagna. It looked and smelled delicious, and the first bite confirmed it. Then, hidden in the lovely layers of noodles, cheese, and sauce, something horrid—slices of hard-boiled egg. I’d been a picky eater as a child but now as a fledgling adult of eighteen, I’d limited my loathing to liver, bell peppers, and hard-boiled eggs. I had a tough choice: eat it intact—and chase the nasty bits with bread—or pick them out and look foolish. In an unusual demonstration of assertiveness—perhaps my first overtly feminist act—I prodded the offending slices to the edge of my plate. My date didn’t seem to notice; he was an oaf anyway.

Canoodle—to hug, kiss, and/or cuddle. Brits use the word more than Americans, along with “snog,” which isn’t having sex and not to be confused with “shag”, which is. There’s a scene in Separate Tables where John (Alan Bates) and his ex-wife, Anne (Julie Christie), discuss the failure of their marriage. Anne: “John, if you’d wanted an obedient little hausfrau for a wife, why didn’t you marry one—like that manageress I caught you canoodling with a moment ago? That was a canoodle, wasn’t it?” John: “A canoodle is what you would call it, yes.” The Urban Dictionary offers an alternate definition: “The eating of noodles whilst in a canoe.”

Dumplings are noodles, filled pockets of dough. How do I love them? Let me count the ways: ravioli and tortellini from Italy, empanadas throughout the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world, Jewish kreplach, Indian samosas, Japanese gyoza, Chinese potstickers and wonton and the exquisite Shanghai soup dumplings, xiao long bao. A former neighbour, Tanya, made varenyky, the Ukrainian counterpart of Polish pierogi and Russian pelmeni. Tanya recruited my roommate and me to help with the preparation. We dolloped the filling—mashed potato, cheese and onion—onto rolled-out rounds of dough, folded and crimped them as directed, patched the ones that sprang leaks. Tanya boiled them in big kettles of water, then fried them in lots of butter, and served them with sour cream. “These are for my family’s dinner,” she would remind us when we cleaned our plates and looked over at the overflowing platter on the counter. “Come over tomorrow—maybe there will be leftovers, but I don’t promise.”

Extrude—my American Heritage Dictionary defines this verb: 1) to push or thrust out; 2) to shape by forcing through a die. One thinks of metals and plastics, of volcanos extruding lava. Pasta machines transform wads of dough into noodles, extruding tubes of rigatoni or ribbons of fettuccini. They were the appliance no foodie’s kitchen could be without until the fad faded and they were relegated to the back of kitchen cupboards or the front porch with other Goodwill donations. Today’s marvelled-over extruders are 3-D printers, which we’re told will some day eject Lego-like body parts to replace our worn-out hips and appendages.

Florence—On my first trip to the gorgeous and gastronomically unequalled city on the Arno, I went to a trattoria recommended by a Florentine friend at home. “Tell them Nico sent you,” he said. Nico’s name drew a blank until I described him—the tall (6’6″) professore in California—“Ah, Nico, .” The food was fantastic; the variety extensive; the wine free-flowing; the service gracious—as it was everywhere I ate in Florence, so consistently outstanding that its overall excellence stands out more than any particular dish.

Gnocchi, in contrast, evoke Milan, where I first tasted the ingenious little potato noodles (the name means “lumps”). My friend and I arrived there late at night and booked a pensión near the train station. At a nearby restaurant we put ourselves in the hands of a fatherly waiter, stout and mustachioed, who insisted we have their signature dish. During our stay we marvelled at the Milan Cathedral, Teatro alla Scala, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (a nineteenth-century shopping arcade that puts today’s malls to shame), and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. All were impressive, but when I recall Milan, I think first of gnocchi al pesto.

“Helen, go after him–do anything to make the noodle understand,” says Margaret Schlegel to her sister as their guest, Leonard Bast, hastens from their sitting room in a huff.  This was the second use of “noodle” as an endearing pejorative in Howards End. Earlier, Helen tells Margaret about her introduction to the haughty Wilcoxes: “They think me a noodle, and say so . . . ” A noodle is a little silly or simple, but lovable.

Irish-immigrant Eilis Lacey , in the film version of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, is invited to dinner with her Italian boyfriend’s family. Her boarding house mates warn her that she’ll be judged by the way she eats spaghetti. “I’ve never even had it,” she replies. They give her lessons, and she practices until she’s no longer likely to splatter sauce on her hosts, slurp too noticeably, or otherwise make a fool of herself. On the appointed night, Tony’s parents and brothers look on with surprise and approval as Eilis passes the all-important test.

