Debate rages over who first struck upon the idea of adding water to flour in a ratio of about a third to one, then fashioning the resulting mess into long skinny things that today we call noodles. Was it the Chinese? The Arabs maybe? Or the Italians, via Marco Polo, as many popularly believe? Compelling theories abound and no one knows 100 for sure where the world's first noodle meal was born; recent scholarship suggests it was in Persia. But one thing is for sure. They’ve been around for a very long time (an estimated 4000 years) and they don't look like going anywhere fast.
Arguably one of Asia’s most popular foods, you find noodles all over the region - particularly in China, where they’re a daily staple. They turn up in soups, salads, stir-fries, deep fries, stuffed inside flatbreads, spring rolls and fried pastries and incorporated into braises. They’re made from rice flour, buckwheat flour, rice flour, root vegetable and mung bean starches, tapioca flour and even seaweed. Methods of making are divergent - they can be extruded, hand cut, spun, flung, rolled or shaved from a block directly into boiling water.
Texturally, they vary from mouthfillingly chewy, to silky-smooth-slippery… and everything in between. They’re quick to cook, hard to mess up and universally loved. No really, they are. Have you actually met someone that didn't like a noodle? Us neither. With so many varieties of them though, the world of noodles can get confusing. Here’s the low down on the types you’re most likely to encounter at your local Asian supermarket, or when dining out.
This is the broadest - and potentially most confusing - category of noodles. It encompasses many dried and fresh iterations across every width and length imaginable. There are copious brands spawning inconsistent nomenclature so getting to grips with all the different types can be a curly proposition, particularly when it comes to Chinese wheat noodles. Here are the common types.
Very pale, thick, chewy wheat noodles from Japan. Commonly served hot in soup dishes (though they’re also served cold dishes in summer), they are also a good contender for stir fries. Their neutral flavour makes them a great foil for strong flavours like soy sauce and ginger. Find them, pre-cooked, in vacuum packs of 200 g portions. Before using they need to be refreshed by soaking for 2-3 minutes in a bowl with plenty of boiling water- use chop sticks to untangle them as they soften then drain them well before using.
Elegant, dried Japanese wheat noodles made very thin by stretching the dough - vegetable oil is used to facilitate this and originally the process was by hand. These days, somen are mainly machine-made. Once formed, the noodles are air dried. They’re commonly served cold in summer months, with a light dipping sauce based on katsuobushi (better known as bonito flakes) to the side although they’re also served in hot broth and in stir fries too. Sold in packs of individually bundled portions, you sometimes can even find coloured ones. For example, coloured green with matcha powder, yellow/orange with carrot or egg yolk or pink, from shiso oil.
Use somen in this Korean Spicy whelk salad
Very thin, long, dried Korean wheat noodles that are also called mak guksu. They’re used in both hot and cold dishes, particularly soups. They cook quickly, requiring about 3 minutes in boiling stock or water. As in China, Koreans associate long noodles such as these with longevity and it’s considered bad luck to cut them.
Somyeon form the heart of Spicy Korean noodles with cucumber and egg (bibim guksu)
A thick, creamy-coloured, chewy noodle that’s a good all-rounder for Chinese recipes, where a substantial noodle is called for. They’re particularly good in stir-fries and hearty soups. These are readily available, fresh or dried, from Asian food stores.
Use shanghai noodles to make Spicy pork noodles (Beijing zha jiang mian)
Also called ‘pulled’ noodles, these fresh Chinese noodles are made by the skilful twisting, stretching and folding of dough into strands, using the weight of the dough to form the noodles. The thickness of the noodles varies and depends on how many times the dough is folded. It’s unlikely you’ll be making your own this way as it’s not a simple technique to learn (but you can try our recipe for a knife-cut version), but they’re a common option in Northern Chinese noodle restaurants. They have a chewy texture thanks to the addition of lye water or bicarbonate of soda, which has an alkalising effect. Note that “mian,” or “noodle” in Chinese, can also be transliterated as ‘mein’ or ‘mien’.
