Taiwan Eats: Pan-Fried Rice Noodles
Perfect for feeding a crowd or a solo meal on the fly, this simple noodle recipe is a standard of home-style Taiwanese fare. It can be made with everyday pantry items and a few slivered vegetables, but for more heartiness, I sometimes add a small amount of thinly sliced pork. While these components might be similar to pan-fried rice noodle dishes of Southeast Asian cuisines (such as Pad Thai), Taiwan's rice noodles are distinct in several ways.
The first noteworthy distinction are the noodles themselves. Extremely thin yet pliable, Taiwanese rice noodles are featured in myriad preparations of noodle soup. But they also hold up well to a lot of tossing in the pan without breaking. Many rice-noodle factories are found in Taiwan's northwest region of Hsinchu, where the air is drier and windy, making it apt for drying rice noodles quickly before packaging. Therefore, should you find a package of rice noodles in an Asian grocery called "Hsinchu Rice Noodles," this is the stuff to buy. If not, just look for the thinnest type of rice noodles you can find as a substitute. Beware bean-starch or mung-bean noodles, which may appear similar when dried; these noodles become translucent and jelly-like once cooked, not suitable for pan-frying at all.
Another distinction of Taiwanese pan-fried rice noodles is the heavy use of white pepper and black vinegar as seasonings. What might have been an utterly bland-tasting tangle of noodles becomes nuanced and memorable with these unique ingredients. Ground white pepper is sprinkled throughout the noodles while tossing them, invisibly adding nose-tingling flavor throughout. Black vinegar (an aged rice vinegar that's less acidic and slightly sweeter than clear varieties) is doused liberally on the noodles once they're off the heat, as the vinegar flavor will weaken if cooked. Soy sauce and salt are added also, and cooks can add more or less of any of these seasonings to their taste.
Finally, this dish differs from other pan-fried rice noodles because it's not crispy or browned in parts, nor is it overly greasy from lots of oil to coat the pan. Instead, it's moist and a little brothy, because stock is poured into the pan. Most of it isabsorbed by the noodles, but it makes for slippery, slurp-worthy, incredibly flavorful bites. The good news is you can keep shoveling these noodles into your mouth, and you'll be spared that greasy-lips syndrome typical of other types of pan-fried noodles. Try it yourself, and feel free to make it your own by adding other types of sliced vegetables and meats.