Asian food has exploded in popularity over the last decade and food-trend forecasters are predicting interest in this diverse cuisine will continue to grow.
Noodles, the main ingredient in Asian cuisine, have hit the Baltimore area in a big way recently, with several restaurants designing their menus to showcase the affordable, healthful food.
In places such as Manhattan, San Francisco and Honolulu, noodles have for the past few years been the trendy fast food, served in bowls of broth with a smidgen of meat or a pile of fresh vegetables. Who says fast food has to be artery clogging?
In Manhattan, noodle shops are the latest thing for harried New Yorkers, who can dash into a shop, pick out a noodle, pick out a topping and be on their way for less than $5. "Such a deal" has been rewarded. Noodle shops seem to be opening everywhere in the city.
In Baltimore, the proprietors of Tenosix in Federal Hill, Suzie's Soba in the Belvedere Hotel and Hoang's Sushi and Noodle Cafe on York Road in Towson all are capitalizing on the noodle trend.
Asian noodles are made from rice flour, wheat flour, wheat flour with egg, mung bean flour and buckwheat flour. The Chinese refer to noodles as "mein," the word that forms the basis for popular dishes such as chow mein or lo-mein. The Japanese call their thin buckwheat noodles soba, and their thick wheat-flour noodles are called udon. The Philippines are home to wheat noodles and rice vermicelli, called pancit Canton and pancit hTC Bihon, respectively. The Korean term for noodle is generally gougsou, although they make many different kinds.
In much of Southeast Asia, noodles are served at almost every meal.
"Millions of Vietnamese eat the pho [a dish of rice noodles, broth, meat and vegetables] every morning, because it is very easy to digest," says Nghia Hoang, who with his wife, Phuong, is co-owner of the new Noodle Cafe on York Road. The couple also owns Hoang Oriental Seafood Grill in Mount Washington.
"I'm bringing a new dish to Americans," says Hoang. "It is very good for Americans' health." He envisions Americans becoming as enamored with his national dish as he is. He equates the popularity of noodles in Asia to the popularity of pizza here.
Pho, sometimes called Hanoi beef soup, is not made at home, even in Vietnam, explains Hoang. Because it requires large amounts of beef, fresh vegetables and takes many hours to cook, it is made by shops that specialize in the dish. The long-cooking broth is usually flavored with beef, chicken, onion, star anise, cinnamon and ginger, and is poured over a large bowl of rice stick noodles, called banh pho. It is then topped with slices of beef and vegetables.
Pho is not the only noodle dish eaten in Vietnamese cuisine. Some of the noodles served by the Hoangs include mung bean thread noodles, also called mien vermicelli; hutui, a buckwheat noodle; and bun, a string-like thin rice stick noodle.
"I'm surprised we sell so many noodles, but that tells me that people are interested," says Hoang.
Carole Chinn, owner the Tenosix restaurant in Federal Hill, also has fond memories of noodles. The Seattle native says noodles have always been her comfort food.
Considering their simplicity, Chinn has been surprised at the demand for Asian noodles at her restaurant. Although her menu includes Italian pasta dishes and American casseroles, the Asian noodle dishes account for about half her sales. When she first arrived in Baltimore three years ago, the only noodle dish she could find in local restaurants was lo-mein.
"I missed a lot of the Asian noodles I could get back home," she says.
The popularity of Asian noodles was the catalyst for Sue Hi Hong to change the format of her breakfast- and lunch-cafe into a noodle shop. The Korean-born restaurateur introduced her favorite Korean noodle dishes this spring.
She used the Japanese name for buckwheat noodles, soba, because it is better known than the Korean name for the same noodle, either gougsou (when served warm) or naeng myun (served cold). Korean and Japanese foods are similar, but "Korean food is hotter and spicier," says Hong.
Suzie's Soba features quick, low-fat, low-calorie dishes such as potato noodles topped with sauteed sprouts, onions, Napa cabbage and sesame sauce. Most of her noodle dishes are sauteed in water or broth, rather than oil.
Hong visited San Francisco, New York's Soho, Hawaii and other places to get ideas for her noodle dishes. She decided that "those noodle shops are a little dull -- just soup and noodles." She ended up with a mixture of traditional Korean dishes and her own combinations flavors.
"I made up about 90 percent of the dishes on the menu," she says. Her dream is to open a larger noodle restaurant and to serve fresh gougsou.
F: The following are some quick noodle dishes for summer:
Bibim naeng myun (cold buckwheat noodle)
12 ounces buckwheat noodles
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 stems spring onion, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon bean paste