Make knife-cut la mian and use in this dish of hand-made noodles with mustard greens, vinegar and chilli
Sometimes called ‘ribbon’ noodles, these are a broad, flat dried Chinese noodle. and, depending on the brand, they can have slightly frilly edges. Easily found in Chinese food stores, they’re a commercial emulation of northern Chinese knife-cut noodles, or dao xioa mian, made by hand in China and used fresh. You can find fresh knife-cut noodles in restaurants serving northern Chinese fare.
A Korean noodle celebrated for it’s extreme chewiness, these are made from wheat flour and corn starch and are the star ingredient of a cold dish that has the same name. In it, the noodles are served cold with a variety of finely sliced raw vegetables, boiled egg and a sweet and spicy sauce spiked with plenty of gochujang. Find jjolmyeon frozen, at Korean food stores. Thaw them at room temperature, or in the fridge overnight. They require a thorough rinsing immediately after cooking, to cool them quickly and get rid of excess starch.
Egg and alkalised noodles
These noodles are all wheat based and either contain egg (or egg colouring), or look like they do, thanks to the addition of an agent that raises the pH levels, such as lye water. The higher alkaline level encourages greater water absorption into the flour and strengthens the flour’s proteins, resulting in a firmer bite when noodles are cooked. The higher the flour content of the flour, the chewier is the cooked noodle. Higher pH also releases yellow pigments in the flour, which are colourless when pH is neutral. The resulting golden hue is therefore, in this type of noodle, not from the addition of egg, although they’re often mistaken for, and lumped together with, egg noodles.
A fresh, chewy noodle with a particularly robust texture and deep yellow colour thanks to the presence of alkaline agents, these resemble thick, yellow spaghetti. Popular in Singapore and Malaysia, they’re the basis of famous hawker dishes such as Hokkien mee, curry mee and loh mee. Buy them loose-packed as opposed to vacuumed packed as these are invariably fresher. They just require a quick blanching in boiling water (about 1 minute) before being added to stir-fries or soup dishes.
Use Hokkien noodles in this Prawn noodle soup (Penang Hokkien mee)
A Japanese wheat noodle that started life in China, fresh ramen are thin and very long, with a pronounced chew and yellow colour. Their toothsome texture comes from the addition of alkaline salts. The original alkalising agent was kansui, water that’s rich in the minerals sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate; these days agents such as lye water are commonly used and can give fresh ramen a slightly funky smell. Ramen is similar to saang mian, a smooth, chewy, slightly soapy-tasting noodle found in Hong Kong and often eaten plain or dressed with a little sesame oil. Buy ramen either fresh (in bags in the refrigerated section of an Asian food store) or dried, in plastic or cellophane packs. They come in a variety of sizes, although most tend toward thinness.
Use to make this miso-based ramen bowl from Sapporo, the capital of Japan's most northerly island.
With a name that means, literally, ‘thin’ noodles, these spaghetti-like noodles actually come in a variety of forms and thicknesses. Maybe the most common are ‘oil’ noodles, which you find, complete with an oily sheen, fresh and pre-cooked in the refrigerator section of Asian food stores. Medium-thick, these have been treated with lye water, or alkaline salts, to give both a distinctive texture (best described as ‘chewy’ and ‘springy’) and a pronounced yellow colour. They can be used in soups, stir-fries and even, when blanched and refreshed, in salads such as Sichuan liang mian, where the cooked noodles are coated in a zingy sesame paste sauce. Then there are the finer, flatter type of you mian, popularly known as ‘wonton’ or ‘Hong Kong’ noodles. These fresh egg noodles have a slightly floury appearance from a light cornstarch coating and require a brief blanching in boiling water before using. Their firm texture makes them a contender for stir fries (such as chow mein), soups and fried in loose cakes. There is also a wider type of wonton noodle which is good for hearty soups and as an accompaniment for meaty, braised dishes. Their colour ranges from light to bright yellow- the latter will most like have been coloured artificially so do check labels.
