Life throws up all sorts of revelations that project, unassailed, into your day, at the most unexpected times. Like realising the first letter of the Disney logo is actually a D, or that the crevice inside the lid of a Tic-Tac box is designed to catch the mint-flavoured pellets. Or that you've been cooking instant noodles incorrectly your whole life.
Your last noodle-making session probably went like this: boil the noodles, add the packet seasoning and dehydrated vegetable flakes to the water, serve. To Arthur Tong this technique spells disaster.
"The biggest crime against instant-noodle making is not discarding the rinse water," says Tong, founder of Sydney-based online grocer Asian Staples. In Cantonese cooking, there's a technique called 过冷河 (gor lang ho), "to pass through a stream". In the context of noodle dishes, it means to rinse par-boiled noodles, usually egg noodles, in a colander under running cold water. Doing so preserves the elasticity of the noodles, and rinses off any impurities. Growing up in Hong Kong, in the Tong household this applied even to packets of noodle soup. "It's primarily to get rid of that processing oil," says Tong. "Instant noodles isn't health food. So what my grandmas, aunties and parents would do is take something that's not terribly good for you, and make it less bad."
As for the soup component, it's a matter of taking your serving bowl, making a concentrated slurry of the seasoning mix with a touch of boiling water, then topping up with more boiling water. "It makes for a cleaner soup," says Tong. The rinsed and drained cooked noodles, as well as any favoured toppings or garnishes, are added on top.
It might sound like a lot of palaver for what's meant to be a quick and convenient food stuff. But unlike other tricked-up culinary techniques for simple dishes (reverse-seared steak, anyone?) Tong's technique is no more onerous. It's a matter of having all your equipment ready - the kettle on, a colander at hand, and chopsticks – sweet lord, no forks please – to stir your noodles and seasoning. "Really, there's no extra steps other than dumping the water," he says. "You're not adding any extra time."
None of this is surprising if you know Tong's work with Tea Craft, the tea company he co-founded with Tjok Gde Kerthyasa 13 years ago. The same sensitive prose that applies to a Korean tteok cha ("...an aroma of fairy floss and lychees will flood the room, pulling one and all into its allure. It's a social tea, so keep topping up your boil as you talk and laugh about all that is good and bad in our world") finds its way into a description of ABC-brand kecap manis ("...think teriyaki without that smoke or tang. Drips like molasses, beautiful.") on the Asian Staples website, launched by Tong in May this year. His noodle-making technique is detailed in the product description for Shin Ramyun, perhaps the most popular brand in instant-noodle-soup world, with a feverish internet cult-following to match. (Even chef Dan Hong's recipe for Shin Ramyun jaffle appears on the brand's official website.)
"We want to really get into describing our products. It demystifies them, and allows us to express in a way that's personal to us. Running a business is not worth doing if I can't use it as some form of expression," says Tong. "I try to live by this theory: it doesn't matter what your job is. You can turn it into an art form."
From tea to noodles, Tong's approach is grounded in care and consideration. It's about what to do, but also what not to do. Using the same water to make noodles and soup is reprehensible enough. But Tong says there's one abomination against the laws of packet noodles that incurs his greatest ire – treating packet noodles like cup-noodles. "There are people who put the cake of noodles in a bowl, pour hot water over it, let it sit for a couple of minutes and think that's fine. And I'm ashamed to admit I've seen this done inside my very own household," says Tong. "I was horrified."
How to cook packet noodles like a pro
Note: this technique applies to packet noodles served in the soup-style, such as your Shin Ramyun, Demae Ramen, Mama, Jinmailang, Samyang "fire noodles", and the like.
1 Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, add your noodles, stirring with chopsticks to loosen. Meanwhile, boil water in an electric kettle.
Typically in Cantonese cooking, fresh noodles should be cooked until they reach 彈口 (dan hao), a chewy texture that's not dissimilar to Italy's al dente. "But with instant noodles even if they're slightly al dente, there's an unpleasant crunch," says Tong. It's important to cook your noodles thoroughly, but don't overdo it. The only thing worse than an undercooked noodle is a flaccid one.
2 Drain noodles in a colander, and rinse under cold water. "If you have filtered water plumbed into your system, use that, but cool tap water is fine," says Tong.
3 To make the soup, in a serving bowl, make a slurry of the packet-soup seasoning and 1 tablespoon of boiling water from the kettle. Stir well with chopsticks. Fill the serving bowl with more boiling water until the desired volume of soup is reached, and stir well.
4 Add drained noodles to the soup. Garnish with toppings such as chopped shallots, boiled egg, fried shallots and shredded nori. Serve immediately.