I’ve often pondered why noodles are so yummy, and were it not for the fact that some of the answers are integral to the recipe of the day, pho ap chao bo, I would caution against pondering this too deeply. Like the question of why the sky is blue, the answer-something about light waves and stuff-just isn’t as satisfying as the unanswered question. Alas, if we wish to enjoy true noodlebliss in our own homes, and not depend on pros in restaurant kitchens to take us there blindfolded, we must go there ourselves.
Because not all noodles, or the dishes made from them, take us to the textural places that rice noodles can. And lets face it, noodles are all about texture. Nobody eats them for the flavor.
Rice noodles are gods among noodles, thanks to their forgiving yet robust chewiness. But another important quality of these starchy strands is their readiness to trade in their softness for a crisp. Or, most importantly, their capacity to be both chewy and crispy at the same time, like an electron that is both particle and wave. The crispy and soft parts interact differently with the sauce, adding diversity and complexity to the dish.
Today’s dish, pho ap chao bo, entered my radar during my time as a restaurant critic in Albuquerque. Some might consider this assignment to be more about enchiladas and chicharrones and green chile cheeseburgers than noodles. But Albuquerque’s Vietnamese restaurant scene is solid, thanks to a large Air Force base to which soldiers returned, with new wives in tow, from the Vietnam war. The wives in turn brought over their families, and the rice noodles have been flowing-and floating and frying-ever since.
It was in these eateries that I became acquainted with the dual nature of the rice noodle.
Noodles are served in many different ways in Vietnamese restaurants, not all of them crispy and chewy. Today’s dish could simply be categorized as stir-fried or pan-fried noodles, but that would put it in questionable company. I don’t want noodles that have only been stirred in a pan with other stuff. Or worse still: stirred soggy noodles. I want noodles that dance with the sauce and make me notice them as they party in my mouth, not merely a passive, personality-free delivery system for sauce. I want noodles with the backbone to also show their vulnerable side.
After trying pho ap chao bo for the first time I obsessed with these noodles, laboring to reproduce them in the kitchen over the course of many attempts, until I finally succeeded. When it occurred to me, belatedly, that I could simply search online for the recipe, I felt vindicated to realize that I had basically nailed it-at least the most important step, the only step that matters. The step that, when mastered, will allow you to substitute crispy rice noodles into virtually any noodle dish, and it will be improved.
Begin by cooking the noodles in plenty of boiling water until al-dente, AKA almost done. Then drain them and rinse off the excess starch in running cold water in the colander, and let them drain again.
Then, fry the noodles in a flat frying pan on low heat in enough oil to completely cover the bottom of a pan. It can take 10-15 minutes to achieve the desired crisp, and accompanying shade of light brown. If you don’t have the patience to keep the heat low, the noodles will burn.
On low heat the noodles will fry into a disk-shaped mass. When you suspect the bottom has crisped, lift up one edge with a spatula and peek. If you see a skin of crisp, and the noodles move as a single unit rather than a tangle of independent entities, flip that noodle disk like a pancake. When the other side is similarly fried, let the disk cool to the point where you can cut it into strips, each of which is like a meta-noodle composed of individual strands. The exterior of this meta-noodle is pure crisp, while the inside is chewy like gum.
Toss the cut noodle pieces into your sauce, briefly stir them, and serve.
So that’s the gist. Now, here is an example of how to incorporate those crispy/chewy noodles into an actual recipe.
While the noodles slowly get their crisp on in one pan, the sauce is prepared in another-also slowly, at least in my kitchen. While stir-fry is typically a high-heat, fast and furious affair, I prefer a different route.
First, add the proteins. Beef is traditionally used in this dish. Tofu works too. If you are lucky enough to have some venison in the freezer, that works great too.
Slice the meat thinly and lay the pieces into the oil, on low/medium heat, and let the exterior of the meat build a patient brown while excess water is released. Do not stir.
While the proteins brown, add the veggies that can stand a little extra cooking, like carrots and onions. They can just sit on top of the proteins for now, gently steaming. Don’t stir.
While that’s happening, cut more vegetables, like celery, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli. You want to time it so these veggies are perfectly cooked to your satisfaction by the time the noodles have been stirred in. But at this point, nothing has been stirred. The proteins remain at the bottom covered with layers of veggies, quietly steaming.
Now add chopped ginger and garlic to the top of the pile, along with your sauce components. I like a Chinese-style mix of oyster sauce, fish sauce, rice cooking wine and hoisin sauce. For a half-pound of dry rice noodles go with 2 tablespoons (T) oyster sauce, 1 T fish sauce, 2 T hoisin sauce, and 1 T rice wine. Now you can stir it.
Wait a minute for the garlic to cook, then add your crispy/chewy noodles and gently stir them into the sauce. Note how even in this soupy sauce, the noodles won’t get soggy. Now you’re ready to apply the principle behind the dual nature of the rice noodle to other dishes.