Asian Noodle Breakdown

Brooke Newberry
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Noodles are the support and livelihood of Asian cuisine, and unlike Italian pasta, Asian noodles are manipulated by a variety of grains, colors, sizes, and textures, making them deliciously versatile.  There’s a noodle for every liking.

Ramen Noodles

The term “ramen” refers to an entire category of brothy noodle dishes, so don’t let the idea of that dorm-room instant noodle soup limit your intake.  “Real” ramen dishes are becoming increasingly popular throughout the US, and maybe one day the label ramen will exceed that of speedy microwavable consumption.  Sold both fresh and dried, although more commonly seen dried (in the US and Japan), these thin, wavy blocks of noodles turn from brittle to tender and slightly chewy when cooked.

Tip: Forget the seasoning packet in your Top Ramen.  Cook them in homemade or store bought chicken broth and top them with any protein (think shredded chicken, cooked egg, or shrimp).

Soba Noodles

Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat.  These hearty noodles are made from a blend of buckwheat flour and wheat flour that gives the noodles their grayish-brown color.  The more buckwheat used in the noodle-making, the stronger the flavor.  100% buckwheat soba noodles are also available for the gluten free generation.  Cooked soba is found soaking in warm broths, and cold or room temperature noodles are tossed in with salads or served with dipping sauces.  These are sold dried and should be rinsed after cooking due to their high starch level.

Egg Noodles AKA Chinese Egg Noodles

These egg noodles are not the same as the curly American egg noodles.  Sold in both fresh and dried form, egg noodles are a chewy, yellowy-colored noodle made with wheat flour and eggs.  These are the base of lo mein (and are also seen labeled as “lo mein noodles”) and chow mein. Find them dried or fresh.

Lo vs Chow:  lo mein simply means “tossed noodles,” while chow mein translates as “fried noodles.”  The difference in these two traditional Chinese dishes is the preparation of the noodles.  In chow mein, the noodles are stir-fried and placed to one side of the wok while the other ingredients take their turn to cook, and then are returned to their ingredient counterparts for a second fry.  Lo mein noodles are just cooked once and the dish relies on the soft cooked noodles to soak up its flavorful sauces. 

Udon Noodles

These are the Japan-born, twisty rope-like white noodles that are best if bought fresh versus dried.  Super starchy and thick, these noodles are typically presented in hearty stews or stir-fries.  Just like the buckwheat soba noodles, their strong starch element means that they should be rinsed after cooking.

Eat them like this: Sauté some garlic, ginger, scallion, and hot ground chilies. Add a couple ounces of ground pork and cook until pork in done.  Add a splash of rice wine, a splash of chicken stock, and a dash of both soy sauce and sesame oil. Cook the udon noodles (don’t add salt – udon is aready made with enough salt). Drain, rinse, and add to sauce.  Top with chopped cilantro.

Somen Noodles

These are the thin white noodles that are stretched long (the use of vegetable oil in the recipe makes this possible) and are usually served very cold with dipping sauces (soy based and peanut based dipping sauces are popular).  Traditionally these gangly Japanese noodles are chilled with ice in warmer months (the perfect summer noodle) and are sometimes seen is served in hot soups in winter.   Somen are basically Udon noodles stretched longer and cut thinner, and should also be rinsed after cooking.

Rice Noodles

Most popular throughout Southeast Asia, rice noodles are common in thin, threadlike form (often seen as labeled “vermicelli”) as well as in thicker, flatter character (sometimes referred to in the US as sheets or ribbons).  Because they’re made with rice flour, this variety is gluten free and has more of a softer texture.  Rice noodles are most often seen in stir-fries (think Pad Thai).  If you haven’t attempted homemade Pad Thai yet, what are you waiting for?  A challenge, yes.  Worth it – yes.

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