Thursday, 7 January 2016

Bigoli and Udon in Salsa

Onions, anchovies, and cross-cultural noodle substitution

When I was living in Singapore in the 1980s, a friend told me that the local flat noodles known as  mee pok, were an excellent substitute for fresh tagliatelle. I’ve never tested this out myself, but I’m sure she was right. I was reminded of this recently when it was pointed out to me that the fresh version of the Italian pasta known as bigoli was rather similar to Japanese udon noodles.

Bigoli is a type of pasta made in the Veneto region from buckwheat or whole wheat flour, and most commonly sold as dried pasta. It looks like wholewheat spaghetti, but the texture is not as grainy. It is widely available in supermarkets and shops in Venice. However, in England, I’ve only seen it for sale in places like Fortnum and Mason.

Most commonly, it’s served in a sauce made made of onions and anchovies. The dish is known as bigoli in salsa, and I’ve referred to it in a previous blog post on Venetian food. I’m extremely fond of anchovies, and this sauce is incredibly simple to prepare.

There’s also the fresh version of bigoli, and if you are keen you can make it yourself. To do this in the traditional way, you will need a hand-operated gadget called a bigolaro which extrudes the pasta through a plate with holes. If you live outside the Veneto, you can buy one through Amazon.

Alternatively, you can use a meat grinder set to the smallest extrusion size.

I had never tasted fresh bigoli until my last trip to Venice, when I had it at an excellent little establishment just round the corner from the Fortuny Museum, called Teamo. Compared to bigoli made from dried pasta, these noodles were thicker, with a nice chewy texture. I’d had bigoli in salsa many times before, but this was different, and delicious. Incidentally, the other dishes at Teamo were excellent too. The owners used to work at one of the more prestigious establishments in Venice before setting up their own wine bar and restaurant, and it's well worth a visit.

The bigoli at Teamo was, as my companion pointed out to me, reminiscent of Japanese udon. Having neither the inclination nor the necessary equipment for making fresh bigoli, we though we would try using udon when we were back in England.

The salsa is made as follows:
Fry a large quantity of chopped onions in olive oil over low heat until they soften. Take care not to let them brown, and to prevent this from happening, add a little water (or dry white wine) to the pan. When the onions have softened, add the anchovies and continue cooking gently until they have dissolved into the onions. Serve with pasta. Garnish with chopped parsley if so inclined. Note that the recipe does not involve garlic or chilli.

My first attempt was with dried udon which, I discovered when I looked closely at the packet, was made from rice flour.

No matter. The result was excellent. The noodles had a firm, chewy texture which went very well with the onion and anchovy sauce.

My next attempt was with Amoy brand “Straight-to-Wok” udon, widely available in most normal British supermarkets.

With these, there is no need to cook the noodles beforehand, so you just add them to the wok when the salsa is ready, and heat for a few more minutes. This was also excellent. 

Bigoli in salsa is a really easy dish to prepare, apart from the bit where you have to chop the onions. I circumvent this by having in my freezer a supply of ready-chopped diced onions, widely available from many supermarkets. You can also get frozen chopped parsley, at least from Waitrose or Ocado. Of course, udon is not bigoli, but it's an excellent alternative, and in my opinion, neither better nor worse. In the same way, incidentally, that spaghetti is an excellent alternative to flat rice noodles for fried dishes like pad thai or char kway teow (cook the spaghetti before frying it).

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