Feast. Dac Biet Pho.
Nong La popped up in Little Osaka (Sawtelle Blvd in Los Angeles) for approximately half a year now (least, since I first tasted it). The difference in their pho resides in the fact that their rice noodles are hand made, their bun, soups, spring rolls, dry noodles, and soup noodles are all made from scratch, with no preservatives or funnies goin’ on in the back of the kitchen. I was excited for my first taste of “organic pho,” as previous brands of pho that I had experienced sometimes left an acrid taste in my mouth, whether it was from excessive salt content, or flavor enhancers that snuck their way in (flavor-wise wasn’t terrible though, most of the time). Nong La provides a bowl of pho that is not only subtly light, but rather satisfying. All the flavors were fairly delicate. The broth was exuberant but not egotistically pronounced; the temperature of the soup was borderline lukewarm, which was initially a bit offsetting but was quickly adapted to. As a whole however, the crunchy bean sprouts, the rich basil flavor with a squeeze of lemon, combined with a dollop of warm rice noodle wrapped around brisket and tripe always hits the spot on a semi-cold L.A. day.
It wasn’t until the second time around that I got Nong La’s dac biet pho that I realized why the soup was lukewarm, and not boiling hot. My second experience was not at the restaurant; I had it taken out instead. I chuckled to myself, since I knew about the lukewarm soup, and was pretty thrilled to be at home, with a gas stove, a medium sized saucepan, and an empty stomach. Dumped the soup into the pot, noodles and beef and bean sprouts in, and quickly brought it to a boil. Lukewarm soup? Gone. Then I proceeded to dig in. The overall experience was definitely rated several notches lower. The reason? Instead of soup noodle, I basically had a meal of pho slushie. The rice noodles had absorbed all the delicious broth, and had expanded to the point of sitting sluggishly at the bottom of my bowl like an obese animal.
It was then I realized why they don’t serve their broth piping hot, and perhaps why the “noodle” in soup noodle is mostly commonly cooked separately from the actual soup itself. Aside from lawsuits of “I burned my tongue on your soup which didn’t come with a disclaimer which means now you owe me big time,” the main reason (in my opinion) of why the broth was lukewarm, was to prevent the overheating of noodle starch and the subsequent retrogredation. The end result of retrogredation usually confers bloated noodles and a mushy texture that isn’t pleasant in the least bit. I previously outlined and explained retrogredation, but in this case, I was curious as to if there was a particular method to effectively revive bloated noodles. We explore.
Before we begin…
In the case of potato or some form of natural arrangement of starch, noodles are on the spectrum of unnaturally structured starch, as they were most likely made from wheat or rice flour. From my previous post on retrogradation, there is technically no “natural” state that cannot be returned from for noodles, because they didn’t have any sort of natural conformation to begin with (Noodles in the wild? Show me.) Therefore, when I say “retrograded” for the case of noodles, I simply mean “noodles that have exceeded their fluidic capacity beyond a point where texture and taste is optimal,” and in layman’s terms, “slushie at the bottom of the pot.” Doesn’t mean retrogradation didn’t happen, it just means that naturally occurring starch in a potato (from the previous post) is different from noodle starch in structural arrangement, but they’re both starch nonetheless.
Revival of bloated noodles doesn’t take much, if we simply think about what we’re working with. To fix bloated starch, we must remove the bloat. In this case, the bloat is caused by soup, and soup is mostly water. Therefore, the way to reconstitute noodles would be simply dry them out; to dessicate them. Some methods below.
Desiccator. A closed environment where temperature is relatively even and there is a constant movement of air is one of the fastest and evenly distributed methods of successfully drying out bloated noodles. Of course you might not be able to eat them straight away (if you leave em’ in all the way, they basically become hard, dry noodle) but the use of a desiccator could create some seriously flavorful noodles, as the flavorants from the broth remain within the noodle, while the water evaporates away. More on this later.
Microwave. Microwaving involves the excitement of water molecules within food. The resultant excitement of said water molecules is a function of increased kinetic energy and vibration of water molecules. These increased vibrations and kinetic energies allows bond breakage to occur, which is an exothermic reaction (releases energy) and thus, increases the temperature of the water, to a point where evaporation is possible. However, this lends the possibility of overheating an eventually dry noodle, as it is difficult to predict when all the water has safely evaporated. Since the noodles are most likely haphazardly thrown in a bowl and into the microwave, there is no guarantee of even heating, and unless you’re microwave connoisseur, there is also no guarantee of even heating with in your microwave. What a headache.
Sauté** pan.** Pan evaporation of water from bloated noodles actually doesn’t sound like a terrible idea. Aside from perhaps needing to toss the noodles so they don’t burn, a nice caramelization can be achieved here, as well as some decent evaporation.
Bake/broil. Baking is an even (hopefully) heating of noodles in an enclosed heating arena, usually with a convection fan for better heat distribution. Broiling is basically heat directed from above, so it’s kind of like an upside down sauté pan. In the case of broiling, caramelization will occur, but without the constant tossing of the noodles, whatever noodle surfaces are exposed would only undergo water evaporation and browning, so you’d get crispy and soggy noodles. Not particularly pleasant. Baking would marginally be better, but in the center of such tangled noodle messes, warm oven air may not be able to penetrate the noodle entanglement very well, leading to uneven evaporation.
Best method? I feel the best method would actually be something like a flat top short order grill that you usually see at delis, swamped with over-easy eggs and more hash browns. Plenty of rooms for the bloated noodles to stretch out and lose a bit of a girth, and all the air in the world for the moisture to evaporate away, without the expensive cost of a desiccator. For home users, the large sauté pan method will do.
An interesting thought. Take a dense broth of any kind and cook your noodles in that broth. Dessicate them (ideal here would be a dessicator, as to prevent caramelization. Only the water would evaporate, leaving you with dry, broth flavored noodles. Take these dry noodles and cook them again in dense broth. Repeat the dessication. Do this as many times as you like, but when you’re ready to eat them, cook the dry noodles in broth, and caramelize them in a sauté pan before serving. Super-braised noodles.