Um, I think I'm starting off on the wrong foot here, talking about pasta. I mean all noodles, and not all noodles are pasta.
I love noodles. If you want to create a mouthwatering meal, use your noodle. Think spaghetti, soba, shirataki, to name a few.
Want more? You can also think about serving pad thai noodles, which are flat, Thai, rice noodles; pancit kanton, those Philippine-style wheat noodles; bean threads, or cellophane noodles, those thin, round, Vietnamese, rice noodles; rice sticks, also called rice-stick noodles; and then there's vermicelli, fettuccine, lasagna, and flat egg noodles. There are more, but these should help get you started.
The noodles of my childhood in the Midwest were pretty much limited to spaghetti noodles and occasionally egg noodles. I loved spaghetti in a marinara-meat sauce, and my mom could make a delicious chicken tetrazzini. And both my mother and my grandmother could concoct luscious egg-noodle casseroles, whether with chicken or beef or lamb.
I still enjoy all those noodle dishes, of course, especially spaghetti. Who doesn't?
"When you really want to show some love, keep the flowers and say it with spaghetti," television cook and talk-show host Rachael Ray says.
It was after I joined the Marine Corps that I learned that the world of noodles was more expansive than I'd ever imagined. I started discovering all the wonderful shapes, sizes, textures, sauces, broths, added ingredients – and all the good, good flavors.
Holy lo mein! Talk about some serious goodness; noodles were no joke. Well, that's not completely true. I do know one old noodle joke: What do you call a fake noodle? An impasta.
Sorry about that. I'll keep the corny noodle jokes out of this. That reminds me: I should mention that you can find a creamy corn and noodle casserole recipe at Taste of Home magazine's website. Go for it. Yep, I'm from corn country, so I love my corn and love my noodles.
However, my favorite noodle creations are indigenous to Asia. That makes sense, I guess. Noodles were invented by the Chinese several thousand years ago. Then, Italian explorer Marco Polo stopped in China around 1295 and ordered some noodles to go, taking them and the technique with him back to Italy.
Vietnam, in Southeast Asia, is known for some pretty good noodles. Pretty good? How about fabulous, excellent, outstanding?
My first overseas tour – the military says deployment these days – was in Vietnam, or what was then South Vietnam. After an intriguing year of combat there, I attended the State Department's Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C., to try to learn a little bit of the Vietnamese language, after which I was assigned to a yearlong tour at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the capital of good noodles.
While my language skills were dreadfully limited, my appreciation of noodles was great. And I had no idea back then that Americans would be flocking to Vietnamese restaurants in the States some years later, getting on their pho fix.
Pho, or phở, is a simple yet complex and delicious combination of savory broth, thin-sliced beef, cilantro, basil, bean sprouts, lime and – ta-da! – linguini-shaped rice noodles, or bánh phở. While traditional pho is beef pho, diners also can find chicken pho and other versions. My advice: stick to beef.
The uninitiated pho eater might think that pho is pronounced like fo, with a long "o," but pho snobs would be quick to correct you and tell you that the proper pronunciation sounds like fuh, as in, uh, fuh, like Elmer Fudd. Well, you can tell those smartypants that that's the pronunciation in northern Vietnam, where pho was born. But down south in Saigon –yes, Ho Chi Minh City – it's pronounced fa, like in father, and if you want to make it more authentic, you can sing-song it so that it comes out like fa-ah, and the second part – with no real pause in between fa and ah – rises a little, like a slightly higher note.
Perhaps that's more information than required here. Forget about that sounds-like gobbledygook, and just go get yourself a steaming, succulent bowl of pho.
When my year in Saigon was up, the Marine Corps did not send me back to the States. It assigned me to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Is the Corps great, or what? Let's see, I thought, what kind of noodle dishes can the French cook up?
My first dinner out in Paris was a noodle feast at the Barbary Coast Saloon, where every Wednesday night, owner Jackie offered up all-you-can-eat spaghetti along with garlic baguette and a small carafe of red wine – all for 20 francs, which was about $5.
Yet, the best spaghetti in the City of Light was the spaghettis de la mer at a place on Avenue Wagram. That seafood sketty was full of the wonderful flavors of the sea, and I was in Neptune paradise while slurping those noodles and grazing on those shrimps, mussels and pieces of calamari. Mon Deux!
Eventually, there came Japan. After Paris and some time in North Carolina, the Corps gave me a one-year assignment to Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni, Japan, and the kid from the Midwest discovered buckwheat noodles – glorious soba. I slurped up soba noodles – and you must slurp in Japan – mostly in soup soba at soba venders and in soba shops and from the soba truck. Also, lo and behold, my Anne took cooking classes each week from a local Iwakuni lady, who taught her how to make yakisoba, a kind of stir-fried, soba-noodle meal. OooRAH!
Years later, in 2007, the Stars and Stripes daily newspaper hired me as a copy editor at Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo. Anne was thrilled and I was ecstatic, along with being very hungry for Japanese noodles.
For the next several years, I enjoyed miles of noodles. I devoured soba, ramen and udon noodles. I grew especially fond of the ramen noodles, which bear no resemblance to the squiggly, dehydrated, blocks of packaged ramen you buy for a quarter at American supermarkets. I discovered that since I had left Iwakuni years before, the Japanese had embraced ramen and made a culinary art of the noodles and the delicious broths in which they are delivered to you at ramen shops, ramen houses and ramen cafes.
Soba noodles, however, most represent Japanese noodle making and noodle eating. While my favorite Tokyo ramen place was just across the street from Stars and Stripes, a fantastic mom-and-pop soba shop was located only a block farther. My favorite menu item was a bowl of soup soba topped with two gigantic tempura shrimp – prawns from heaven. My friend Randy Roth always ordered the soup soba with a fat black herring, his favorite of Earth's edibles.
Randy is retired now and still lives in Japan. He tells me he's still eating plenty of herring and soba.
"Love herring soba!" he told me this week. "That and Okinawa soba are among my favorite Japanese dishes hands down."
If you're planning a trip to Japan and want to try a great soba restaurant, Randy has some simple advice. "Look for the small shops that are crowded," he says, "like looking for the best diners in the U.S. by the number of trucks out front. The mom-and-pop types are usually the best, although some of the national chains found in a lot of train stations are no slouches, either."
Incidentally, Randy points out that the best buckwheat noodles in mainland Japan are found in Kyoto and Tokyo. His favorite soba and herring ever? "Probably the best was at a little joint in a train station just outside Kyoto. I don't remember the name, but the broth was first-rate, like a hearty onion soup, and the fish was beautifully dried and a little sweet, as well as salty."
That little soba shop not far from Stars and Stripes was a favorite with my friend Paul Newell. He called their noodles: commie noodles.
"The place was openly apologetic for socialist candidates and had posters of current and past candidates on their walls," Paul reminded me in a Facebook message last week. "I think in most cases I would have not patronized a place with those leanings, but gave them a pass because it was that good."
And that was the basis for Paul's famous soba saying at our Tokyo office: "Commie noodles are good noodles."
Paul, a U.S. Navy officer, was just transferred from Virginia to Naval Air Station, Sigonella, Sicily. He and his family will discover some excellent noodle dishes there. I know that for certain, because I passed through Sigonella twice, both times spending a night on the air station and eating outside the base, where I enjoyed the best spaghetti I'd ever eaten. I was so taken by those noodles the first time I was there, that I returned to the same place the second time I passed through, a couple of years later.
Spaghetti can do that to you, but that's fine. Go ahead and slurp up those noodles, and don't worry about your figures, ladies. As the gorgeous Sophia Loren once said: "Everything you see I owe to spaghetti."