Flavors From the Melting Pot: Cucumber-Chile Liangfen Noodles
I’ve been thinking a lot about blended culinary cultures. The world we live in has become so open. Travel is easy and relatively inexpensive, making it feasible to experience other cultures firsthand. Media is universally present, familiarizing us with other cultures. Ingredients have been imported and exported and shared—especially in countries that have large immigrant populations, like the United States, where our very foundation of culture (culinary and otherwise) comes from a wide mix of peoples. But, of course, it is still a challenge to open ourselves up to the traditions of others.
The film The Hundred-Foot Journey embodies this conflict in the character Madame Mallory, a stern French restaurateur who slowly learns to come to terms with her new neighbors, an Indian family that opens a restaurant across the street from hers. France is an appropriate setting for this sort of culture-crossing; it’s a culture that is not as open to the melting pot ethos as ours.
But here, we cook like this all the time. We even have our own all-American microcuisines, based on foreign fare, that have become their own things. Tex-Mex is a great example, and so is what we know as Chinese. Chinese food in this country (the kind in the white take-out containers) is based largely on Cantonese cuisine, but it has become its own thing too. Like culture and language, these cuisines are constantly evolving.
Last weekend, I hosted a visiting chef at my cooking school in Stockton, N.J. Lillian Chou, whom I met in the test kitchens of Gourmet magazine, has been living in Beijing for many years, and she cooked us a 16-course meal based on her experiences in China. I learned a lot from Lillian’s feast, and one technique that I have added to my own repertoire is a recipe for liangfen, a bouncy-textured mung bean starch noodle. It is easy to make and acts as a blank canvas for flavorful sauces. Lillian’s version includes mint, peanuts, and radishes with a soy-based sauce. But I’ve taken the idea and Americanized it slightly by adding honey from my bees, cucumbers from the garden, and fresh cayenne chiles.
Cucumber-Chile Liangfen Noodles
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
For the liangfen:
2 3/4 cups water
1/2 cup mung bean starch
For the sauce:
1 medium cucumber
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 fresh hot red chile, such as cayenne, thinly sliced
Fresh cilantro leaves
Oil a baking pan. Whisk the water, mung bean starch, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan. Place the saucepan on the heat and bring to a boil, stirring until thick, about 3 minutes. Pour the thickened starch mixture into the oiled pan, and let stand at room temperature until cool and set. Smash the cucumber with the back of a chef’s knife, then cut it into chunks, and place it in a bowl along with any juices from the cutting board. Whisk in the soy, vinegar, honey, and chile, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cut the starch into noodles and toss with the cucumber sauce. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.