I often eat alone. Lunch is mostly ‘my time’, the time I can choose what to eat, simple or complicated, or anything at all. The time to be truly myself – I often cook the food that I miss from home, which is a little bit too exotic for my husband, or too Asian (but to be fair, my husband is quite open with new taste, Asian or not, however there are still some dishes that he is not so keen.). For me, eating the food that resembles the taste of my home is to retrieve that feeling I dearly miss. Luckily I know a way to travel back in time…alone.
There are few dishes I like to eat when I am home alone: streamed rice served with chilli bamboo shoot (pickle bamboo shoot from a jar!), soy marinated minced beef rice porridge, this is my favourite mum’s recipe, my mother used to cook this for us when we were feeling a bit under the weather, I think of my mother every time I eat this. My other favorite is miso soup with tofu and seaweed, served with rice, the easiest soup on earth: dashi stock and miso paste are all you need to make this soup. All the other ingredients are totally optional, a matter of individual taste.
However there is this one dish I love to cook (mostly) and eat when I am alone – noodle soup with spicy sardines, not just any sardines, it has to be Portuguese sardines with whole chilli in olive oil. It is a local dish that you can only find in Macau, where I grew up (Since Macau is the former colony of Portugal, our cuisine is mainly a fusion of Chinese and Portuguese food, we call it Macanese cuisine).
There are plenty of cafés/restaurants where they sell this noodle soup. But as far as my childhood memory is concerned, there was this particular one my family and I frequent the most; a brightly lit café situated by the Sai Van Lake, in the south side of the Macau Island. The interior was nothing spectacular, light brown mosaic tiled floor, white rectangular wall tiles, opened-kitchen, a cashier counter area that was made out of wood panels. It was not a very big place but quite a few tables laid out which are constructed with marble tops and metal legs. Typical Macau style, or Cantonese style, so to say. The waiting staffs there were generally friendly, if you were alone and the café was busy, you would most likely to share table with other guests. But since we were always in a group, it was never a problem for us. Once we were seated, a pot of green tea and cups would be brought to the table automatically, free of charge. My mother would always order the famous egg tarts – egg custard baked in a light and fluffy pastry case, served warm. It gives incredible ‘mouth feel’ (my father used to say, mouth feel is important with regards to food!), mother liked to have it with black coffee with condense milk, her favourite. My sisters and I would order a few different dishes to share alongside with lemon tea in paper cartons; ham and egg sandwich in white, crustless, soft like pillow toast bread; pork chop bun – crispy pork chop served in a just-out-of-the oven short baguette, oxtail soup with curved moon shaped macaroni, a drizzle of olive oil before serving.
And of course, my favourite is noodle soup with spicy sardines. It is nothing fancy, a bowl of warm noodle soup topped with sardines straight from the tin! (Some café even serves this dish with a whole tin of sardine on the side! There is only one specific brand of sardines that is used by all café/ restaurants in Macau – it is a red tin with an old man’s face printed on top.) You can choose the noodles as well: instant noodles, egg noodles or thin rice vermicelli noodles (and my favourite is rice vermicelli). Boy I tell you the taste is extraordinary, a truly east meets west taste: al dente noodles submerge in hearty meat broth, which has been slow cooked for hours, then this intense flavour mixes with oily fish sardines marinated in the delicate, almost fruity aromatic olive oil and the chilli. The combination is breath taking; you will sweat from slurping the warm noodles and from the spiciness of the sardines, soup will often be drunk up. It is fun, heart warming and fulfilling! That’s why I love to eat noodle soup when I am alone; I no longer care about being messy, or impolite making slurping sounds. I am in my sanctuary, I feel free! I have heard that in some cities in Japan, noodle shop often provides individual ‘eating compartment’ where one can eat, slurp noodle soup without being seen! How amusing!
It is impossible to find the exact brand of sardines in Berlin, but I found one that is close enough (or perhaps all Portuguese sardines with chilli you find in Germany taste the same, but I am just happy to find mine!) I remember the first time when I found this similar type of sardines; I was so excited beyond words can describe. I opened it immediately once I got home. The familiar aroma, which sneaks out from the open tin, was the ‘on’ button of my time machine.
Note on the essay: This is an essay I wrote originally for the food writing class I participated a year ago (which was taught by Luisa Weiss ‘The Wednesday Chef‘). I am very happy to be able to cook this noodle soup with the famous Portuguese sardines I brought back from my Macau trip a month ago. And most of all, I would very much like to share this recipe with you and the little story behind my favorite childhood dish, hence this essay!
Note on the recipe: I love the combination of the umami taste of the dashi weaves into the hearty meat broth. Tomato adds a slightly tangy flavour and clove gives a subtle anise note. All these elements together create an aromatic, piquant base for the whole dish.
Noodle soup with spicy Portuguese sardines
- 500ml beef broth (or chicken broth)
- 1 tbsp. dashi stock powder (optional)
- 2 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 cloves
- salt (to taste)
- 1 tbsp. tamari or soy sauce
- 100g rice vermicelli noodles, cook according to package instruction
- 1 tin of Portuguese sardines in olive oil and chilli (Piri-Piri)
- 1 handful of green vegetable (optional)
In a sauce pan, combine the dashi stock powder (if use) and the beef broth, and bring to boil. Add cherry tomatoes and the cloves to the broth and simmer for 5 minutes. Season with salt and tamari to taste. Strain the broth with a fine mesh sieve, transfer the broth back to the sauce pan.
Add vegetable to the broth if use, cook for a minute or 2, transfer veggies to a plate and keep warm.
Add rice vermicelli noodles, cook for another minute. Remove from heat.
Pour the noodles and soup in a large serving bowl, top with vegetables and sardines straight from the tin (discard the oil). Serve immediately.