A staple in Asian cuisine with a long, delicious history
Noodles have been a staple in Asian cuisine for thousands of years, originating in China, not Italy as many believe, with the earliest empirical evidence of its existence dating back 4000 years. Evidence for this is a beautifully preserved bowl of thin yellow noodles that was found buried under three meters of sediment at the Lajia archaeological site in Northwestern China.
With so many varieties of noodles to choose from and so many different dishes to make with them, knowing your ramen from your rice noodles is essential for any foray into Asian cooking.
Chinese Egg Noodles
Made from wheat flour and eggs, these yellow noodles can be found fresh or dried and is used most often in China, Malaysia and Singapore. These noodles are also known as “chow mein” with the word ‘mein’ indicating that it has been made with wheat flour. A very quick dinner favourite is chow mein stir-fried with vegetables such as carrots, bean sprouts and cabbage, with chopped meat or seafood.
Originally a dish of yellow wheat noodles served in a meat or fish broth and flavoured with either soy sauce or miso, the word ‘ramen’ is now also used to refer to the noodle type. Ramen is characterised by its chewy, bouncy texture – from the wheat – and you can find it in the supermarket fresh, frozen or dried.
The ultimate in comfort food, ramen tastes best when served in broth, topped with either meat slices or minced meat. Add some chopped spring onions, thinly sliced onions, a hard-boiled egg and some seaweed and you have a dish fit for the gods.
Glass noodles are made from mung beans and are the quickest to cook. So quick, in fact, that they need only be soaked in hot water to be ready. Very thin and translucent, glass noodles are best known for their use in Thai noodle salads, in which seafood or meat pieces are tossed with whole Thai chillies, onions, lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and sugar.
Although they look similar, rice vermicelli is not to be confused with glass noodles. This type of noodle is commonly packaged in small, looped bundles, with a number of these bundles sold in one large pack, and known by different names include Mi Fen or Maifun (Mandarin), Sen Mee (Thai), Bun or Banh Hoi (Vietnamese) or Pancit Bihon (Tagalog).
In Singapore, rice vermicelli is known as “Bee Hoon” and is most often stir fried, sometimes in a curry powder-spiced dish with shrimp or pork, and vegetables. In Vietnam, these noodles are served cold and topped with grilled meat or wrapped in rice paper (like a spring roll) with shrimp, lettuce and fresh herbs. Rice vermicelli can also be served in a plain noodle soup and goes well with a sprinkling of fried anchovies or ikan billis.
These buckwheat noodles can be served chilled with dipping sauce or hot in a soup. Soba is usually thin, long and light brown in colour, but there are green tea variations, which are green in colour. For novelty sake, I prefer my soba cold, with its traditional dipping sauce called tsuyu – a mixture of dashi, sweetened soy sauce and mirin – and topped with chopped dried seaweed.
Medium Rice Noodles
A variety of flat noodles that are about the same size as Italian linguini, but much softer when cooked, you may know this as the noodles used in cooking Thai pad thai, Vietnamese pho or Malaysian hor fan. Singapore’s famous char kway teow can be made at home with either medium rice noodles or its thicker sibling, wide rice noodles.
Wide Rice Noodles
Exactly the same type of noodles as the above, but simply, a thicker version, these noodles are used in dishes such as Thailand’s pad see ew or pad kee mow (drunken noodles). Singapore’s char kway teow is made with these noodles, as is the Cantonese chow fun or hor fun – stir fried noodles in sauce thickened with corn-starch, mixed in with slices of beef and bean sprouts.
Udon is easily recognisable because it’s much thicker than other types of noodles, and a little goes a long way in filling the belly. Made from wheat flour and water, these noodles are also chewy, slippery and most often sold fresh. In its simplest form, udon is served piping hot in a salty broth and topped with scallions, tempura, deep fried prawns cooked in flour or thinly sliced beef.