My marriage works for many reasons: we both love our cats, we’re both performers, we both like spicy foods, we both tacitly agree to pretend that the backyard isn’t turning into a horrorscape of neglected weeds. But if I stop and think about what really binds me and Jarod together, it’s noodles.
Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit here — he’s also a good dish dryer and picture-hanger. But if I’m ever at a loss for what to cook, I know that a big batch of noodly goodness will always go over for both of us. Like most Americans of our age, we both grew up eating a lot of pasta: spaghetti, mac and cheese, the usuals. As we’ve gotten older, though, and I started cooking a lot more with ingredients I pick up at random in the three Asian markets within a stone’s throw of our house, our noodle repertoire has expanded beautifully. It’s a very Disney’s-Aladdin-I-can-show-you-the-world sort of thing.
One of my current favorite noodles is glass noodles, specifically Korean dangmyeon. Glass noodles in general are transparent or translucent ones made of starch (mung bean, cassava, potato, yam, etc.). The Korean ones specifically are usually made of sweet potato starch — you’ll see them labeled ‘sweet potato vermicelli’ in English. In the package they’re nothing much to look at: hard springy medium gray strips that look a lot like the hard plastic bands you’ll sometimes find around bundles of lumber. But take those hard plasticky strips and boil them for a few minutes, and they completely transform: they plump up, they become terribly slippery…
… okay, actually, dangmyeon still look unusual after cooking, if you were raised on Italian pasta. I think they rather resemble seafood; our pet term for them around the house is ‘jellyfish noodles’, because they look like gray, squishy tendrils. But the real magic of glass noodles is their absorption: they suck up cooking liquids like sponges, taking on their hues and flavors. So if you do as I do (and as the instructions on the back of the bag tell you to do), and you use a flavorful mix of soy sauce, sesame oil, and spices, you end up with gorgeous, burnished chestnut strands, packed with salty-nutty-spicy flavor.
And those are great, just as-is. But in addition to being fans of noodles, Jarod and I are also both fans of one-pot meals: fewer dishes to wash, easier to brown-bag. Everybody wins. So I like to include some protein and vegetables. Since I first started making this basic dish, I’ve tried it with a variety of add-ins, and I can tell you that most anything you have in your fridge will work,as long as you cut it so it matches well with the shape of the noodles. (That is, long and skinny good; big and blocky bad.) In the recipe below I’ve used bacon and broccoli, which I think is a natural pairing anyway, along with some onion for depth of flavor. But I’ve also made super-fast versions with, for example, a chopped wedge of leftover cabbage and a crumbled tub of tofu just thrown into the simmering liquid. A group of toddlers absolutely devoured that version at a family potluck, and if picky toddlers enjoy it, I think that’s great praise.
So while I invite you to try the recipe as I’ve given it here, I also suggest you try whatever you have on hand: once you mix your favorite ingredients with soy sauce and sesame oil and use that all to flavor a heap of chewy noodles, it’s hard to go wrong.
Glass noodles with bacon and broccoli
Glass noodles (aka cellophane noodles, bean threads, crystal noodles) are a staple of many Asian cuisines. I have a special love for the Korean dangmyeon, which you can often find in a wide-cut variety that I rather enjoy. Dangmyeon are often seen in a simple stir-fried dish, japchae, but here the process is even simpler: cooked noodles are simmered briefly in a flavorful liquid, and served. If you’re new to glass noodles, this should be a welcome introduction.
Adapted from a recipe on the back of a package of Ontrue wide-cut sweet potato vermicelli.
14 oz dangmyeon (“sweet potato vermicelli”), thin or thick cut
1/2 lb. bacon (about 12 thick slices), cut into thin strips
1 small red onion, sliced into thin petals (i.e. from root to tip)
1 bunch broccoli, cut into thin slivers (peel the stalk to remove the woody outer layer)
1 c water
1/2 c soy sauce
6 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp chili paste
Sesame seeds, to serve
Boil noodles in plenty of boiling water for 8-10 minutes, until they’re completely soft (don’t go for al dente — they’re not that kind of noodle). Drain and rinse with cold water. (If you’d like, you can cut the drained noodles with kitchen shears to make them a little shorter.)
In a large, high-sided skillet or saucepan, cook the bacon with a bit of water over medium heat until browned and crisp. Drain off fat, leaving only 1 Tbsp.
Add onion to skillet and cook over medium-high until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, and simmer for 2 minutes to parcook broccoli.
