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how do they do it: char flavor in singapore noodles

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how do they do it: char flavor in singapore noodles

Postby Joel F » Sat Nov 24, 2012 4:04 pm

We ate at Zen Garden a few months ago and greatly enjoyed the Singapore Noodles. These had a distinct char flavor -- any ideas on how that was imparted? It was uniform throughout the dish so either in the seasoning or the saucing...
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Re: how do they do it: char flavor in singapore noodles

Postby Robin Garr » Sat Nov 24, 2012 5:58 pm

Joel F wrote:We ate at Zen Garden a few months ago and greatly enjoyed the Singapore Noodles. These had a distinct char flavor -- any ideas on how that was imparted? It was uniform throughout the dish so either in the seasoning or the saucing...

Hi, Joel! Welcome to the forum.

It may be that you're talking about the flavor that Chinese call "wok hai," which as I understand it means "breath of the wok" and basically comes from stir-frying food in a wok over a restaurant wok burner that will fire at about 30,000 BTUs. It's not caramelization but a controlled burn that happens with skill and restaurant facilities, not easy to make happen at home. I really don't think it's a matter of ingredients. But with any luck, someone who knows more than I do will come along soon!
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Re: how do they do it: char flavor in singapore noodles

Postby Ken B » Sat Nov 24, 2012 11:04 pm

That "wok hai" is partly imparted by igniting aerosolized oils while stirring the wok. I've come close to getting it at home, though it's really tricky, and basically set off my smoke alarm every time I do it. I do have a pretty strong cooktop too, which does help. That, mother sauces, and dark soy sauce are the tricks to getting that Chinese restaurant taste that pretty much elude most home cooks.
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Re: how do they do it: char flavor in singapore noodles

Postby Joel F » Thu Nov 29, 2012 3:21 pm

dang. I was hoping it was going to be simpler than that.

we do have a gas stove but I can't see achieving the necessary combination of factors. and I don't have an outdoor rig.

threads elsewhere have referred to a cookbook by Grace Young, I'll check that out some time.

threads elsewhere feature some interesting and contentious debate on what wok hai is or isn't and does or does not constitute. :wink:

the noodles were excellent - recommended.
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Re: how do they do it: char flavor in singapore noodles

Postby Ken B » Thu Nov 29, 2012 4:15 pm

I think a lot of what is in those threads (or at least the ones that came up in the top of my google search) is arguing semantics. What a lot of folks are discussing is what wok hai might be, whereas you seem to be specifically looking to recreate a certain flavor/aroma.

I'm not particularly interested in delving into the arguments about "breathing life into your cooking" or the freshness of the food or how hot it is when it hits the table.

I've always loved that flavor and sought to replicate it, but found it by accident. I'm lucky, the previous owner of the home I bought put in a Vulcan cooktop, so I can really crank it. Since it is a pro cooktop, it also has extra large burners, which are larger than many home cooking pans. I was sauteeing something once at a fairly high heat, and some of the oil got ignited by the flames licking around the pan. I immediately identified the aroma and recalled seeing cooks working the woks in Chinese restaurants, seeing the wok oil get lit slightly as they turned the wok and the ingredients, and figured out that's where it came from.

If you are brave, you can almost replicate it. Use a saute pan with a rounded bottom or at least rounded corners. Get everything set to saute, and use just a touch more oil than you might otherwise, but not enough to risk pouring a pool of oil onto your burner. Get the pan so hot the oil will smoke within seconds of being put in, and when you put the oil in follow it immediately with the ingredients. As you toss them (and do so vigorously), tilt the pan so some of the hot oil catches the flames. I guarantee you will smell that aroma, and if you get it right, get that flavor in the food. Make sure your kitchen vent is on too, because you will also set off your smoke alarm.

One warning: this is really hard to replicate with noodles on a home stove. If the hydration of your noodles is a little off, the combination of heat and oil and cooking surface not perfect, the noodles will burn to the pan and may ruin it for good.
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Re: how do they do it: char flavor in singapore noodles

Postby Joel F » Thu Nov 29, 2012 6:41 pm

I appreciate that, thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

We do have a good fan (zephyr brand) which extracts outdoors but not nearly enough room to toss the way wok masters do. Clearance between stove top and hood is too low.

I've eaten at a number of Asian places over the years; for some reason these noodles were the first instance where the char really jumped out - we both remarked on it.
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Re: how do they do it: char flavor in singapore noodles

Postby Ken B » Thu Nov 29, 2012 9:08 pm

Yeah, some places are better at it than others, and I have had dishes in some restaurants that have had it to a greater extent on different nights. The discussion online that cook's technique is a factor is definitely salient.

One further warning. If you do attempt to try it at home, be very careful, especially if you have long hair or a beard. I singed off 2/3 of my eyebrows one night!
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Re: how do they do it: char flavor in singapore noodles

Postby Corey A » Fri Jan 04, 2013 12:03 pm

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