Posted 05 January 2012 - 03:09 PM
I have a few places to go for breakfast every weekday, and one of them is a pan mee stall that makes the best pan mee I’ve managed to find anywhere. I am writing this after coming back from the stall very disappointed.
I don’t know what happened to the old man. His daughter-in-law or something was manning the stall, and she had a big lump of dough in a basin of water. I have no idea what that dough is doing in water. I know something about noodle making from having observed it and read about it. (The Japanese in particular are crazy about noodles and their recipe books have the most elaborate techniques for preparing the dough.) Hydrating a lump of dough by immersing it is completely new to me.
The bowl of noodles eventually came, and I was charged 50 sen more for it than usual.
One must always understand the fundamental challenge of whatever it is one is doing. You need to have a clear grasp of what the first order factors are before you muck around with the higher order factors. With the first order factors, it is always a goddamned war. You cannot deliver enough on them. Sometimes, the competition on the first order factors becomes so intense that people have to be creative and start putting all sorts of strange things into their products to gain a competitive advantage. This is the reason for the Reinheitsgebot in Germany that outlaws the use of anything but malt, hops, yeast and water in German-brewed beers. That way, everyone has to compete on technique alone.
In noodle making, there are two first order factors. One is the bite of the noodles. The second is the umami hit of the soup.
It turns out that dough does not have much bite by itself. To give good noodles their moderately elastic consistency requires the gluten in the dough to bind to each other, much like in breadmaking. The dough must be knead and rested in a certain way to have bite. For the Japanese, the dough takes 24 hours to make. All for the consistency.
The old man always had a good bite going in his noodles. This morning’s noodles however had absolutely none of it. That’s one first order factor gone.
Umami is a taste. If you boil soup with only a little meat, you don’t get much umami. If you use a lot of meat, you get lots of umami. I think the umami taste comes from the hydrolyzed protein in the soup.
The old man makes a soup with an umami taste like none other. It’s not the synthetic umami of monosodium glutamate either. It’s an intense ikan bilis umami. A complex and intense umami. Like none other. The soup probably uses ikan bilis granules from Maggi bought in bulk or something, and is probably not too good for you, but damn I always look forward to the umami hit I get.
This morning’s soup was bland, with a bit of synthetic umami with no discernible ikan bilis flavour. The second first order factor non-existent.
I took a few bites and left most of that mediocrity in the bowl.