By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
In the process of opening Dong Thap Noodles, restaurant owner Nick Bui learned about the restrictions applied to storing rice noodles at room temperature. Washington Board of Health regulations prevents rice noodles like those Nick Bui makes fresh from scratch to be stored at room temperature (temperatures ranging between 41 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit) for over four hours, but Bui and other restaurants and rice noodle manufacturers argue that the limited four-hour window is prohibitive and wasteful.
A limited window
Traditional production methods for rice noodles require these noodles stay at room temperature to remain pliable and maintain its buoyant texture. Refrigerating fresh rice noodles destroys the texture, causing noodles to become hard, brittle, and unusable. As a result, the critical four-hour period, where Bui’s fresh rice noodles are at its best, has become the cornerstone to which Bui shapes his operations at Dong Thap since the restaurant opened six months ago.
“We have to follow the rules,” said Bui. “We know exactly what we will sell and we put out exactly what our demand is for our noodles. If we can’t sell how much we put out, then we’ll basically just have to dump it in the trash, and we do. We dump whatever noodles in the trash that we don’t sell in that four-hour period.”
Rice Noodles at Dong Thap begins from uncooked long grain rice that Bui gets shipped from Texas. The rice is washed and soaked for a day. The following day, the soaked rice is ground into a pulp to make rice flour, then water and other ingredients are added and the mixture is left for another day to achieve the proper texture. On the final day, the dough is placed through an extractor to make the restaurant’s signature rice noodles. These noodles, that take on average four days to make, must be tossed in four hours if not sold or consumed.
The time frame is especially limited for noodle production facilities like Tsue Chong Noodle, where President Timothy Louie pushed against such restrictions after being cited for a food code violation. The clock for the rice noodles produced at Tsue Chong Noodle starts ticking straight out of the extractor. From there, the noodles must be delivered from the facility to restaurants and markets that order these noodles wholesale. Factor in transportation and delivery, and the window is shortened more so by the time restaurants get their hands on the fresh product.
The “noodle bill”
Louie sought out the support of Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos and Sen. Bob Hasegawa, who along with Representatives Cindy Ryu, Mia Gregerson, and Derek Stanford sponsored House Bill 2744, which defines rice noodles as a rice-based pasta that is prepared using a traditional method of steaming no less than 130 degrees Fahrenheit for more than four minutes. The bill asked the State Board of Health to consider scientific data regarding time-temperature safety standards for Asian rice noodles and suggests regulators look to California law, which allows eight hours for distribution.
Consideration and research led them to also include Korean rice cakes, a confection that contains rice powder, sugar, salt, and a variety of edible beans, seeds, and dried fruits. The Senate version of this bill, SB-6398, may not have garnered public attention had it not undergone a somewhat unconventional journey through the Senate.
In early March, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed SB-6398, alongside 26 other bills, to push the Legislature towards an unrelated budget agreement that was not reached by the allotted 60-day time frame. In such cases, the Legislature is able to override the veto and to pass bills like the noodle bill into law. If they do not, SB-6398 may have been left behind. The Legislature overrode the veto with a majority vote late last month, essentially pushing the noodle bill into law without the governor’s signature.
“This is probably the epitome of what we would envision as a good little bill,” said Hasegawa before the Washington State Senate in advocating for SB-6398. “This brings cultural competency to food inspection programs. We lovingly refer to this as ‘the noodle bill.’”
What is next?
For Bui, who structures his business to produce fresh noodles every four hours, the new regulations would make a significant difference for the future of his business.
“The health department just came in a couple weeks ago and they didn’t even know about the law. Hopefully, the health department will be more lenient with our rice noodles here and let our rice noodles have the 8-hour life span that it’s supposed to have,” said Bui.
The green light on the noodle bill requires regulators to look to science to establish more suitable regulations for rice noodles and rice cakes, exempting these products from the blanket regulations applied to other Western food products.
“By applying food safety standards based on scientific data, this cultural food manufacturer and other small businesses like it will continue to support economic growth in our state and provide products that enrich our culture,” said Hasegawa.
Such other products up for evaluation may include similar products like traditional Japanese mochi— rice based confections often stored at room temperature.
“We are at the very beginning stages of the process. During the next few months, Board of Health and Department of Health staff will review the literature and reach out to other states that have implemented similar policies,” said Washington State Board of Health Executive Director Michelle Davis in an email.
Following review, the staff will issue guidance to health inspectors, grocers, and eventually the industry.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.