“Jesus on a plate!” My daughter’s former housemate loved to eat but didn’t cook, so she ate out or got takeaway. One night at a neighbourhood bistro Jenn and I spotted Mackenzie at one of the tables in the back. We went over to say hi just as the server came out and placed several plates of food in front of her. I looked for signs of another occupant at the table—a coat, purse, or a glass of wine—but this was dinner for one. She picked up her fork and surveyed the feast in front of her: “Jesus on a plate!” she said, digging into the truffle mac ‘n’ cheese.

Kugel-deprived. My mother’s mother didn’t teach her to cook lest she jeopardize the sanctity of her kosher kitchen, so traditional Jewish dishes weren’t in Mom’s self-taught repertoire. I don’t remember when I first tasted noodle kugel, but the mélange of baked egg noodles in seasoned cottage cheese, sour cream, and butter became coveted comfort food. I made it myself even though my husband hates cottage cheese. I figured it would be sufficiently disguised, and sure enough, he didn’t detect it. If he had protested, I would have said it was ricotta.

Little Italy is in New York’s Lower Manhattan, its borders overlapping those of Chinatown and the Jewish Lower  East Side . Distinctive food aromas give way, one to the other, in an olfactory paradise. We have a less renowned but thriving Little Italy in San Diego, where Italian restaurants, cafés, markets, and specialty shops hold dominion over an influx of trendy brew-pubs. Old men congregate at sidewalk tables, sipping espresso and discoursing volubly with loud voices and flying hands. One of my frequent destinations is Assenti’s Pasta, where I buy fresh spinach fettuccine, then across the street to Mona Lisa for jars of anchovies,  capers, fresh mozzarella,  nutty provolone, crusty breads, and hearty reds. Who needs Manhattan?

Marco Polo, contrary to popular lore, did not bring noodles back from China during his thirteenth-century travels. Maccheroni, as pasta was originally called, was found in Italy prior to Marco Polo’s voyage. The origin of noodles has always been contested, but their earliest known sighting was in third-century China. Jen Lin-Liu travelled the Silk Road from Beijing to Rome—chronicled in On the Noodle Road—to explore their roots, their cultural manifestation, their interrelatedness. She found the tortellini in Emilia-Romagna to be near duplicates of the manti in Turkey. Similarities across cultures in spite of distinctive regional variations confirmed the universality of noodles.

Nothing says nostalgia like tuna-noodle casserole. A mainstay of childhood and adult comfort food, it rates up there with that other notable noodle classic, macaroni and cheese. It was one of very few things I could make when I left home at eighteen: even Mackenzie (see “J”) could, if she chose to, mix cooked extra-wide egg noodles with cream of mushroom soup and a can of tuna, top with crushed potato chips (my mother used corn flakes), and bake until bubbly and brown. When I became more adept in the kitchen I replaced the Campbell’s soup with mushrooms, sour cream, wine, and seasonings; the topping gave way to buttered bread crumbs and parmesan. When my daughter was little I reverted, for a time, to the original recipe, easing her into a more sophisticated palate.

Otemoyan Noodle House in San Diego’s pan-Asian Kearny Mesa was where I was introduced to Japanese noodles by a former boyfriend. He and I didn’t last long, but I was faithful to Noodle House  until they closed after twenty years. I worked nearby and introduced friends, colleagues, and clients to their fare: tempura udon with fat, white noodles and battered shrimp, zaru soba—my favorite—chewy buckwheat noodles served cold with garnishes and dipping sauce, and the best gyoza anywhere. It’s where my business sidekick and I celebrated good news and bad, birthdays and anniversaries, haircuts and hangnails, Mondays and Fridays.

Pavarotti, the greatest tenor of our time, was an early celebrity chef on the talk-show circuit. He held forth on Italian cooking as much as on opera. A linguine dish he made on Dinah Shore’s show is a regular in my repertoire. The uncooked sauce is embarrassingly simple—you mix crushed garlic, chopped parsley, red pepper flakes, a trickle of olive oil, and some grated parmesan with a can of tomato sauce or paste. I add a splash of red wine; Luciano probably does too in his own kitchen. That’s it. Toss with cooked linguine, serve with salad, fresh sourdough, the rest of the bottle of wine, and enjoy to the accompaniment of Pavarotti singing something rollicking, like “Questa o quelle” from Rigoletto.

“Quotidian and ubiquitous” is how instant ramen noodles are described in a history of their global rise. I’d add quick, cheap, convenient, shelf-stable, and tasty. Many people want to dismiss them as the mainstay of college students and prisoners, but instant noodles have become a worldwide phenomenon. More than a hundred billion packages are sold annually—that’s fourteen servings for every person on the planet. The instant ramen museum  in Osaka, Japan, commemorates them and their founder, Momofuku Ando. For more about ramen, see “S.”

