Some people loathe early Christmas decorations. I don’t. To me the anticipation before any holiday is the most exciting part of it. You plan activities, organize meet-ups, shop for gifts, watch people shop for gifts while sipping coffee resting from all the shopping you’ve done. Then all of a sudden, Christmas passes, and soon enough you find yourself humming to festive songs with dragon dance drums playing at the background. Early decoration for Tết – the equivalent of Chinese New Year in Vietnam – is never a sin either.
Growing up in Vietnam. Tết has always been the biggest holiday for me. My family start preparing one month before the holiday: we clean the house, shop for groceries, pickle jars after jars of củ kiệu (scallion), occupy stoves with big pots of thịt kho (stew pork in coconut water), arrange the altar to pay respect to our ancestors and various deities. Million tasks we attempt before turning into potato couches, stuffing ourselves with more thịt kho and củ kiệu during the actual holiday as we go around visiting relatives. Traditionally, thịt kho and bánh chưng (glutinous rice cakes) are the dishes of the holiday despite how ubiquitous the ingredients they require: pork, coconut water, eggs, garlic, glutinous rice, mung beans and some other basic seasoning. It’s not Tết if every household does not have one variation or another of thịt kho simmering and one or two bánh chưngs either resting in the fridge or displaying on the altar.
As we keep heating and reheating thịt kho day after day during the holiday (markets are closed, so that is pretty much what we (have to) consume), the gravy becomes concentrated and packed with flavor. That is when it transforms into the perfect dressing for my mom’s noodle bowl. She boils some egg noodle, mixes it with a concoction of thịt kho gravy, soy sauce and some củ kiệu pickled juice and tops it up with crispy shallots. Sometimes there is shredded pork, but I’m happy just to eat the plain bowl of noodle with slices of fresh cucumbers.
Since early decoration for holiday seasons is never a sin, I assume early craving for this noodle bowl isn’t either. But as I’m coming back home for Tết this year, making a pot of thịt kho for myself is not a wise choice; I’m staying abstinent for all the sumptuous meals awaiting. “Meanwhile, hang in there and try something new for a change.”, I told myself, glancing at the jars of condiments in the pantry, looking for something to sauce my noodle. My eyes stopped at the tub of miso at the back of the fridge. A noob in Japanese cuisine, my first encounter with miso was in a diluted soup served in a set meal at a neighborhood food court. It was … pedestrian at best. I didn’t like it. I never finished my miso soup. Then I read this beautiful story and bought a tub of the yellow paste, starting to experiment with it. It tastes nothing like the diluted soups I tried (or didn’t bother to touch) before. It’s salty, earthy, funky and versatile. It somehow reminds me of chao (fermented bean curd) we use for vegetarian meals in Vietnam (it should be since both are from fermented soy). Miso in a soup, miso in a marinate, and now miso in a dressing, why not? So instead of thịt kho gravy, I use this miso dressing as the sauce for my noodle, throwing in all things that I like: carrot, tofu, corn and edamame. The flavor might not at all resemble that of my mom’s meat gravy noodle bowl, but like hers, this is a food of comfort. After visiting one relative or acquaintance after another, this is probably what we come home to: a bowl of unpretentious humble noodle that we pull off in a few minutes. The dressing can be made in advance and chilled, while the toppings can be pretty much anything you want (or left with after hosting parties): carrot, lettuce, bean sprouts, rotisserie chicken etc, all of which can be chilled for a few days in airtight containers. After taking them out, mixing them up, we carry the bowl to the couch, sit down, turn on the TV and enjoy the rest of the night. That’s what I’ve been doing. Still, it’s two more months before the big holiday comes.
- Be careful with the amount of miso as different brands will have different amounts of salt. After one tbsp, I often taste the dressing first before deciding if it needs more paste.
- I use a type of Korean apple vinegar, which does not have a very strong scent and is not as sour as distilled vinegar or rice vinegar.
- I use cha soba here because let’s face it, a little hint of green tea melts my heart, but you can use any type of noodle your heart desires.
Ingredients (serve 3-4)
For the dressing:
¼ cup vegetable oil (any neutral oil is fine too)
1-2 tbsp white miso paste
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp apple vinegar
2 tbsp orange juice
1 tsp orange zest
For the noodle:
200 gr cha soba
1 cup julienned carrot
½ cup corn
½ cup shelled edamame
1 packet of hard-pressed tofu, cut into cubes
Vegetable oil for frying
Toasted sesame seeds to garnish
Salt and pepper
- Dressing: whisk all ingredients in a small bowl. Transfer to a jar and chill.
- Cook the noodle according to package instructions.
- Make the omelette: Beat the eggs, a pinch of salt and pepper in a small bowl until blended. In a nonstick frying pan on medium high heat with 1 tsp of vegetable oil, pour in the egg mixture, tilt the pan so the mixture spreads thinly and evenly. Once both sides are set, take the omelette out and slice into thin strips.
- In a frying pan with 3 tbsp of vegetable oil on medium heat, fry the tofu cubes until they are golden.
- To assemble: in a bowl, toss noodle, carrot, corn, edamame, omelette strips and tofu cubes with the dressing. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds.