Our Cook the Books Club selection this time brings us to China (Cina) with the novel Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah1, which follows the adventures of the two Lee sisters in Beijing (Pechino). Born and raised in New Jersey, the sisters follow different careers: Claire becomes a lawyer and moves to the Chinese capital to work for a prestigious firm, while Isabelle works as a fact-checker at a magazine in New York and wants to be a writer. Isabelle loses her job in a bad way and her boyfriend ends their relationship. Nudged by friends, she joins her sister in China for a change of scenery, possibly a new career and an exploration of their parents' country of origin.
In Beijing, Isabelle ends up working as food columnist for an expat magazine, which gives her a chance to explore the city and beyond, to meet people, to refine her knowledge of the language. Food plays a role in the novel in various ways: until her stay in Beijing, it was the only connection to China Isabelle had, via her mother; in her role of food writer, she comes to appreciate a much larger range of dishes from regions of China lesser known abroad; a number of important events and conversations in the novel occur around a table or at parties.
An important part of the story is for Isabelle to leave the comfortable known and try new things, which is something I like to do in my cooking, lest I fall into a rut. The tradition of wheat noodles in Chinese cuisine was not a surprise for me, having been introduced to that in 2015 at the LongHouse event, where there was the gorgeous hand-painted dumpling shack in the photo. Although inclement weather forced us to take cover inside the barn, we still spent time learning about different types of wheat noodles and to fold dumpling dough around delicious fillings.
The reading made me want to explore some new types of noodles. Leafing through The Ketogenic Kitchen2 by Domini Kemp & Patricia Daly, a cookbook I like a lot, I encountered unknown-to-me konjac noodles and sea spaghetti, both gluten free and very low in carbohydrates. Konjac is a plant grown in South-East Asia, and according to Wikipedia3 it is native to the Chinese region of Yunnan. Spaghetti-shaped konjac noodles are also known as shirataki noodles. At the local grocery store, I found a version shaped as fettuccine. I also found kelp noodles, made from kombu (edible kelp), so konjac fettuccine and kelp noodles is what I used for my renditions of the dish (more details in the recipe below).
I read other recipes4 using these noodles besides the one that provided the original inspiration, and, as usual, below is what my experiments and personal preferences made me settle on. While I rely on store-bought noodles, the greens come from my small garden, while the mushrooms come from the farmers' market. One of the vendors I buy from makes "mystery" bags and that is what I like to get, as they contain a selection of the mushrooms variety they grow. I have also made the dish with just shiitake.
- 4 ounces / 113 g kelp noodles
- 3.5 ounces / 100 g drained konjac noodles
- 4 ounces / 113 g leafy greens of choice (kale, chard, tatsoi, etc.), clean weight
- 4 ounces / 113 g shiitake mushrooms OR a mix that includes shiitake, maitake, king trumpets, wood ears, beech mushrooms, etc.
- 1 1/2 tablespoons / 22.5 ml extra-virgin olive oil OR algae oil
- 1.5 ounces / 42 g spring onion, red or white, OR torpedo onion, diced small
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger root
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/8 teaspoon crushed Aleppo pepper OR crushed chili pepper, to taste
- 1 tablespoon / 15 ml cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce OR coconut aminos
- 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- Fine sea salt, to taste
Prepare the noodles and all the vegetables before starting to cook the dish.
The konjac noodles I use are fettuccine-shaped, packaged in water. I drain them, weigh the desired amount, then rinse them and finally cut them into shorter strands to make cooking and eating with the other ingredients easier.
I weigh the desired amount of kelp noodles, rinse them and prepare them according to the instructions in The Ketogenic Kitchen: I heat up water in a small pot (hot but not boiling), take the pot off the heat, plunge the noodles into in, stir and put the lid on. After 10 minutes, I drain the noodles and cut them into shorter strands to make cooking and eating with the other ingredients easier.
Set aside the noodles until ready to add them to the pan. For both types of noodles, follow the package instructions for storing what you don't use for the dish.
Rinse the leafy greens and cut off any tough stems. Thinly slice stems of chard or tatsoi. Pile a few leaves, roll them tights and slice into thin strips. Set aside.
Clean the mushrooms and thinly slice them. Halve slices if large.
Warm up a wok or sauté pan over medium heat, then add the olive or algae oil and swirl to coat. Add the onion and ginger, stir well and turn down the heat to low. Cook until the onion is soft, 5 minutes or so, stirring almost constantly. Add the garlic, stir well and cook for 1 minute, while stirring, until garlic smells fragrant.
Add the pepper, cider vinegar and soy sauce or coconut aminos and stir well. Turn up the heat slightly and cook, while stirring, for 1 minute. Add the leafy greens, mushrooms, konjac noodles and kelp noodles and stir well. Turn down the heat to a level that makes the vegetables simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables and mushrooms are tender.
Adjust the salt (I find that the soy sauce or coconut aminos provide enough salt, so I don't add any), give a final stir and serve immediately.
I am so glad I tried konjac noodles and kelp noodles! Together they complement well the texture of leafy greens and mushrooms. A lovely side dish for all seasons.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the pasta di konjac e pasta di alghe con verdure a foglia verde e funghi audio file [mp3].
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FTC disclosure: I have received the table linens free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.