This is the story of two recipes for Asian noodle dishes I loved in the past and wanted to recreate. One took months to develop the recipe for, and the other took 15 minutes. They’re both ridiculously good.

Thai peanut noodles

As a young Naval Academy graduate, my dad found himself stationed in Honolulu, and as a young dietician with a degree in home economics, my mom found herself experimenting with Asian cuisine when he was home from deployments. I don’t know if her recipe for Thai peanut noodles came from this time (the soft corners of the recipe card suggests it might be), but living in Hawaii definitely made my mom keen to Asian cuisine for the rest of her life. And thank God for that. Growing up, if I saw chicken defrosting in the kitchen sink in the morning, I would delight in learning it was for stir fry or yellow curry or — best of all — Thai peanut noodles. I used to beg my mom to abandon plans to cook anything else.

When I moved to Los Angeles, eager to impress the guy I moved here for, I called my mom for her Thai peanut noodle recipe and followed it exactly. My boyfriend claims he loved it, but I insisted it could be better — it might have tasted okay to him, but it just wasn’t the dish I grew up eating. The peanut butter and soy sauce ratio was way off. Too much rice vinegar. Where was the ginger?

I should have figured — the last time my mom actually used that recipe was probably 20 years ago. As all things do, it evolved.

After at least six more attempts to recapture the flavor I knew, I arrived at my destination. Serves 4.

Sauce
1/3C peanut butter
1/3C soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 large or 1/2 small ginger root, finely grated
5 “shakes” of dry red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar or white vinegar
Optional: 1 teaspoon of brown sugar

Modifications: For a thicker sauce with more peanut taste, go up to 1/2C peanut butter (or more). Feel free to increase the amount of ginger or red pepper flakes for more sweet/sour taste or spice. Do not buy vinegar just for this recipe — it does little to affect overall taste.

Protein
1 pound of boneless chicken, beef, or pork (I like chicken thighs), or firm tofu or seitan
1/3C soy sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
Optional: 1 garlic clove

Pasta
1 pound of dry spaghetti or linguine
Optional: up to 1-1/2C stir fry style vegetables (julienned broccoli stalks, julienned carrots, snow peas, bamboo shoots, sliced mushrooms)
Optional: crushed peanuts or sliced green onion

Modifications: rice noodles, soba and udon noodles, and fresh pasta can also be used. Pay attention to those cooking directions, though. Overcooked rice noodles are no fun.

Up to 6 hours in advance:

Combine the sauce ingredients in a cup or bowl, mix well, cover, and store in the refrigerator.

Marinate meat in 1/3C soy sauce and keep covered and refrigerated until use. Sometimes I like to slice a garlic clove and toss it in too. It certainly doesn’t hurt. If you’re working with tofu or seitan, marinate for less than 15 minutes.

20 minutes to serving time:

Fill a large pot with water, salt it, and crank the heat to high. While you wait for it to boil, slice the marinated meat into thumb-size strips, and discard the excess soy sauce and garlic. Get a large skillet or wok over medium heat with a little oil. You can also use this time to prepare any vegetables you might want to toss with your pasta. Once the water is boiling, drop in the pasta. It should take about 9 minutes. And once your pasta is in the pot, start cooking the meat in the skillet, stirring and turning often. Once the meat is no longer raw on the outside (2-3 minutes), add any stir-fry vegetables you wish to include to this pan. And if everything goes smoothly, the pasta, meat, and vegetables will be cooked and tender at the same time. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet, then pour the sauce on top and mix well. Serve hot with optional crushed peanut garnish or green onion garnish.

Spaghetti with ketchup

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Spaghetti with ketchup. Seriously!

Before I ever moved to New York City, I took a train up for a weekend for The New Yorker Festival and documented my amazing experience here. One of the trip highlights was a plate of spaghetti with ketchup from Sake Bar Hagi, a Japanese restaurant occupying the basement of a building just off Times Square, on the recommendation of Gourmet magazine’s Francis Lam.

When I lived in New York, I continued to make the pilgrimage to Midtown for this humble dish, which also goes by Spaghetti Napolitan (not to be confused with its Italian predecessor), or Spaghetti Naporitan (the etymology of which I can only guess).

Mostly Japanese college students and young professionals lined the stairway that led down into the small space, waiting for a table, but I never had to wait. There was always just one seat available at the bar. The wood bar is low, and loud, and cramped with people with interesting things to say. The laminated menu is many pages long, with overly saturated pictures of various dishes that do less to sell the food than the long line of people waiting, the din of twenty conversations in at least two languages, and the fatty smell pouring out from the kitchen.

I regret that I never tried their kimchee or beef tongue, but I’ve ordered specials of chicken livers and shrimp balls, and a pastel pink, spongy tempura hot dog. And always the spaghetti.

Every time I ate there, I refused to believe that it was something so simple as spaghetti with ketchup, sauteed green pepper and onion, and bacon, served with a canister of dry Parmesan cheese and a bottle of Tobasco sauce. It didn’t taste as sweet as it should if it was generic ketchup. And the bacon seemed more like ham than bacon — or was it just undercooked? And this is a Japanese restaurant — the dish must have miso or soy sauce in there somewhere, right?

No. As I learned this week, desperate — desperate! — for that most comforting of all comfort foods, it really is spaghetti with ketchup, sauteed green pepper and onion, and undercooked bacon. Recipes abound on the internet for Japanese spaghetti with ketchup, overwhelmingly involving ingredients I didn’t have, so when I confirmed there was at least one recipe with only the basics, I went for it.

I still miss the experience of dotting my New Yorkers’ pages with ketchup and dry Parmesan cheese from twirling spaghetti noodles, eavesdropping on promising fourth dates, and postponing the beef tongue because of yet another strange daily special at Sake Bar Hagi. But it’s a lot easier to call up these memories over a plate of spaghetti with ketchup.

Serves 1. Filling!

Ingredients:
1/3 box of dry spaghetti
1/2 green bell pepper, cut into stamp size pieces
1/4 yellow or white onion, sliced
2 slices of undercooked plain bacon (microwave in paper towels for 3 minutes) or Canadian bacon
1/4C ketchup
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil

20 minutes to serving time:
Fill a pot with salted water and set to boil. You can use this time to prepare your vegetables. Before the water boils, put a large skillet over medium heat and add the oil. Add your pasta to the boiling water; it should take about 9 minutes to cook. Saute the green peppers and onions for about 4-5 minutes until translucent, then add the bacon/ham and turn the heat to low. At the last minute before draining the pasta, add the ketchup to the skillet. Drain the pasta and add immediately to the skillet and mix well. Serve with dry Parmesan cheese. I tried a bite with hot sauce once and didn’t care for it, but Tobasco is subjective if nothing else.

Note: this post was written on a night I ordered my favorite Thai delivery meal, Pad See Ew, flat noodles in sweet soy sauce. I don’t trust myself with delicate rice noodles, so I plan to continue to support my local Thai restaurants instead of making this at home.

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