As far as working lunches go, homemade noodles swimming in a hot, spicy broth and topped off with pak choi, spring onions, flavoursome mince and chilli oil is certainly a step up from a bland sandwich or sad salad.
Food writer and cookbook author Pippa Middlehurst is teaching me how to make tantanmen with fresh ramen noodles over Zoom – essentially the Japanese version of Sichuan dan dan noodles. The dish is from the Best Home Cook winner’s second book, Bowls and Broths, which tells you exactly what’s inside: warming, comforting recipes full of flavour and spice.
The topic of bowls makes Pippa’s eyes light up. “I just like everything being together and being able to sit with it,” she says matter-of-factly. “One of my pet peeves in life is if you go to an event and there’s a buffet, and you have to sit and eat with the plate off your knee. I hate that so much.
“I like to be settled – it’s ritualistic. I like to be comfy, no restrictive clothing, pyjamas on. This is the ideal, with a bowl of something delicious. I think having variety within the bowl is great ”
We start by measuring flour, salt and water for the noodles, and this is where Pippa’s background in molecular biology comes into play. She’s meticulous with her measurements – and you really need to be, to get the perfect noodles – weighing her water in grams on electronic scales, rather than in a measuring jug, trusting her eye.
Once the extremely dry dough is together (at this moment, I’m glad Pippa is there to guide me – if I had been making this solo I definitely would’ve been suspicious and added a whole lot more water to bring it together), it’s time to start passing it through the pasta machine. This helps distribute the water throughout the flour, making for bouncier noodles that will fare better swimming in broth.
We spend 10 minutes in near silence rolling out the dough, a strangely meditative process. Later, Pippa admits when we came back to compare our finished noodles she “didn’t really know how long I’d been away” – that’s how zen she felt. “It’s the transformation that’s quite satisfying,” she says, referring to the moment your dry dough becomes perfect noodles.
Pippa can’t recall the first time she ate noodles, but she can remember the feeling. “My granddad used to take us for dim sum when we were children,” she reminisces. “So my love for Chinese food began with Chinese restaurant food.” Her first dish “would have been [something] like a chow mein – a classic like that, or Singapore vermicelli noodles”, she says.
But back to the task at hand. Once the noodles are dusted with corn starch and set to one side, it’s time to start on the tantanmen itself. We cook up some mince (beef for her, soy for me) in sweet bean sauce and five spice and get our stock on the go, at which point Pippa reveals the biggest secret of her recipes.
Instead of making a complicated new broth for every dish, Pippa’s hack is to have a freezer full of master stocks. “I’m not going to make the stock into a specific broth,” she explains. “Instead, what I do is I season my bowl”. The stock then goes on top.
This means that, depending on what she ‘seasons’ her bowl with – for us it’s ground Sichuan peppercorns, light brown sugar, Chinkiang black rice vinegar, soy sauce and Chinese sesame paste – you can have a completely different dish each time.
It’s genius, because I ended up with a deep, flavoursome broth – all from a shop-bought vegetable stock cube and some extra flourishes. We then cook the noodles for just 45 seconds to a minute, then top it all with the mince, pak choi, spring onions and chilli oil.
In under an hour, I’ve come out with a bowl full of flavour – my partner described it as “fancy Pot Noodle”, which I thought somewhat undersold it.
Pippa is a great teacher – helpful, kind and eager to share her knowledge and love of food. She brings this mentality to everything she does, saying: “Since my business has been growing it’s been really important for me to support the Southeast Asian community and women. In my marketplace online (pippyeats.com/products) I stock female-owned businesses. It’s that Lizzo song where she says, ‘If I’m going to shine everybody’s gonna shine’. It kind of feels like that.”
‘Bowls and Broths’ by Pippa Middlehurst (Quadrille, £16.99; photography by India Hobson and Magnus Edmondson) is available 2 September.