Could Handmade Noodles Be the Next Sourdough Bread of the Pandemic?

Handmade liang fen noodles served with cucumbers, cilantro sauce, and Sichuan pepper and chili oil. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

Back in April, when grocery shopping seemed especially precarious, I bought a 50-pound sack of flour about the size of the bag of kibble my Labrador goes through each month. Over the past five months, I’ve become proficient at feeding my sourdough starter and shaping loaves, and I find baking soothing. But we can’t live on bread alone; I’d have to find another use for all that flour. 

Author Beth Bich Minh Nguyen, who relocated from Berkeley to Madison, Wisconsin, started making noodles back in April. Yaki udon is one of her kids’ favorite dinners, but the noodles were unavailable in stores. Since she often bakes cakes and pastries and has cranked out pasta in the past, she decided to try making the Japanese wheat noodle. “Udon is easier and faster, especially since I use my stand mixer to knead the dough,” said Nguyen, who couldn’t believe how easy and delicious it was. “The texture and chew! Also, the dough freezes well. So I’ve made udon numerous times now and may never go back!”

Rice, mung bean and tapicoa flours for making gluten-free Asian noodles
Rice, mung bean and tapicoa flours for making gluten-free Asian noodles. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

Recent heat waves were the breaking point for me. Turning on the oven was a non-starter. Maybe it was time to try making noodles? 

First, I checked with Sonoko Sakai. Before the pandemic, she was teaching in-person workshops in the Bay Area every two months—at the San Francisco Cooking School, Japanese Cultural Center, Pollinate Farms in Oakland and SHED in Healdsburg (which has since closed)—as well at her home in Los Angeles. Since shelter-in-place, she’s taught three soba webinars. Online teaching has posed some challenges; usually she provided specialized knives and rolling pins, as well as buckwheat flour from Japan that is especially fresh and finely milled for soba. Now, she mails ingredient kits to students and has adapted her technique for everyday kitchen equipment, producing a more rustic, homestyle soba. “Just make a dough and make a ball and roll it out and cut the noodles. Keep it really simple,” she explains, adding, “Soba is a finicky dough because it’s gluten-free.”

More Noodles.

Linda Tay Esposito is another Bay Area cook who teaches a noodle class through 18 Reasons in San Francisco. She said that making noodles isn’t that different from baking bread. “It's just working with flour and water, you see the trend with sourdough,”  Tay Esposito said. “The fact that you can get your hands into it gives people a feeling of groundedness. Especially with what we’re going through right now, it’s a nice feeling.” Her technique courses—hand-pulled noodles, dumplings—have been especially popular, as quarantined home cooks have time to learn new skills. I was drawn to a class that focused on gluten-free noodles.

Rice and tapioca flours are mixed with boiling water to make khao piak sen noodles during an online cooking class with 18 Reasons
Rice and tapioca flours are mixed with boiling water to make khao piak sen noodles during an online cooking class with 18 Reasons. ( Grace Hwang Lynch)

Though gluten-free noodles can be made from rice, tapioca or mung beans, these starches are not substitutions for wheat. “In the south of China and a lot of Southeast Asia—I'm from Malaysia—we don't eat wheat, we have rice,” said Tay Esposito. “We have lots of cassava, which is tapioca. So we used those to make our noodles.”

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On a Sunday afternoon, I logged onto Zoom along with ten other students. First up: liang fen, a slippery, cold noodle from western China that is served with julienned cucumbers, cilantro sauce and numbing chili and Sichuan peppercorn oil. Mung bean flour was mixed into a pot of boiling water and stirred constantly until it gelatinized. Then the slurry was poured into a baking dish—like Jell-O. 

Mung bean starch is whisked with hot water to create liang fen, Chinese cold noodles
Mung bean starch is whisked with hot water to create liang fen, Chinese cold noodles. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

Next, I whisked together rice and tapioca flours to make noodles for the Thai chicken soup, khao piak sen. My months of bread baking gave me confidence that the starch molecules would absorb the boiling water, a process called an autolyse, turning into plump dough. Some students struggled with the bright white dough, which was stickier—yet also dried out more easily—than the wheat kind. When rolled, the dough didn’t want to stay flat, snapping back into a smaller, thicker mass. But I finally managed to cut fettucine-width ribbons from it. The best part? Both the mung bean and rice and tapioca noodles provided a chewy, bouncy texture that we Taiwanese like to call “qq.”

Khao piak sen Thai chicken soup with handmade rice and tapioca noodles
Khao piak sen Thai chicken soup with handmade rice and tapioca noodles. (Grace Hwang Lynch)

Afterwards, I talked with another student, Jade Wang of Palo Alto, who hasn’t seen her parents since January. Making liang fen was a way to connect with her Chinese heritage.

For her, shelter-in-place has been a time for experimenting without fear. “No one else can see your mistakes, so you may as well do it,” said Wang. “We are all experiencing a lot of sameness and a lot of interacting with screens, so doing something with my hands felt really great.”

Like a loaf of bread, a package of noodles costs just a few dollars, so making them at home isn’t much of a money saver. But the sense of comfort, the connection to tradition and perhaps the reassurance of self-sufficiency might be even more valuable during these uncertain times.

Sonoko Sakai teaches a two-day vegan ramen webinar on October 10-11. 18 Reasons offers an Italian egg pasta online class with Viola Buitoni on October 25.