Story and Photos By Tara Alan
A few years ago, my husband Tyler and I were bicycle touring in Romania. We’d just pedaled through the gypsy village of Glod when we decided to free-camp for the night, stopping to set up our tent in an idyllic, secluded forest on a hilltop high above the town.
Tall trees towered above us as we made our home for the night. Tyler got a fire going, while I set about making a tasty supper to satisfy our ravenous appetites. Despite the fact that we were deep in the heart of Eastern Europe and I should have been craving cabbage rolls and hearty Romanian soups, all I wanted was food like I’d find in a Chinese restaurant back home. And thus, I decided to concoct an Asian-style meal of rice noodles with stir-fried eggplant and broccoli in a dark, savory, sweet and sour sauce.
I lit my Whisperlite stove, and got to work, boiling noodles and sautéing vegetables, seasoning everything with lemon juice and sugar, soy sauce and garlic, chili flakes and black pepper. When the veggies were flavored to my liking, balancing sweetness, sourness, and saltiness, I stirred them into the pot of noodles.
The dish was simple, wholesome, and delicious, and it completely satisfied my cravings. Together, Tyler and I sat by a crackling fire at our rural Romanian free-camp, and devoured the whole pot.
Alright, let’s make this stir-fry! The key ingredients here are simple.
First up, the pasta. I love carrying rice noodles with me on the road—they’re light, incredibly versatile, and easily packable in a pannier. I also love that they take far less time to cook than wheat noodles. I can even leave them in a pot of hot water to soak their way to tenderness, thus freeing up the stove for other things.
Next, the vegetables. I use eggplant, broccoli, and onion in this dish, but you could try whatever’s in season where you are. Green beans would be especially nice, as would gai lan (Chinese broccoli).
The rest of the ingredients are ones that I almost always have in my well-stocked pantry pannier: a small bottle of soy sauce, a bottle of olive oil, a lemon, a bit of sugar, and an arsenal of spices.
To make this dish on the road for two hungry travelers, this is what you’ll need:
Water for boiling
4 ounces of rice noodles
1 small onion (or half a larger one)
1 very small head of broccoli (or half a larger one)
1 small eggplant (or half a larger one)
3 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon chili flakes
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce
½ large lemon
While you’re waiting for the water to boil, begin preparing your vegetables: chop the onion into large chunks. Peel the stem of the broccoli, then cut it into chunks. Cut the head of the broccoli into bite-sized florets. Mince the garlic. Cut the eggplant into postage-stamp-sized pieces about a half-inch thick.
Now, back to the water: when the water comes to a boil (be careful not to let it spill over as it boils, or it will extinguish your flame) turn off the stove and take the pot off the flame. Break the rice noodles in half and add them to the pot, poking them with a wooden spoon until they stay submerged under water.
Put the lid on, and set aside for 8-10 minutes so they can soften. As you proceed with the recipe, moving on to the vegetables, keep an eye on the noodles. When they’re tender, drain them, and cover with a lid to keep warm.
Into your large cooking pot (2.5 liters), add the sugar, olive oil, chili flakes, black pepper, and salt, along with the eggplant and garlic. Give those a quick stir, and then, with your stove at a medium level, sauté the vegetables until the eggplant is mostly cooked. Then, add the broccoli and keep sautéing. When the broccoli is just barely tender, add the onion. Cook for another minute or so, then add the soy sauce. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the pot as well, and stir until everything is combined.
Finally, pour the veggies over the rice noodles, and dig in.
For more of Tara’s recipes click here.