Similar to Hong Kong noodles, but thicker, this long noodle can be purchased either fresh or dried. Their yellow colour comes from alkalisation, not egg, and they have a dense, chewy texture that takes well to extended cooking and absorbing robust flavours.
Also called E-fu noodles, these Cantonese wheat flour noodles are pale golden from the use of soda water (or other alkalising agent) in their manufacture. Purchased dried, in large, fried tangled cakes, they’re round, very long and of medium thickness. When cooked they have a chewy-spongy texture. Also called ‘longevity’ noodles and popularly served on birthdays, they’re first boiled before being added to stir-fries, soups or salads.
Buckwheat flour noodles
Buckwheat flour is nutritious, containing plenty of fibre, protein and high levels of manganese. It has an appealingly nutty and earthy flavour. Noodles made using buckwheat flour are popular in Korea and Japan. Many commercial iterations contain wheat flour as well as buckwheat, as buckwheat flour lacks gluten and gluten is important for the strength of the noodle. Proportions of flours can vary and the higher the percentage of buckwheat, the better the quality; check labels for ingredient information.
Taking their name from the Japanese name for buckwheat, light brown soba noodles are thin and, like many Japanese noodles, are served cold in summer months and make a great salad ingredient. They’re also served hot, either in broth, or drained and with a dipping sauce on the side. Look for dried soba noodles in Asian, Japanese or health food stores.
Paler brown than soba, these dried Korean noodles are made from a combination of buckwheat flour and sweet potato starch (although arrowroot, potato or pea starch are also used). Their name translates as ‘cold noodles,’ hinting at their popular use in cold soups -although they are also used in hot dishes too. They have a sheen, not unlike plastic and are often cut into manageable lengths before serving (they’re very long); in texture, they’re chewy and slightly jelly-like.
Try these Korean noodles in this Spicy cold buckwheat noodle salad (bibim naengmyeon)
A Korean dried noodle made from varieties of acorn flour and a combination of grain flours, including buckwheat. The thickness of spaghetti, they are used in both hot and cold dishes; they’re good in any recipe where you’d use soba. There’s also a Japanese version, donguru-men, which contains less acorn flour than its Korean counterpart. Acorns are considered a health food in Korea and the best dotori goksu are the ones with the highest percentage of acorn flour- over 30 per cent is good. These noodles don't take long to cook (3-4 minutes) and they have a nutty, sweetish flavour.
Another large category of noodle, rice noodles come in a range of shapes and sizes, both fresh and dried. They’re made from rice flour and water and their soft texture and mild flavour make them the perfect vehicle for just about any suite of flavours, whether bold or subtle. Culinarily, they’re used across the gamut - in everything from salads to soups to stir-fries, as well as an accompaniment to curries and grills. They cook incredibly quickly and some iterations just need soaking, not cooking. Noodles made with 100 per cent rice flour are gluten-free.
Bee hoon to the Malays, mie fen in Chinese, sen mee in Thai and bahn hoi for the Vietnamese, this popular thin, dried rice noodle is not to be confused with bean thread noodles, which they resemble (i.e. they’re fine, brittle and packaged in bundles). Like bean thread or cellophane noodles, they have a particularly neutral flavour. Find them at any Asian food store and use them in soups, salads and stir-fries, as a base for curries and other sauce-y dishes and an accompaniment to grilled meats such as Vietnamese bun cha. Soak them in boiling water for 6-7 minutes then briefly boil them (a minute is enough), before using. They can also be deep-fried from raw, for use as a crunchy garnish or to form crunchy nests.