Rice predates noodles by centuries, going back to 2500 BCE in China. It still holds sway in southern China, but noodles dominate the north, with its plentiful wheat fields. It’s the opposite in Italy, the biggest rice producer in Europe, where risotto is a northern specialty. Making risotto is a meditative experience that encompasses all the senses—slow and methodical, stirring constantly as the pearl-like grains get thick and creamy and aromatic as they absorb the liquid.

Sokusekimensaikuropedia is the name of the instant noodle encyclopedia. It was written by Toshio Yamamoto , a self-professed noodle maniac who has become a YouTube star reviewing and rating more than five thousand varieties of instant noodles. We’re not so discriminating at my house;we buy whatever’s on special—the four-packages-for-a-dollar brands. They’re a mainstay for my husband’s lunches—he prefers pork flavour and eats it unadorned. I’m a more recent convert, but I throw out the seasoning packet and add my own embellishments—tofu, onions, greens, mushrooms, furikake seasoning. But there’s an underside to instant noodles; see “U.”

Tommaso’s sits on a particularly seedy stretch of Kearny Street in San Francisco’s North Beach, next to and across the street from strip joints with garish marquees and thuggish hawkers. A food-savvy friend failed to tell me about it for years because of its location. “Shame on you,” I said after she finally shared her secret. While it might deter the timid, she should have known it wouldn’t matter to us. Tommaso’s is justifiably famous for pizza, but we go for the lasagna—the house-made noodles dissolve on your tongue.

“Use Your Noodle,” an article in a 2013 World Wildlife magazine, reports that ninety percent of the world’s oil palms are grown on islands in Malaysia and Indonesia to produce palm oil for instant noodles, resulting in destroyed habitats and endangered species. Noodle as brain is a common analogy, clever with a double entendre. Noodle is used as an adjective too, implying floppiness (“noodly” would be more grammatical). “Noodle arms” describes a weakness in your arms and hands after prolonged heavy lifting. It’s that feeling when you can’t clench your fist and your hands don’t obey your commands. “Noodle arms” is also applied to quarterbacks who can’t throw. Other limp noodle references come to mind, but I’ll self-censor out of delicacy.

“Venus and Mars” seems to have died down as a theory to underline differences between women and men, but it left a number of offshoots in its wake, like spaghetti and waffles. This notion posits that a woman’s brain is like spaghetti, flexible and interconnected, while man’s is a waffle, compartmentalized, and made up of little boxes. Which makes her more adept at connecting and multitasking—also more emotional. He, in turn, is more focused and analytical but emotionally blocked. One might see elements of truth in these pat explanations, but I find them simplistic and sexist. Google spaghetti and waffle, however, and scroll past all that nonsense to the recipe for spaghetti waffles.

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amorebegins Dean Martin’s paean to love—Italian style. The song stoked my childhood curiosity about “pasta fazool,” which the lyrics rhyme with drool. Years later I discovered pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans. Dino’s daughter shared the Martin family recipe on a Massachusetts talk show, but I’ll stick with pizza.

Xiao long bao. Calvin Trillin extolled them; Ruth Reichl called them “the best things in the whole world.” To Anthony Bourdain they’re pillows of happiness. Who would argue with experts of this stature? I hadn’t heard of them when my husband and I were in New York some years ago. We asked friends, locals, where we should eat in Chinatown. “You have to have the soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai,” they said. It was a command, not a suggestion. We went the next day, and I saw dumplings in bamboo steam baskets at every table. Where’s the soup? I wondered. I watched as diners used spoons to scoop up the bundles, chopsticks to maneuver them to their mouths. When ours arrived I hoisted one onto my spoon and grasped the doughy, pinched top with chopsticks. When I bit into it, warm liquid splattered my shirt, and sloshed onto my plate. A burst of discovery accompanied the burst of broth: the soup—an aromatic, gingery meat broth—is inside the pork-filled dumpling. And yes, they live up to their reputation. I’ve since tracked them down closer to home, in San Francisco and San Diego.

Yee’s is a popular and atmospheric spot in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Ducks and other small, plucked fowl hang in the front window, and what appear to be Chinatown locals eat family style at big round tables, filling their plates from an array of dishes rotating on lazy susans. Specials are posted on the wall in undecipherable Chinese characters, but the menu is printed in both Chinese and English. It doesn’t matter, though, because we always order the same thing—hot and sour soup, potstickers, and, depending on the weather and time of day, hot jasmine tea or Tsingtao  beer.

Ziti is a short, stubby, hollow pasta that begins with the letter Z.