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More to noodles than you know
Designing wheat for lucrative Chinese market
Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006
By Hope Belli Tinney
If you plan to celebrate the Chinese New Year (on Jan. 29) with dinner at your favorite Asian restaurant, think about this: More research will have gone into the formulation of the noodles on your plate than your old noodle can imagine. Just ask Byung-Kee Baik, WSU’s reigning researcher of ramen — as well as other types of noodles.
Baik, an assistant professor of Crop & Soil Sciences, is in the business — and it is big business — of figuring out how to make superior wheat noodles.
Since Asian noodles made from wheat typically have just three ingredients — flour, water and salt — it isn’t hard to figure out what to focus on.
“If you don’t have good flour,” he said, “you’ll never have good noodles.” And of course the quality of the flour depends on the qualities of the wheat.
“It’s a buyer’s market in wheat right now,” Baik said. “There’s a competition among sellers. To be a winner, we need to provide better end-use quality of wheat.”
While the discerning consumer can bypass the ubiquitous all-purpose flour on the grocery store shelf to find cake, bread and even pastry flour, the behind-the-scenes complexity of matching wheat varieties to particular end uses is mind boggling. As new wheat varieties come on the market, the picture becomes ever more complicated.
Noodles are the most popular wheat-based products in the majority of Asian countries, where up to 50 percent of wheat consumed is used for making noodles.
For many years nearly 100 percent of the wheat imported by Asian countries for making noodles came from U.S. farmers, but that started to change about 20 years ago when Australia developed white-wheat varieties specifically tailored to produce high-quality Asian noodles, Baik said.
While the United States continues to dominate most Asian markets, from Japan to the Philippines, Australia is rapidly increasing its market share. In South Korea, for example, wheat imports are divided about 60-40 between the United States and Australia.
Get ready for China
WSU wheat researchers are working with industry leaders to maintain current market shares, but the real prize on the horizon is China. China, the largest wheat producer in the world, hasn’t imported much wheat in the past. But as its economy grows, researchers expect that its demand for high-quality wheat for noodles also will increase.
And WSU researchers, including wheat breeders and geneticists who work closely with Baik, are working to ensure that Washington farmers will be ready. WSU breeders have developed hard white wheat varieties with the potential to make superior noodles, Baik said and — while they are still being tested — they look promising.
While other researchers worry about the farmer’s needs, such as developing varieties that are high yield, disease resistant and drought tolerant, Baik worries about end-use issues. Supported in part by WSU IMPACT (International Marketing Program for Agricultural Commodities and Trade) funds and the Washington Wheat Commission, Baik’s research focuses on figuring out what various food producers want, figuring out how to measure those qualities in a reliable way and then figuring out the optimum balance of protein content and quality, and starch property in wheat to deliver those flour qualities.
Simple, huh? It gets worse.
Within the three to five major categories of Asian noodles, there are hundreds of different types that vary by country and by region, each with its own particular texture or “bite” that is determined by the flour it is made from.
The best wheat for udon noodles is not the best wheat for instant fried noodles such as ramen, and the wheat for Cantonese noodles is different altogether. “That’s one of the problems,” Baik said and laughed. “One of the headaches, too.”
So next time you dig into a bowl of noodles, pay attention to the color. Pay attention to the bite. And then enjoy the fact that all you need to do is enjoy it.