Across Asia, noodles are as likely to be slurped for breakfast as for a late-night snack with a cold beer. That’s partly because they’re fast, but also because they easily absorb a range of bold flavors. At Milk Street, the Korean chili paste gochujang enlivens a simple vegetarian meal of garlicky buckwheat soba noodles combined with leeks and kale. Our riff on Chinese zha jiang mian pairs thick wheat noodles with crispy bits of pork and fermented bean sauce. And the crisp stems of bok choy add texture to chewy Japanese udon wheat noodles, which we sauce with a mixture of soy sauce, dried shiitake mushrooms, and mirin.
Spicy Garlic Soba With Greens
Makes 4 servings
The combination of spicy, garlicky soba noodles and dark green kale yields a hearty, one-pot vegetarian meal. We like using a buckwheat-wheat blended soba noodle, but any variety will work. A sunny-side up egg is a nice complement to this dish. Gochujang has a savory-salty heat and is sold in Asian markets and most larger supermarkets.
Don’t forget to rinse the soba noodles after cooking; they’ll turn gummy and lose texture if they sit in warm water.
8.8-ounce package dried soba noodles
1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons salted butter
2 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (2 cups)
8 medium garlic cloves, minced
5 teaspoons gochujang
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 pounds lacinato kale, stemmed and cut crosswise into ½-inch ribbons
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Bring a large Dutch oven filled with water to a boil. Add the soba and cook until al dente, about 5 minutes. Reserve ½ cup of the cooking water, then drain and rinse the noodles with cold water. Drain well, then set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk the reserved soba cooking water, the brown sugar, and soy sauce until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.
Return the Dutch oven to medium-high and melt the butter. Once foaming has subsided, add the leeks and cook until lightly browned, stirring occasionally, 2 to 3 minutes. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the leeks for garnish. Add the garlic, gochujang, and ginger. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the kale and the soy sauce mixture. Cover and cook on medium until the greens are wilted and tender, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the noodles, using tongs to gently loosen them as they go into the pot. Stir to combine. Continue cooking until most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 2 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowls and top with the reserved leeks.
Black Bean Noodles With Pork and Mushrooms
Makes 4 servings
We substitute fermented black bean garlic sauce for the traditional and harder-to-find fermented yellow or brown bean paste. On its own, the sauce tastes intense, but its boldness is balanced by the noodles and the cucumber. You can find it in the Asian aisle of most larger grocery stores. Make sure to thoroughly drain the noodles before portioning them; excess water will dilute the sauce.
Don’t salt the water when cooking the noodles; the sauce provides plenty of salt. And don’t forget to reserve 1 cup of the cooking water before draining the noodles.
12 ounces dried wide, thick wheat noodles (such as udon)
2 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral oil
8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and finely chopped
12 ounces ground pork
4 scallions, white and light green parts minced, dark green tops thinly sliced
4 medium garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ cup dry sherry
3 tablespoons black bean garlic sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unseasoned rice vinegar
½ English cucumber, thinly sliced on the diagonal, then cut into matchsticks
In a large pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking water, then drain the noodles and rinse under cool water until cold.
Drain well, then set aside in the colander.
In a 12-inch skillet over medium-high, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the mushrooms and sauté until softened and the bits clinging to the bottom of the pan begin to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the pork and cook until crispy and caramelized, about 6 minutes.
Stir in the minced scallions, garlic, and pepper flakes, then cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the sherry and cook, scraping the pan, until evaporated. Stir in the reserved cooking water, black bean garlic sauce, hoisin, and soy sauce. Bring to a simmer and cook over medium, stirring occasionally and breaking up any large bits of pork, until the sauce has the consistency of thin gravy, 4 to 5 minutes. Off heat, stir in 2 tablespoons of the vinegar.
While the sauce simmers, season the cucumbers with the remaining 1 teaspoon of rice vinegar. Divide the noodles among serving bowls, then spoon the sauce over them. Top with sliced scallion greens and cucumber.
Makes 4 servings
Fresh udon is sold frozen, refrigerated, or in shelf-stable packages, but for this recipe we preferred dried noodles. Shichimi togarashi is a Japanese spice blend that we sprinkle on at the table; it’s optional, but we think the pickled ginger is a must. Its sharp bite complements the salty, savory flavors of the noodles and adds a bright, bracing accent. Look for jars of it in your grocery store’s Asian section.
Don’t boil the udon until fully tender; the noodles need to be al dente, or they will be limp and overdone in the finished dish. Start checking for doneness well ahead of the suggested cooking time. We found that some brands were al dente in about half the recommended time. And don’t let the cooked udon chill in the ice water for any longer than needed or the noodles will become waterlogged.
12 ounces dried udon noodles
2 teaspoons, plus 2 tablespoons divided, grapeseed or other neutral oil
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
1 teaspoon white sugar
3 small dried shiitake mushrooms, broken in half
8 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, halved if large, thinly sliced
1 small yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
12 ounces baby bok choy, trimmed and sliced crosswise ½-inch thick
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
2 scallions, thinly sliced on bias
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
Shichimi togarashi, to serve (optional)
Pickled ginger, to serve
In a large pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add the udon, stir well and cook until al dente. Drain the noodles, then add 2 cups of ice to the strainer. Continue running under cool water, tossing, until the noodles are chilled. Drain well, then transfer to a large bowl. Toss with 2 teaspoons of the oil, then set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium, combine the soy sauce, ¼ cup water, mirin, and sugar. Bring to a simmer, stirring, then add the dried mushrooms, pushing them into the liquid. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside until the mushrooms have softened and cooled, 20 to 30 minutes.
Remove the dried mushrooms from the soy sauce mixture, squeezing them to let any liquid drip into the pan. Remove and discard the stems, then finely chop. Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.
In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil. Add the fresh mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and slightly shrunken, about 3 minutes. Add the onion, drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the bok choy and cook, stirring, until the leaves are wilted and the stem pieces are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add to the chopped dried shiitakes.
Set the now-empty skillet over medium and add the udon, gently tossing them with tongs. Add the vegetable mixture, gently toss a few times, then add the soy sauce mixture and white pepper. Cook, tossing constantly, until the noodles are heated and have absorbed most of the liquid, about 2 minutes. Transfer to serving bowls and sprinkle with scallions and sesame seeds. Serve with shichimi togarashi and pickled ginger.
Christopher Kimball is the founder of Milk Street, home to a magazine, school, and radio and television shows. Globe readers get 12 weeks of complete digital access, plus two issues of Milk Street print magazine, for just $1. Go to 177milkstreet.com/globe. Send comments to email@example.com.