Inexpensive. Nutritious. Filling. Easy to prepare. Easily transported. Delicious hot, cold, or at room temperature. Storable for years.
Other than noodles and pasta, the number of foods that meet all of these criteria is … well, zero, by my count. Perhaps that’s why these endlessly versatile creations—which, in the case of noodles, may date back as far as the third century A.D., says Jen Lin-Liu, author of On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta—find an expression in nearly every major Asian nation. In the Philippines, it’s pancit, made from wheat flour and coconut oil. Koreans favor the sweet potato vermicelli known as myun. Vietnam has mi, its distinctive rice noodles, and China is known for mien, those long, slippery creations that Americans know from dishes like chicken chow mein.
Though many of us use the terms interchangeably, the difference is that, as a rule, noodles contain eggs and pastas don’t. So technically they are two different foodstuffs. But, since both are culinary blank canvases—ready and able to take on any number of flavors, dressings, sauces, seasonings, proteins, vegetables, or condiments—the distinction is more or less trivial for most diners.
These days, many chefs, specialty foods manufacturers, and hobbyists are trafficking in noodles made from base ingredients other than wheat and eggs. Venture into a high-end market today and you’ll be able to get your hands on noodles or pasta made from rice, cornstarch, buckwheat, peppers, yams, sweet potatoes, soybeans, pulses such as beans and lentils, pinto and black beans, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, and untold other options. Tinkering with the basic makeup can give noodles and pastas a different structure and flavor that completely changes the nature of the dish in which they’re used.
It may seem strange that noodles and pasta, familiar as they are to consumers throughout the U.S., are actually in the process of being rediscovered, repurposed, and reworked in higher-end dining contexts. Noodles, in particular, are enjoying a resurgence of interest due in large part to the refined tastes of many Millennial diners, who favor authenticity in their ethnic cuisines. Chicken chow mein from a cardboard carryout box just doesn’t cut it quite as well with this sophisticated young crowd; they want real, regional Chinese flavors characterized by traditional ingredients and flavor systems.
We see evidence of this trend in high-profile white-tablecloth restaurants from coast to coast. At David Chang’s popular Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City, offerings include ramen with pork belly, pork shoulder, and poached egg. San Francisco’s Sorabol features a glass noodle dish spiked with green onions, egg, beef brisket, bean sprouts, and steamed rice. Just over the Golden Gate Bridge at La Maison in Corte Madera, California, the traditional Vietnamese pho with spicy beef, barbecue shredded pork, rice, and broth is so popular that it’s practically the Millennial generation’s chicken noodle soup.
We at CCD Innovation have seen repeatedly that fine-dining restaurants—and the tastemakers who fuel their success—are the source of most major food trends. So this new, more authentic look at noodles today is what we call a Stage 1 trend, meaning that they are at the outset of a mainstreaming process that will, in all likelihood, take them to the pages of foodie publications like Food & Wine (Stage 2), then to the menus at casual-dining chains (Stage 3). In Stage 4, trends are picked up by popular lifestyle and women’s magazines—Good Housekeeping, Parade, etc.—before they top out at Stage 5: mass acceptance and widespread availability on grocery-store shelves and in quick-serve settings. We call this lifecycle Trend Mapping, and through the years, it has proved extremely reliable as a gauge of trends’ shelf life and staying power.
Pasta, too, is experiencing something of a new beginning, but it’s more of a reinvention than a rediscovery—somewhere between Stages 2 and 3. There are two driving forces here: consumer interest in regional ethnic flavors, particularly Italian, and the popularity of culinary mash-ups. On the regional side, chefs at restaurants such as Marco’s in New York are featuring dishes specific to Puglia, including orecchiette made with swordfish, tomato, and Gaeta olives. At La Ciccia in San Francisco, the spaghetti with spicy oil and bottarga is a specialty from Sardinia. And at New York’s Franny’s, bucatini with guanciale, chilies, and saffron evokes the native cuisine of Lazio (the region around Rome).
Pasta’s versatility has also led chefs to employ it in decidedly unconventional fusions. Ink in Los Angeles features garganelli pasta with beef tongue and sauerkraut. And Bottega in Birmingham, Alabama, does a pasta with roasted and pickled cauliflower, smoked eggplant, and Feta. It should be noted that many of the most creative fusions are coming from restaurants south of the Mason-Dixon line.
The implications of this renewed interest in pasta and noodles shouldn’t be lost on quick-serve and fast-casual establishments, most of which haven’t gone to great lengths to get creative with the forms. So instead of standard fare like mac ‘n’ cheese, why not try a dish featuring a differently shaped pasta (there’s north of about 350 of them) with guanciale and a spicy Alfredo sauce for a little regional authenticity? Instead of a chicken and noodle salad with lemon and orange, mash things up and reach for keffir lime and kumquats instead. The options are almost limitless.