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The Noodle Evolution and Subsequent Nationalization

February 15, 2018 Asian Noodles

We all know that pasta is the national dish of Italy but could it have actually originated in China? Despite the firm denial of the Italians, the evidence of the roots of pasta is overwhelming. Following the visits of Marco Polo to China, there were only two regions in the world where noodles were a staple food: China, combined with her immediate neighbors, and Italy. Every place in the vast land mass between the two places had no knowledge of noodles. Therefore, it seems the Italians refer to the alleged Chinese origin of their pasta to be “fake news.” Only Marco Polo would know for sure but it is most unlikely he flavored his flour-based noodles from China with the traditional peppers of Asia. Otherwise, he would have appeared a bit more lively.

Throughout Southeast Asia, there are several national noodle dishes that incorporate certain distinctive flavors from one area to another. The most recently declared new national noodle dish is that of Cambodia. The Khmer Times recently published that the popular Phnom Penh Kuyteav would be launched as a national dish to compete internationally with those of its neighbors. It would appear that the Khmer Times has found a non-controversial subject matter for its reporting following the recent demise of The Cambodia Daily after its deep dive into politics.

It is predicted that Phnom Penh Kuyteav will join the ranks of exalted noodle dishes such as Laksa, Pho and Kuaytiaw Phad Thai. You will note that the Cambodian noodles shown below are rice based as are those noodle dishes of Cambodia’s neighbors reflected herein. Accordingly, they should prove no threat to the history of the flour-based noodles of Italian pasta.

To the south of Cambodia is a spicy rice vermicelli soup called Laksa in Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine that is traditional to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Although this dish was clearly derived from Chinese roots, the term Nyonya distinguishes descendants from Chinese migrants who intermarried with local people of Malay stock from those born on the Chinese mainland. A rice noodle base is the other evidence of overseas Chinese influence as no wheat is grown in Southeast Asia. Laksa has a coconut curry base and a very distinctive taste.

The remaining soup dish is Pho of Vietnam which is the mainstay of nutrition in that country. The Big Mac fast food equivalent of Vietnam is a bowl of pho and the place to get it is a vendor on the street or the national chain Pho 24 which offers a cold beer to go with the noodles. In addition to the rice noodles, a pho stand will offer a choice of beef or chicken and several herbs and vegetables. The flavoring of anise is a favorite addition as well as the compulsory chili peppers.

The last remaining rice vermicelli national noodle dish is Kuaytiaw Phad Thai of Thailand which literally means fried noodles. The noodles are quickly stir-fried with a few sauces, eggs, shrimp and tofu with chives, bean sprouts and perhaps banana flowers on the side. It can be eaten standing or sitting at the roadside stall or packed in a banana leaf for take-away.

In summary, we have five examples where Chinese based cuisine has made its way into other countries to be adopted as a national dish by being modified to fit the local ingredients that are available along with the particular tastes of the people. Clearly, in all of these cases, one cannot go wrong by eating the national dish though you cannot necessarily make that statement about every place you visit.

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