--- Learn cooking techniques from across Asia with Diana Chan on the brand-new second season of Asia Unplated with Diana Chan, premieres Thursday 28 January on SBS Food, or stream it on SBS On Demand. ---
Did you know there's a 'proper' way to make instant noodles?
It's a technique Arthur Tong learnt from his grandmother in Hong Kong and it's called the "gor lang mo" method. It means "passing through a cold stream" in Cantonese and describes the process of rinsing the noodles from the initial broth it's steeped in.
"I'm completely horrified that the majority of people making instant noodles these days use the same water they originally boil and soften the noodles with, to make the actual soup base," he says. "What, that yellowy muck? You want me to drink that as the soup?"
Tong's family always strained and rinsed the noodles until the greasy tinge disappeared from the soup.
Not only that, but his grandmother (and aunties, when they were on babysitting duty) would also only tip half the flavour sachet into the instant noodle broth. "They didn't want kids to be overloaded with MSG," he says and laughs. And even though there's nothing wrong with MSG – it's clear his relatives' substitute was superior to the pre-packaged stuff.
"I'm completely horrified that the majority of people making instant noodles these days use the same water they originally boil and soften the noodles with, to make the actual soup base."
They'd drizzle soy or sesame oil to deepen the instant noodle broth. Or spoon through some stock from last night's soup: they'd open up a clay pot and pour a goji, lotus root and chicken feet broth over the noodles.
The "gor lang mo" method of preparing instant noodles is something you'll discover on the Asian Staples website. This online Asian grocer was launched after Tong's main business – Tea Craft – saw revenue drop by 90 per cent as the pandemic hit. His oolong, dragonwell and genmaicha brews are usually served at top restaurants, cafes and hotels. But when lockdown came into effect in March, there were no diners to request Tea Craft's specialty loose leaf.
So with everyone stockpiling their pantries with noodles, rice and condiments, it seemed like the perfect time to create Asian Staples: an online shop offering everything from vermicelli to black bean sauce. It also has specialty items you might not see in your Asian supermarket’s aisles – like matcha salt flakes from Kyoto, Japan, or organic white pepper from Kerala, India.
Asian Staples is like Tong's dream version of the grocers from his childhood in Hong Kong. There, he'd watch the owners weigh spices or vegetables, or the proprietor's children helping out – they'd pass up packets of goods for their parents to place on higher shelves.
When Tong's family moved to Sydney when he was six, they'd go to a big Asian supermarket in Chinatown every week – and the act of filling plastic baskets with familiar items (prawn crackers, instant noodles, rice and soy sauce) helped him overcome the culture shock of moving to a new country.
In Australia, he noticed the Asian supermarkets were much larger and stocked a cross-cultural selection of goods – not just Chinese staples, but ingredients you'd find in Vietnamese and Thai cuisines, too.
That inclusive approach is something he's replicating at Asian Staples: you'll find ingredients that flavour everything from Indo-Malay to Japanese cuisines.
There's dasima, a Korean seaweed that's much more customs-friendly than Japanese kombu (dasima delivers a similar umami flavour hit, but its iodine levels don't trigger the quarantine restrictions that Australian officials apply to its Japanese kelp counterpart).
Cloves, known as "chicken tongue" in Chinese and a key part of five-spice powder, are stocked by Tong, too. His organic version is painstakingly harvested in Kerala: the flowers are separated by hand and dried, it takes between 11,000-15,000 cloves just to make one kilo of the dried spice.
To demonstrate how versatile Asian pantry items can be, Tong has invited chefs to create recipes from his stock. Toby Wilson from The George shows their cross-cultural potential by creating Japanese breakfast tacos, while Cass Hay of Hara Wholefoods demonstrates how to make vegan XO sauce.
Room 10's Yuvi Thu and Andrew Hardjasudarma share an ingenious way of turning noodles into a fried vermicelli pancake. "I had never heard of it before, but it looks bloody delicious and I can't wait to make it," says Tong.
Tong has also learnt a lot while writing expansive product blurbs for Asian Staples. He's discovered how XO sauce got its name ("because the cognac XO was a status symbol and especially in Hong Kong in the '80s") and how it should be served as a stand-alone appetiser, and not a sauce you'd spoon into a dish. He also discovered how oyster sauce was invented, by accident, in 1888 in China's Guangdong province, by Lee Kum Sheung, the founder of Lee Kum Kee products.
"He stepped away from his wok once, cooking oysters, and it got burnt," says Tong. "He came back and saw this brown muck on the bottom of his wok. He tasted some and thought, 'hm, it tastes kind of nice'." It's since become a Cantonese cooking staple.
For Tong, creating a curated version of the Asian grocers he visited as a kid hasn't just been a business move – it's helped reconnect him to his Chinese roots, too. He describes a cultural void he's grown up with – one his parents weren't able to fill because they were too busy working and assimilating to Australian life.
Asian Staples is a way to counter that. "I'm thankful for the opportunity because this is another way for me to fill that void that somewhat exists in my life," he says. "That is a beautiful outcome of this."
These slow-cooked shanks are so good cooked on the barbeque. It’s fall off the bone madness!