Add noodles to sauce mixture and simmer over medium-low heat, tossing frequently, until liquid has been mostly absorbed.
Serve hot or room temperature; a sprinkle of sesame seeds makes a nice garnish.
Really this recipe is one giant option. Keep the noodles, and keep the flavoring liquid, but everything else is swappable. Add whatever protein and/or vegetables you have around! If the protein and vegetables don’t need pre-cooking — for example, I’ve made a very quick-and-easy version with some diced cabbage and a package of crumbled tofu — you can combine everything except the noodles in a skillet, bring to a boil, then add the cooked noodles and stir till the liquid’s absorbed. Presto: dinner.
Dangmyeon can usually be found at Asian markets that cater to Koreans, but you might be out of luck if the store specializes more toward Chinese and Japanese populations. You can probably swap in another kind of glass noodle (see some other potential names in my headnote), following the package directions on cooking — I just can’t say for certain because I haven’t personally tried it!
This is a really big recipe. I make it this size because (1) that’s how many noodles come in a bag; (2) more noodles = more better. But you can easily halve it; the rest of the dry noodles will keep indefinitely.
All well and good but how in gods name do you actually eat them.
I’m an expat living in Hong Kong. I regularly go off-piste shopping wise, as a Brit used to roast dinners and full English there is just so much more fascinating unusual food stuffs to try, pasta and noodles by the zillion, from Japanese to Korean, Chinese to Vietnamese…….every country having at least thirty kinds all sold in our supermarkets from fresh to dry to in between to instant, to made infront of your disbelieving eyes. So of course I couldn’t help myself when I saw those fascinating flat, straight, wide completely transparent glistening noodles. Now usually I get my partner to take anything I can’t read (which is most of the packaging) to work and ask one of his friendly assistants for directions. This time it was just “soak in hot water for 15 minutes”, absolutely no confusion.
So delighted with that I tried and it worked absolutely beautifully. Of course there is also never a shortage of unusual things to serve them up with either. I did go fishy, and bought what was a completely live bag of hot jumping wild caught tiger prawns. The shrimp are another story but suffice to say I ended up with a dish that looked just like it had also just jumped alive from one of those extremely expensive coffee table illustrated cook books.
Everyone extremely impressed, until they started trying to eat them that is.
Nothing in the entire kitchen could hold them down, we tried, no fork no chopstick no spoon or combination off. Like slippery eels they too had a life all of their own but unlike the shrimp there was no killing them. In the end there was nothing for it but to drink them down whole, slurping, flapping and splashing all over the place. The dish proved just too lively for some who just couldn’t get them down no matter how hard they tried so just left them like an alien writhing jelly slick at the bottom of their bowls. I also found that once grappled into the mouth or sucked entire end to end and with the help of your fingers to stop them instantly following gravity back into the bowl, extremely chewy in a kind of odd tasteless way. They did absorb colour but not much flavour, looked absolutely haute cuisine but tasted like elastic bands.
So how to eat at all effectively is the big question and secondly how to make tastier. Shouldn’t they come flavoured, impregnated with crab or seaweed, spices and whatever or something? Because to me they just taste like a mouthful of squidgy that defy the teeth. Literally once in and that is hard enough you can chew and chew and chew until blue in the face and nothing happens so you swallow whole because spewing them out again would just be horribly impolite! Anything Im missing? Were those simple directions just too simple? Anyway what so ever to tenderise? I know they thrash octopus about for a good few hours, is this the same sort of thing? Do I need a dedicated Amah squatted in the corner beating the living day lights out of them? Because they got me beat them things thats for sure.
1) My apologies for my sloth in responding; busy couple months, and this slipped under the rug.
2) This is by far the most entertaining comment this blog has ever received.
3) I’m a bit jealous; my husband worked in HK for a couple years, but I’ve not even visited yet!
4) They’re just slippery, alas. It’s the way of it. I find that cutting them in half can help, though I also think it’s not really “done,” as such. (I do so post-cooking, and by “in half” I mean more that I jam scissors down into a colander full of slithery noodles and cut hopefully.)
5) I find that a flavorful sauce, as described here, gives some flavor, but they are a little bland. I think of that more as a positive, in the same way steamed rice provides a contrast to a flavorful sauce. That said, you might try soaking them in hot, seasoned stock or other flavorful liquid; stands to reason they’d absorb more flavor at that stage.
Bonne chance; courage.