There are far, far more variations of soy sauce than the average supermarket would have you believe. Your local newsagent will likely be better supplied, beaten only by the Technicolour cornucopia of your nearest Chinese supermarket.
I spend a good 20 minutes in mine – mask on, fishmonger at the entrance rattling through orders, intricately designed packets of instant noodles in towers where walls would be – just reading hundreds of soy sauce bottle labels, the umami of them pulsing from behind the glass.
It’s tough not to scoop the lot into a basket and take it all home – which is likely what Pippa Middlehurst would do. “If I go to a Chinese supermarket now and I see an ingredient I don’t have in my pantry, I want it, and I want to know what to do with it, and I want to know how it tastes,” explains the Manchester-based food writer, and author of new cookbook, Dumplings And Noodles.
A paean to its namesakes, if you’re brand new to pleating your own gyoza, and making bao, biang biang noodles and ramen, the book will have you escaping the limited condiments aisle in Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and tracking down ingredients like Chinkiang black vinegar, Shaoxing rice wine, dried shrimps, shiro miso paste and doubanjiang (broad bean chilli sauce).
And once you’ve loaded up on those, Middlehurst will then have you making huge vats of your own chilli oil – hers is spiked with cardamom, fennel and ginger.
On Zoom, Middlehurst’s tied up the corkscrew curls you’d recognise from her stint on Britain’s Best Home Cook, which she won in 2018. A cancer research scientist, she’s currently focusing on food full-time, writing recipes, running cookery classes, and is set to open a culinary community space, called Noodlehaus, this autumn.
She makes the idea of throwing a bowl of noodles together for lunch seem not only achievable, but wholly sensible. We make her charred broccoli soba – aka hangover noodles (please note, neither of us were hungover, but I can totally see that these would pretty swiftly rectify a hangover) – with a crispy fried egg on top (for adequate crispiness, Middlehurst says a wok is a must – and yes, you would be forgiven for looking at her Instagram page @pippyeats, and thinking she has a fried egg with everything).
Separately but together, we char branches of tenderstem broccoli, frazzle garlic and chilli in a pan, and douse soba noodles in soy sauce and Chinkiang black vinegar. The fried egg oozes yellow-yolk over pink-edged radish slices and angular slivers of spring onion.
While for quick meals, dried noodles are the go-to, in the book, Middlehurst also explains the science of hand pulling noodles and the graft required to make them, which she experienced at noodle school in China where she spent two solid days kneading dough, hour after hour (“I was so tired!”).
Middlehurst’s interest in Asian cuisines – she includes dishes from China, Japan and Taiwan in Dumplings And Noodles – stems from her granddad’s pursuit of excellence. “It wasn’t that he loved only Chinese food, but he loved fine things, good things, and he would pride himself on where to find the best restaurants,” she remembers. “He smoked a pipe for a few years, but he didn’t just smoke tobacco, he smoked organic tobacco; when he had a walking stick, he’d have it made by the best walking stick maker.”
He would take Middlehurst and her siblings for dim sum at a restaurant stacked on top of a Chinese supermarket on an industrial estate: “We’d be the only Western family in there. It was really traditional, with Hong Kong dim sum trollies – he just always knew where to find the best of the best.”
She found the supermarket as fascinating as the dim sum. “I was just so intrigued by all the ingredients and what they tasted like, and how they were used,” she explains. “That giddiness and intrigue has never really left me.”
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