Know Your Noodle: A Guide to Asian Noodles
The Vast World of Asian Noodles
I am lucky to have a large Asian market just a few miles from my home. Every visit is an excursion, each aisle is a treasure trove of new and interesting sights and aromas, and (for this little reddish-blonde German-Irish lass) shopping there is always an adventure. There are dozens, maybe a hundred or more, types of noodles from which to choose. Some are soft and fresh and others are dried. They are translucent, white, yellow, brown, squishy, firm, brittle, short, long—and on and on it goes.
Aren't Asian Noodles Just Another Type of Pasta?
Although many types of Italian pasta are now made gluten-free, this is a relatively new direction for the food industry. But, for centuries, Asian noodles have been made not only with wheat but with rice, yam, buckwheat, or mung bean.
I thought it would be fun to explore them together. Let's roam the aisles and see what we can find and then (of course) find interesting recipes for using each one.
Chow Mein and Lo Mein
Chow mein and lo mein noodles are made with the same ingredients used for Italian pasta (wheat flour, eggs, and water) but the water is alkaline, and instead of being rolled out with a rolling pin or pasta machine, they are pulled and stretched. This gives them their characteristic firm, springy texture.
You might be wondering then what is the difference between lo mein and chow mein; are they the same thing? It's all in the preparation. While lo mein noodles are soft and boiled, chow mein noodles are fried and crispy. Lo mein is long (usually a foot or more in length) and dense. Chow mein is also called "Hong Kong-style" noodles, typically par-boiled so they can be tossed from the package into the stir-fry pan without being precooked.
The recipe for slippery lo mein noodles is extremely adaptable; use the vegetables and protein of your choice. The key to success is in the sauce. This chicken chow mein is an iconic Cantonese noodle dish brightened with fresh ginger and a punch of flavor from oyster sauce.
For both of these dishes, it's important to get all of your ingredients prepared and measured before you start (mise en place, folks).
More Chow Mein and Lo Mein Recipes
When you hear the word “ramen” do you think of the cellophane-wrapped dried block of wavy noodles with the packet of seasoning (which is mostly just a ton of salt)? Fortunately, real honest-to-goodness ramen is so much better than that. Ramen is a wheat noodle made of flour and kanusui (alkaline mineral water) and it's the water that gives them their characteristic texture.
Ramen chefs take pride in the broths that they create for their ramen; it’s actually the broth that is the star of the show.
Sam lives in Vancouver, B.C., where ramen shops are almost as common as Starbucks coffee stores. She creates richly flavored miso ramen with chicken and tops it with a perfectly boiled ramen egg, scallions, seaweed, carrots, and sweet corn.
More Ramen Recipes
These Japenese noodles come dried, fresh, or frozen and in a variety of sizes. They're dense and chewy but have a neutral flavor to allow the other components of the dish to shine. A good example is this spicy pork udon stir-fry.
More Udon Recipes
Miscellaneous Starch Noodles
Cellophane noodles (also known as glass noodles, or fensi) are sold dry, packaged in a bundle. They're thin and brittle, looking a bit like angel hair pasta. A 1-minute soak in hot water will make them soft and pliable and ready to use. Good news—they're made from the mung bean or tapioca starch and so are gluten-free.
Glass noodles are used throughout Asia; they're a popular component of dishes in China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, The Philippines, and Malaysia. If you've eaten spring rolls, you've probably tasted cellophane noodles.
Pancit is a popular recipe in the Philippines and this version is full of crispy, colorful vegetables. It's gluten-free and vegan. One word of advice—break the noodles into small pieces; this will make it easier to stir-fry.
More Glass Noodle Recipes
Soba noodles are my favorite. Made of buckwheat, they have a nutty flavor and a firm, springy al dente bite. According to proper Japanese etiquette, one must slurp their noodles to show appreciation to the cook (I haven't told my family about that and I'd appreciate it if you did not mention it to them). This recipe for miso soba soup by Connoisseurus Veg is hearty, vegan, and supremely slurpable.
More Soba Recipes
Chow fun is very popular in Cantonese cooking. They're wide, flat, silky smooth and have an al dente chew that was only be described as voluptuous. They're sold fresh in sealed plastic pouches. Sabrina Snyder's beef chow fun dinner is authentic Cantonese and feeds a family of four in just little over 30 minutes (and almost all of that time is spent simply allowing the noodles to soak and soften).
More Chow Fun Recipes
These Korean noodles (also called Korean glass noodles) are made from sweet potato starch (gluten-free!). They are rubbery, slippery, and dense. This recipe for japchae by Steamy Kitchen is colorful and healthy (vegetarian and vegan).
More Japchae Recipes
These are also known as rice sticks. In Maylasia and Singapore they are called bee hoon. My Vietnamese friends call them bun. Don't confuse them with Italian vermicelli (remember "Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat?") The only similarity is in the width of the noodles.
Rick sticks are little more than rice flour and water; they are basically flavorless, but that's a good thing. They are meant to be the vehicle for amazingly flavorful additions and toppings. For example, here's a recipe for fried rice vermicelli with chicken. Garlic and scallion add some heat, fresh bean sprouts give the dish some crunch, and a sweet-salty sauce coats each sticky strand of noodle. This will easily serve three people (or two of one of them is my husband).
More Vermicelli Recipes
© 2020 Linda Lum