By Diana Ng and Gabriel Hall
Nothing warms you up or comforts you quite like a bowl or of noodles. Whether it’s a bowl of chewy ramen noodles in a thick tonkotsu soup or a steamy bowl of thinly shaved beef pho with basil and lime on top, noodles really are teh spice of life.
There are countless delicious Asian noodle dishes, and it’s not always easy to try and re-create them at home. Here’s a beginner’s guide to the various types of popular noodles you can find at the grocery store and how to use them!
Ramen emerged as a uniquely Japanese creation after World War II, when rice was scarce and American imports of wheat created the opportunity to catered to Japanese tastes. After Japan abandoned its isolationist policies in 1858, “Chu-ka soba” (Chinese Style Noodles) were introduced, and eventually morphed into the modern ramen noodle.
Ramen noodles are served in hot pork or chicken broth with soy or miso, and meats and vegetables. The most important quality of a ramen noodle is the texture, according to Calgary’s Darren McLean, chef and owner of Shokunin.
“I like noodles a little firmer. That’s the beauty of Asian noodles; there are different textures for different styles of soup,” he sayd. “With pho, the noodles are light and the broths are light, so it acts as more of a flavour conduit. It’s important to use the right noodle for the right broth or dish.”
Also known as yi mein, this type of egg and wheat noodle is used almost exclusively in Cantonese cuisine. The dough is fried, and then dried before being packaged. To prepare, the noodles are boiled, and then are used in soups, stir-frys, or in a thick seafood or vegetable sauce.
Note: Pre-boil these noodles quickly before preparing them to remove excess oil.
Udon and Soba
In Japan, one either prefers ramen or leans towards the udon and soba camp.
Udon’s thickness makes it extremely versatile to be used hot in broth, fried or even served cold with sauce – soba is popular served in both light and heavy broths. Soba was one of the earliest noodles brought over to Japan from China, with some stories placing it as early as 700 AD. Although soba is synonymous with buckwheat, it’s often a mix of buckwheat (which is a grass, not a grain) and other types of wheat.
Won Ton Noodles
Invented in the Qing dynasty, won ton noodles have become a staple in the Cantonese diet of Hong Kong.
Although the name refers to a dish of pork and shrimp dumplings with noodles, the type of noodles used is very specific to the dish. Made with eggs (duck eggs, traditionally), flour and lye water, the noodles are thin, but almost bouncy in texture. Another use of the noodles is in lo mein, a mixed noodle dish with oyster sauce, green onions and ginger.
Tip: When cooking with won ton noodles, it’s important to pre-cook them to remove the excess lye water in the noodles.
Shou lai mein (hand-pulled noodle) is arguably the first instance of noodles in the world.
A preserved bowl of millet-based noodles over 4,000 years old was found in north-western China. This method of preserving grains as flour and its subsequent processing into a foodstuff, quickly spread. As the noodle reached other regions, the types of grain, thickness, lengths, and even the textures changed to suit local preferences.
Dried Rice Sticks (Bee Hoon)
Most prominent in east and southeast Asia, rice noodles are one of the most recognized type of noodles when it comes to Asian cuisine.
They are believed to have been around since the Qin dynasty, with their dried form recorded around the Jin dynasty when people fled the north for stability in the south. Dried rice noodles were said to have been invented for easy travel; another story is Chinese people migrating to the south missed their wheat-based noodles and had to make do with rice, the local crop.
There are many variations of rice sticks, each of a different width and shape, and some with the incorporation of tapioca (which builds structure and makes for a heftier noodle) or cornstarch.
Also known as bún in Vietnamese cuisine and bihon in Filipino cuisine, vermicelli are thin and round, and used in an array of dishes from stir-frys to soups to salads topped with vegetables, meats and sauces.
Vietnam’s banh canh, China’s lai fun or mi xian and Philippines’ luglug are all thicker and chewier variations on the round and thin rice noodle – they tend to have a sturdier texture as well. In addition to dried, round rice noodles, there are wider, flat varieties like the kind used in pho. They are also used in pad Thai, a stir-fried Thai dish of tofu, egg, tamarind, fish sauce, and other spices.
In Chinese cooking, these broad noodles are used in soups and different types of stir-frys. Phat si-io or pad see ew, a Chinese-influenced Thai stir-fried dish with soy sauce, broccoli, egg and meat, also uses this style of noodle. In Singaporean cuisine, this kind of noodle lends itself to char kway teow, a stir-fried rice noodle dish.
Few dishes can help you through the symptoms of a cold, or simply give you that comforting feel like pho does.
This Vietnamese dish is believed to have originated in the early 20th century in northern Vietnam as street food. The common version today consists of a rich meat stock made with beef bones, charred onions and spices, and served with cuts of meat and herbs.
Egg and Cellophane Noodles
While rice is the foundation of the Asian diet and lends itself to countless permutations from noodles to cakes, other plants are often made into noodles for different applications. Cellophane noodles – clear noodles made with starch other than rice – can be produced from mung beans, yams, and potatoes, among other plants.
In order to enhance the texture in their noodles, some chefs opt to use the protein in eggs in addition to alkaline water to help create a firm, chewy texture, and to help prevent the noodles from becoming soggy in broth. Chicken and duck eggs produce different results, with the latter providing additional texture.