I was out with some friends in Manchester yesterday and we decided to eat in Wagamama, previously a reliable and solid choice for utilitarian Asian food. Their first branch in Manchester opened a decade ago, and provided good competition to local chain Tampopo. Wagamama tended to be more Japanese-oriented, and I credit it as being the place to get me interested in expanding my knowledge of Nipponese nosh. I and my companions were, however, massively underwhelmed by last night’s meal: I think the chain has become more focused on homogeneity and profit margins in the last few years. Either that or my palette has become a lot more discerning…
So today I resolved to make up for my mediocre yaki soba with something a lot more delicious. When I go to Manchester, home of one of the biggest Chinese populations in Europe, I like to stock up on Asian goodies from one of the many fabulous Asian supermarkets. Fresh udon noodles, green Asian brassicas, random sauces, and staples of my store cupboard such as bonito and kombu seaweed. So yesterday I filled several bags with the above and other delicious morsels – wasabi peas, roast duck, Chinese sausages – and revelled in the prospect of a fresh and filling bowl of goodness for my tea.
I started with a quick dashi stock. If you’ve not made it before, it’s very simple and quick: the perfect stock to create freshly for an Asian soup. I learned this a few years ago from Kimiko Barber’s Japanese Kitchen book and was an instant convert. I went through a phase of constant dashi/miso/noodle soups after I discovered how easy it was to make, seven or eight years ago, and although I’ve tailed off slightly it’s remained a staple fast, nourishing and easy meal in my life since. What I love about dashi and miso-type soup bases is the freedom and flexibility to cook something quickly, making the most of whatever you have lying about. Chuck a few frozen prawns, some finely sliced savoy cabbage, or some torn chicken into some stock with noodles and you have an instant healthy meal.
So, back to making the dashi. Add bonito flakes and a postcard-sized piece of kombu seaweed in a pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 mins or so. You can get wee sachets of bonito and hermetically-sealed packs of A5-sized kombu in most good Asian grocers, and they last for a long time so are a great alternative to using a stock cube or bouillon. The stock has a fresh, sea-like aroma and a mild slightly umami flavour: great for poaching fish or meat. Make it fresh every time. Once that was started I thinly sliced the duck I’d bought. I picked up a pack of pre-cooked frozen duck pieces from the Chinese supermarket as I’ve often done before; no doubt I’ll be trying a wide range of duck recipes in the next few days!
Once the dashi simmering nicely I quickly stir-fried the choi miu (a bit like pak choi bu smaller and with frillier green tops) and a big handful of beansprouts with a splash of tamari soy and some mirin. I just wanted to soften the veg slightly, before throwing a pack of fat, fresh, floppy white udon noodles into the wok. After 2 minutes I transfered the contents into a wide, deep broth bowl, layered on the thinly sliced duck, some grated daikon (mooli), and poured over the hot dashi stock. The dish got a final seasoning with the squeezed juice of half a lime (adds the fragrant, piquant zing to counteract the fattiness of the duck), more soy to taste, a splash of chilli oil, and a shake of nanami togarashi aka shichimi (in my top 5 store cupboard standbys). Add a final garnish of finely chopped spring onions (or scallions, as I grew up knowing them).
The whole meal took no more than fifteen minutes cooking, with about five minutes of prep: but provided me with a sensory overload and a happily sated appetite. I don’t think it’s entirely authentic – it straddles a generally east Asian zone somewhere between China and Japan – but it’s quick, healthy and delicious. I forgot to add some batons of ginger (or even dried galangal) to the stock as I’ve done before for an additional warm zinginess, but it still made a superb Sunday treat.