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SHAWN LINEHAN - The 'noodle luge' at King Farmers Market in Northeast Portland last month delighted fans of all ages as they tested their prowess with chopsticks and learned about Umi Organic at the same time. As the ramen craze hits Portland hard, fans can find a new local organic product on grocery store shelves later this month.


Umi Organic, which debuted at Hollywood Farmers Market this spring, is the first fresh, organic ramen noodle to be made in the Pacific Northwest.

Tasty, with the perfect springy texture, the noodles are made in North Portland with just six ingredients. A complete ready-to-make ramen kit will debut next year.

"There was a big hole in the marketplace, so I sought to fill it," says Lola Milholland, a food writer-turned entrepreneur who launched the startup after digging into the complex politics of the wheat industry.

Her "aha" moment came during a ramen-making workshop she took seven years ago at the Wheat Marketing Center in Portland.

There, she met people from all over the world who were interested in buying U.S. wheat, including "women from Nigeria opening the first instant ramen line (and) men from South America wanting better noodle performance," she recalls.

Yet as a food journalist who wrote about regional food and farm connections, it didn't add up.

"We grow wheat and have incredible noodle expertise in this region, but where were our local organic noodles?" Milholland wondered. "I was actually buying dried organic noodles imported from Japan that were likely made with U.S. wheat. It was a bizarre boomerang effect."

So Milholland set out on her research quest, trying various techniques until a chance meeting with noodle maker Mychael Mai of Shin Shin Foods in North Portland last summer.

COURTESY: SHAWN LINEHAN - The stream of ice-cold, slippery Umi Organic noodles floating down a 10-foot split bamboo flume at King Farmers Market last month was inspired by the Japanese summertime tradition called nagashi somen.  Mai invited her into his factory to do research and development. "The first noodle I made on their little Tokyo Menki machine was the best ramen noodle I had ever made, and I was hooked," Milholland says.

While experimenting with different flour — in search of the perfect combination of texture and flavor — she landed on a very-high-protein flour from Central Milling in Utah, and a barley flour milled-to-order by Greenwillow Grains, a collective of grain farmers in the Willamette Valley.

"I love barley flour, which is sweet and nutty, and grows exceptionally well in the wetter lands west of the Cascades," says Milholland, a longtime student of Japanese culture. While the flour comes from Utah, Milholland prefers supporting a small owner-operated source outside of the major commodity stream.

The final product is a refrigerated package of noodles that cooks in two to three minutes and contains just six ingredients: organic wheat, organic barley, water, salt, organic wheat gluten and kansui — the combination of mineral salts that gives ramen noodles their springy resilience.

In July, Shin Shin received its organic certification through Oregon Tilth.

Milholland sees action as symbolic of a larger movement like The Grain Gathering, an annual conference at Washington State University that focuses on rebuilding local and regional grain markets outside of the commodity stream.

While Portlanders are well aware of the value of organic produce, she says, consumers here are less conscious about reasons to buy local, organic grains.

Milholland sees this as the next frontier for those who like to shop local and have an organic consciousness.

"It's hard to be a small producer because there isn't infrastructure (for cleaning, storage and milling grains)," she says. "So there's less stuff made with local grains. That may be part of our collective lack of knowledge about it."

By paying more for organic products, Milholland says, the higher-cost difference goes to the farmers to support their efforts — including their investment in infrastructure, land mass, time and other resources.

"Something like this is critical; it helps give (farmers) the money for the long term to invest in significant change," she says. "We're in a period of change right now. But it's still not common."

@jenmomanderson

Find out (and taste) more:

A 10-ounce package of Umi Organic noodles includes two to three servings and sells for $5. It'll be out in the refrigerated aisle next to tofu, miso and kim chi later this month at New Seasons markets, Portland-area co-ops, Uwajimaya stores and online at umiorganic.com.

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