Ingredients: The Wealth of Asian Noodles

Noodles of All Sorts

Noodles used in Asian cooking may seem confusing at first because there are so many different shapes, thickness and lengths. They are also made from different ingredients and come dried or fresh.

Dried noodles are very deceptive. Hard or wiry balls of noodles, as they cook and swell with the stock and glisten with the oil they develop a newfound persona. They keep indefinitely in a cool dark place.

Fresh noodles, used frequently in Asian cooking, come in various thicknesses. They require a very brief cooking time. All fresh noodles can be found in the refrigerated section of most Asian food stores and some supermarkets. They should be kept in the fridge and used within four days of purchase.

It is generally accepted that noodles originated in Asia and where being eaten by the Chinese by the 1st Century CE. They are rich in fibre and are good sources of protein. They come in a range of shapes and sizes but are always made long as a symbol of longevity. Noodles are usually made from flour, eggs and water, but can be enhanced with buckwheat flour, mung bean flour, potato flour and other starches and flours. It is best not to overcook noodles – their flavour is best appreciated if they are al dente.


Bean Thread Noodles – Cellophane, Soybean Vermicelli

Bean threads  have a number of names and are also called Bean Vermicelli, Cellophane Noodles and Soybean Vermicelli. They are fine, opaque white, fragile, string-like noodles made from mung beans or soya beans and tapioca starch. They are usually sold dried.

Before they are cooked, they look like stiff nylon fishing line, but they puff up crisp when dropped into hot oil. Alternatively they can be soaked in warm water, to soften, and then simmered in soups or stir fried with vegetables. They are sometimes plunged into boiling water and cooked until tender, for use in salads, spring rolls and soups.

Bean Threads have a firmer texture than rice noodles, once they are softened. They absorb stock easily. Note that a little goes a long way and will keep indefinitely, stored in an airtight container.

E-Fu Noodles

Thick egg noodles, usually bought pre-cooked, deep fried and packaged in crisp fragile cakes that still need to be boiled for several minutes before eating.

Hokkien Noodles

Fresh oiled and popular noodles made with egg and wheat flour. A favourite in stir-fries, they are sold fresh or vacuum packed. The paler the better – food dye is often used for colouring, so avoid bright yellow noodles.

Japanese Noodles – how to cook them

There is a set way of cooking noodles in Japan. They should always be al dente, cooked to the core but still quite firm. In noodle shops they are cooked in huge batches and reheated as needed; the chef puts a portion of noodles into a deep bamboo colander and dunks it into boiling water before serving. The cooking water from fresh soba is almost like a broth, milky white with all the starch. It is usually saved and offered to guests to mix with their dipping sauce and drink after the meal.

When cooking noodles, allow around 40 g per person. Many Japanese noodles come in little bundles, each one enough for one person for a dish made mostly of noodles. If you are cooking a dish where fewer noodles are required per person, eg a soup, use half that amount.

Like all pasta, Japanese noodles need to be cooked in plenty of boiling water. Bring a large saucepan to the boil. Gradually put in the noodles, stirring to stop them from sticking. Bring the water back to the boil, then when it starts to rise and foam, add a 0.25 – 0.5 cup of cold water to cool the outside of the noodles to the same temperature as the inside so that they cook evenly. Repeat this process 4 or 5 times until the noodles are al dente. Drain.

Rinse in a bowl full of cold water under a running tap, rubbing the noodles to get rid of the starch. Just before serving, put the noodles in a strainer and immerse them in boiling water to reheat.

See Basic Broth for a broth  in which to place cooked noodles for serving.

Lo Mein Noodles

These are delicious, clear Chinese and Vietnamese wheat flour noodles most commonly used in Chinese noodle cuisine. They come dried or fresh, and in various widths, flat and round, sold in packages of looped or curly bundles. Flat noodles are good for savoury dishes, and round for brothy dishes. Fresh noodles keep for around 4 days, or can be frozen. As a substitute use any thin noodle (fresh or dried) or very thin spaghetti.

Ramen Noodles

A basic wheat noodle, usually enhanced with egg, these are mostly bought dried. These are the noodles found in instant noodle and soup packs.

Rice Sheet Noodles

Fresh, supple, ribbon like noodles cut from a rice sheet. They are very satisfying and are served with everything from stir fries to soups.

Rice Stick Noodles

These are similar to Bean Thread Noodles, but broader, thicker and starchier. They are flat, dried, mildly flavoured white rice flour noodles. Soak in warm water to soften – as they are starchy, they are also sticky and the strands need to be separated before use. They come in a variety of thicknesses, usually broad and flat. They are sold in bundles and used in noodle stir-fries and soups. Their elasticity makes them a favourite for Pad Thai.

Rice Vermicelli Noodles

Small wirey looking noodles, usually sold dry. Rice vermicelli is white and folded into a block. Their thickness and widths vary. They are used in stir-fries and soups, and need to be soaked in hot water or boiled until soft and then drained well before use. If they are to be used as a garnish the dried vermicelli is deep-fried until it puffs up. Rice vermicelli separates and puffs up when deep-fried and a little goes a long way so always deep-fry in small quantities.

Rice vermicelli is delicious deep-fried and tossed with a sweet, sticky chilli sauce as a shared dish or appetiser. You can also break vermicelli into shards to drop into soups or broths to add substance. They also work well as a dessert, broken up, softened and tossed with syrup or sweetened coconut cream, and served with nuts or fruit.

Shanghai Noodles

Fresh, unruly and chewy wheat noodles generally sold fresh, uncooked and un-oiled. Good to use in oily dishes.

Some noodles, called Shanghai Noodles, are not a traditional noodle, these are 3mm thick yellow noodles, usually curled up in nests, which should be shaken loose before cooking. Spaghetti can be substituted for these.

Soba Noodles

Made with buckwheat flour, this earthy, narrow, flat, mushroom-coloured Japanese noodle is made from a combination of buckwheat flour and wheat flour. They have a nutty flavour and are usually sold dried. Traditionally they are served cold with a soy dipping sauce. They can also be used in broths.

Cha Soba Noodles are flavoured and coloured with green tea.

The cooking water from fresh soba is almost like a broth, milky white with all the starch. It is usually saved and offered to guests to mix with their dipping sauce and drink after the meal.

Somen Noodles

These are delicate, thin white needles, made from hard wheat and usually served chilled in summer, but can be served warm in a broth.

Udon Noodles

Thick and white, these noodles are simple, but delicious. They are the most commonly available Japanese noodles. Made from wheat flour, they come in various thicknesses, flat and round, fresh and dried. Solid and filling, they are most often used in soups.

Wheat Noodles

These pale, thin strands made without egg are usually sold dried. Versatile but a little blander then egg noodles, this variety is often the star of stir-fries. Often called Plain Noodles or Young Chun or Yang Chun noodles.

Plain Chinese Noodles

Wonton Noodles

A very thin Chinese noodle, like Angel Hair Pasta. Available fresh and dried, they are used traditionally in soups containing the dumplings from which they take their name.


Feel free to browse recipes from our Retro Recipes series. You might also like our Ingredient information here. Check out our easy Asian recipes here and here.

Browse some Asian recipes





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