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Know Your Noodle: A Guide to Asian Noodles

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Asian noodles are more than pad Thai.

Asian noodles are more than pad Thai.

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.

Lo mein

Lo mein

Wheat Noodles

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

Healthy miso ramen

Healthy miso ramen

Ramen

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

20-minute spicy pork udon stir fry

20-minute spicy pork udon stir fry

Udon

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

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

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

Beef chow fun

Beef chow fun

Chow Fun

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

Japchae

Japchae

Japchae

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

Fried rice vermicelli

Fried rice vermicelli

Rice Noodles

Rice Vermicelli

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

Sources

© 2020 Linda Lum

Comments

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on July 30, 2020:

Thanks for the kind words, Linda. I would love to go shopping with you. Too bad about COVID. I keep meaning to look on Amazon for the gluten-free Ramen noodles, but then I keep forgetting. A common malady at my age. LOL

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 29, 2020:

Ms Dora, I'm happy to help.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 29, 2020:

Quite a product and vocabulary lesson for me. Thank you very much and thanks for the recipes.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2020:

Flourish, I recognize that the Asian seasoning can be Uber sodium, but you can cook the noodles and ramp down the salt by replacing some of the soy/miso/etc with water. Enjoy the noodles for their taste and texture, and do your own thing (what your gut feeling is) with the seasoning.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 28, 2020:

This was so interesting. I liked the humor of ants climbing a tree. If it weren’t for the sodium I’d probably take this up as a new taste endeavor. You’ve outdone yourself here.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 28, 2020:

Best I can remember on that is it comes from a German word sounding like it. I can't remember the exact word mom used to call me.

More about humming because your brain is idle. Nothing about the food -- isn't that funny.

I stopped counting our western style noodle cache. At least 10 different shapes, sizes and ingredients. I think that is a covid deal that she was stockpiling -- hmmm.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2020:

I've got her beat by only 2 inches. I'm glad your family is "using your noodle." Eric, that's a challenge for you. Find out for me where the expression came from, OK?

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 28, 2020:

Well Linda 4'10' on a tall day and 95lb soaking wet. Gabe at ten is larger. Plus she calls me elephant.

Just in our fridge we have leftover or pre-prepared Vermicelli, Udon and Ramon. I think she is planning a Udon spaghetti for dinner. Always Pho' just to heat up with some kind of noodle.

We must be think in the noodle.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2020:

Thank you Abby. My husband spent some Uncle Sam time in Asia and returned home with a love of the foods there.

Abby Slutsky from America on July 28, 2020:

A lot of these recipes look great. I hope to try some soon. You did a nice job of discussing the different noodles.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2020:

Shauna, I couldn't do raw beef either (the smell would put the brakes on for me). I've eaten sushi a couple of times, but doing so required copious amounts of sake.

Love ya, but I don't think this is a topic I'll take up. You'll just have to pace yourself cuz I'm not going to stop writing.

Take care of yourself. It sounds like you're having the weather Bill and I (gladly) got rid of.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 28, 2020:

I don't know if there's anything I absolutely detest, but I would never even consider eating steak tartare. Raw beef? Are you kidding me? Actually, I wouldn't eat any raw meat or fish. Featuring any of those items would certainly squelch my appetite (and turn my stomach!).

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2020:

Shauna, thank you for your sweet comments. As for your pre-lunch hungries, I might have a solution. Tell me one food you absolutely detest...and I'll write about that (LOL).

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 28, 2020:

Linda, this is an excellent explanation of the various types of Asian noodles. I need to print this out and refer to it when I have a hankering for Chinese or Japanese food. I never know what to order because I don't know the difference between the various noodles or methods of cooking.

I'll be back to check out some of the recipes.

When am I going to learn to quit reading your posts before I've had lunch? I get so hungry looking at the photos!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2020:

Bill, if you don't eat them well... that just means there's more for the rest of us. You're missing out buddy.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2020:

Pamela there's such a big world of food full of so many amazing flavors and textures. Maybe now that you've learned about some of these you'll give them a try.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2020:

Does Hang know that you refer to her as your "diminutive personal chef?" That one made me chuckle. I kinda thought you'd enjoy this one.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 28, 2020:

Doris, you've made me a happy gal. Gosh, if you lived closer (and we didn't have this darned Covid thing going on) I'd take you shopping. Have you considered Amazon? You can shop in your pajamas.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 28, 2020:

It could be a new game show...NAME THAT NOODLE...hosted by our own Linda Noodle.

Sorry, I don't do Asian noodles. It's obviously a racist thing that I don't like to talk about. :)

Happy Tuesday! Rejoice in the coolness of this morning.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 28, 2020:

I really like Chinese food like Lo mein. I had no idea there was such a large varity of noodles from Asia. It is good to know all the details of these noodles and I appreciate this article, Linda.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 28, 2020:

I am counting which one of these I have not had in the last 2 months. Let me see; 0. And Covid time has got my diminutive personal chef to try western pasta with Asian dishes. So far so good.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on July 27, 2020:

Linda, my eyes popped out when I saw this article. So many noodles, so little time. LOL When Asian food first began to get popular in this country, practically every noodle dish was made with rice noodles or edible rice paper, at least where I live. Then they discovered wheat, and I've had to give up many of them.

I love ramen. My drugstore has a health food section, and they got in a supply of gluten-free ramen. I even bought one of those special ramen microwave cookers to take to work. But then when their supply ran out, they haven't carried it anymore. We have numerous Asian food stores here, so I usually keep a supply of glass vermicelli or noodles and even use them for spaghetti if I can't find gluten-free spaghetti. I have a package of little "birdnest" glass vermicelli in my kitchen right now. I soak a nest in a can of hot chicken broth and add some cooked chicken and a little hot sauce, top it with green onions and have an instant lunch. I'm getting a little bored, so I'm glad to know that soba and some of the other noodles are gluten-free. Thank you, double thank you!