Combining starch and sauce – the ‘flick’
My experience as a chef at Café Murano gave me huge confidence in making and cooking with pasta. Working under Angela Hartnett, I made an embarrassment of pasta riches every day. Ricotta-stuffed tortelli and Angela’s famous lobster spaghetti, made with fat chunks of British lobster meat and sweet Sicilian tomatoes. From Café Murano I moved onto Petersham nurseries, where I combined my pasta obsession with ingredients grown closer to home, such as pesto made from nasturtiums handpicked in our own nursery, or with hand-harvested mussels and aromatic wild fennel.
But, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, I was nervous to have a go at cooking many Asian noodle dishes, for a while not quite recognizing that combining cooked dough and sauce over heat with a flick of the wrist is a global activity. Perhaps I was thinking of the British ‘stir fry’, a dish that bears very little resembles to many of the East Asian noodle dishes that I love. Luckily for me, a recent FIS project taught me that although ingredients and end results can be different, some of what happens in the pan is actually very similar. It’s all about the knack – it’s all about that flick.
Firstly, you need the right pan for the job. It needs a curved edge, like a wok or a deep-sided pasta pan, with enough length to let you slide the ingredients down (without tipping them clumsily into the stove) before you flick them back up. Once you’ve got the ‘flick’, you start with the simple sauces that are easier to work with – things that won’t split or curdle – perhaps a simple tomato emulsion or ragu to begin, before working up to more temperamental dishes such as carbonara or cacio e pepe.
As a junior chef de partie, I was spilling sauce everywhere, tipping pasta onto the gas and generally making a right old mess of things. But through practice I learned to understand the motion, I understood the technique, and simply began to feel when it’s right – very soon, it was second nature. While stirring will only move some of the ingredients at one time, this flicking technique gets the whole pan to move, allowing you to work over higher heats to create deeper, richer flavours and get food on the plate – and to the customer – in much less time.
For a recent Food Innovation Solutions development project we brought in Lap Fai Lee, an expert on East and South East Asian dishes and a real inspiration when it comes to noodles, and Lap really put me through my noodle paces. We started with a relatively simple chow mein before progressing through char kway teow, a brilliant Southeast Asian dish of flat rice noodles, light and dark soy, shrimp paste, Chinese sausage, egg, shrimp, chicken and Chinese chives. Finally, we tackled Singapore noodles – a dish that is very, very tricky to get right. While all of the dishes involve imparting the additively savoury ‘wok hei’ flavour of the wok, chow mein was a simple case of combining and emulsifying, whereas Singapore noodles require you to balance charring the ingredients without burning them, working a thick paste into the noodles without destroying them into a mushy ball.
My initial apprehension about taking on these classic East Asian dishes began to disappear, as I soon realized that I’m on reasonably familiar ground. Sure, the prep is quite different – some very precise chopping, blanching and mixing – and the heat often much higher, but the technique, my trusted pasta ‘flick’, gave me a great advantage, and I soon gained more confidence with noodle dishes I’d previously been nervous to try, and my wok at home has seen a lot more love.
This motion, this knack for flicking the pan is only a part of what makes these dishes great, and I’d love to know if there are other techniques you’d like me to talk about – emulsifying sauces, making pastes or even the various noodles and doughs. We never stop learning at FIS, and we’d be delighted to share more of what we do.
Alex Dome – Senior Development Chef at Food Innovation Solutions