Call it pasta, call it noodles, it has held its place for thousands of years as the world’s favourite comfort food. The trend today, however, is increasingly moving away from wheat-based pasta, stretching the ingenuity of manufacturers and chefs, writes Jane Ram.

Archaeologists found a bowl of millet noodles in a 4,000-year-old tomb in Northwestern China. Whether you call it pasta or noodles, spaghetti or mien, flour and water still provide an easy, quick, delicious and sustaining meal. Small wonder that pasta (to use the term generically) has held its place for so long among the world’s favourite comfort foods. However, the trend is increasingly moving away from wheat-based pasta, stretching the ingenuity of manufacturers and chefs as they try to hold onto their share of the market. Seaweed is important in next generation ‘pasta’ and sourdough fermentation is being used to improve digestibility of gluten in wheat based pasta.

UNAFPA (Union des Associations de Fabricants de Pates Alimentaires de la Union Européenne – Union of Organizations of Manufacturers of Pasta Products of the European Union) estimates that world pasta production in the year ending December 2015 totalled some 14.3 million tonnes worldwide. Italy was the leading producer with 3.2 million tonnes; US produced 2 million tonnes; Turkey produced 1.315 million tonnes.

Pasta has for long been regarded as Italy’s signature food, but times are changing as health concerns about carbohydrate intake have put retail sales into a steady decline every year since 2009, according to Jodie Minotto, Global Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel. Brands are turning to wheat-free, gluten-free and healthier recipes using non-wheat grains and or vegetables. Italians are still the number one per capita pasta consumers, although retail per capita consumption of pasta fell by 106 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to a recent CNBC report.

Asia’s love affair with noodles continues, albeit with some interesting variations. Andrew Yuen is founder & CEO of food distribution and manufacturing company On Kun Hong. His personal interest in organic, healthy food led him to develop his own brand of quinoa noodles, so far only available in Macau.

Roberto Costa currently has five Italian restaurants in London, of which Ardiciocca is entirely gluten free. He says, “In my opinion, pasta is for those who love the sun. It is also a source of happiness for children. Nowadays, pasta is often chosen by those who would like to follow a balanced diet, preferring quality products with wheat of guaranteed origin.”

“Pasta is mainly eaten at lunch time, as it’s easier to digest carbs during the day. It should be eaten in the simplest way. A little extra virgin olive oil is enough – a good pasta does not need too much dressing. Pasta is a favourite comfort food as it is tasty and easy to cook. And not to be forgotten- carbs turn into sugar which stimulates
the brain.”

Ardiciocca is a progression from Costa’s preference as a youngster. “I’ve always eaten natural gluten free products because I believe they are good for you. I didn’t start eating them because I couldn’t eat gluten, but rather because I love the taste. Also, today, you can find pasta made with corn, quinoa, rice and selected fibres, which are all excellent.”

Gluten free pasta from Ardiciocca.

“Our guests at Ardiciocca don’t necessarily know that it is a gluten free restaurant when they first sit down to dine. They may only find out after dinner. And that is exactly what I want. Quality is my top priority, as simplicity is not easy.”

Traditional diets tend to include a balance of everything, including comfort food like pasta, says Christopher Mark, co-founder of Hong Kong-based Black Sheep restaurant group. “Plus the happiness derived from eating a little of what you like has its own health benefits,” he adds.

“People often talk about weight loss and health as if they are the same thing,” says Mark. “Pasta became demonised because cutting carbs became a shortcut to losing weight. But if you are actually interested in nutrition there’s no reason why pasta can’t be part of a healthy diet, for thousands of years it’s been a cornerstone of Mediterranean cooking, which is often called the healthiest lifestyle in the world.”

“Noodles and pastas never fell out of favour in South East Asia.  It is only in the US and possibly the UK where gluten sensitivity was a concern. In Asia we continued to slurp on our ramens, wonton noodles and dumplings,” says newly-appointed Corporate Chef of Shinta Mani Hotels, Patricia Yeo.

“We do make some Italian style pasta in the hotels, one of my favourites is a seaweed pasta, not for the micro nutrients present in the seaweed but because of the flavour. We toast laver or dulse (seaweed varieties) which gives a super nutty quality and incorporate it into a pasta which is served with a sauce of shredded braised duck, roasted shiitake mushrooms and rocket. The iodine, slightly briny quality of the seaweed is great with the meaty duck and mushroom while the rocket gives a peppery zing. I love the juxtaposition of the two different umami qualities; from the sea and the
meaty/forest flavours.

“I have tried to incorporate ingredients into my pasta doughs to make it more interesting and possibly healthier (although it is difficult to actually tell what is or isn’t healthy, there are so many conflicting sources of information). I made a turmeric and ginger pasta to replace saffron in a shellfish pasta, initially because saffron is so prohibitively expensive here. Now I like the vibrant colour of the pasta and the hint of spice imparted by the ginger.

“Instead of using spinach for a green pasta I use macha tea (which is great in a chilled pasta salad with seared tuna) or moringa leaf. Moringa grows in wild profusion in Siem Reap where it is not thought of as a green vegetable fit for humans (they feed it to chickens). We forage our moringa leaves from the grounds of the hotel or the Shinta Mani Foundation Farm. I’ve used Mekong River weed, butterfly pea blossom (a great idea but the colour when it was cooked was a little lurid), the idea is to experiment with everything and to incorporate as many local ingredients as possible into what we cook be it Western, or other Asian cuisines or sometimes even reintroducing it into Khmer dishes.”

Ebi Mazesoba
Ebi Mazesoba

Japanese noodles of every kind must be among Hong Kong’s favourite snacks at any time of the day or night and it’s safe to say that every Hong Kong visitor to Hokkaido eats at least one bowl of the city’s famous noodles. Now Hokkaido’s No. 1 ramen shop, Ebisoba Ichigen, has opened its Hong Kong flagship, which seems destined for runaway success in Hong Kong’s favourite shopping and dining destination – Harbour City. The menu is short, but it even includes Ebi Mazesoba, a dish which is not available in Japan. Shrimp heads and vegetables are simmered in the original shrimp broth, then blended and filtered to create the essential shrimp essence.

Hong Kong’s newly-opened Fukuro Izakaya has its own twist on everything, including udon noodles which are served in a rich and indulgent crab miso butter with snow crab.