Rice vermicelli are the key ingredient in Pad mee (stir-fried vermicelli with bean curd)
Rice stick noodles
A dried rice noodle that’s perhaps most famous as the noodle used in pad Thai. Although on the thin side, it does come in a few different widths, the widest being similar to fettuccine. When cooked, rice stick noodles are elastic and strong, making them a good candidate for stir-frying as they won't break apart. To use, they first require soaking in hot water to soften them, with time-varying amongst brands. If you’re serving them straight up in boiling soup or throwing them into a stir-fry for further cooking, use them straight from soaking. If you want softer noodles, boil them for 2-3 minutes after soaking.
Use in this Beef pad thai
Also called he fen, these are a fresh, flat, wide noodle that is popular in Cantonese cuisine. They’re great for stir-frying but are also used in soup dishes. Sold in plastic bags, try to buy ones that haven't been refrigerated, as this hardens their texture and they’ll break when they’re cooking. They don’t need to be pre-cooked but benefit from a quick rinsing in boiling water to make sure all the strands are separated, before adding them to a wok or soup pot. In Malaysia, they’re called kway teow and are about 1cm wide. There, and in Singapore, they lend their name to the famous stir-fried dish char kway teow. A rounded version is used in laksa lemak (coconut laksa).
Use fresh flat rice noodles in this Char kway teow
This family of (mainly) dried noodle is translucent, with a polished sheen that makes them resemble plastic in their raw state. They’re made using vegetable starches, not flour, and the vegetables range from mung bean, cassava, potato, sweet potato and tapioca to yams. They’re easy to use, but require soaking in hot water to soften them first. Note that these types of noodles are gluten-free.
Bean thread noodles
Also called cellophane or glass noodles, these extremely fine, tough noodles are made from water and bean starch and are sold in wiry, dried bundles. They must be soaked in water until they soften before cooking; boiling or stir-frying are the usual methods although sometimes they are deep-fried. They’re used across Asia in myriad dishes, from spring roll stuffings to stir-fries to soups to salads. They absorb flavours and liquid well and require lots of sauce/dressing to truely shine. You might want to cut them after soaking as they’re very long and can be unwieldy to cook and eat.
Use in this recipe for Hanoi crisp parcels with vermicelli salad (bun nem ran)
These Korean noodles look like a thicker version of transparent bean thread vermicelli although they are a different colour (tan-hued) and are thicker, tougher and longer. They’re made using sweet potato starch and are the noodle you find in japchae (a stir fry of sesame oil, beef, vegetables, soy and sugar). Before use, they require soaking in water before cooking (check the packet details as times can vary between brands) then rinsed under cold water. Find them at any Korean food store. Note that there are also Chinese versions, used in Sichuan cooking ad they’re much wider, resembling brownish, clear fettucine.
Use in this quick Japchae, ready in less than 30 minutes
In Japanese, the name of these translucent noodles means “spring rain.” In looks they’re similar to bean thread vermicelli but thicker and, while originally made from bean starch, nowadays they’re most commonly made from potato or sweet potato starch. In Japan, they’re also called ‘salad noodles’ which speaks to their popular use in cold dishes. They’re also a favourite for hot pots, as they don't absorb a lot of liquid when cooked, unlike other noodles. To use, they require soaking first in hot water for 5 minutes then briefly cooking them (1-2 minutes) in boiling water or stock.
Harusame are used to add texture to Miso Barramundi lettuce cups
Used in some Vietnamese dishes, these chewy, translucent noodles are made using tapioca flour, or a mixture of tapioca and rice flour. Find them fresh in plastic bags in the refrigerator section of Asian supermarkets. Thick ones will be labelled bánh canh, while thinner ones are called hu tieu, after the Vietnamese/Cambodian soup noodle dish that features them. You’ll also find them dried, labelled ‘tapioca stick noodle’. Fresh noodles need rinsing in boiling water to separate strands before using. Dried ones require a brief simmering. There’s a similar noodle, originally Cantonese and called lai fun; these short and thick dried noodles are made from rice flour and/or tapioca flour and you’ll find these dried or fresh and sometimes labelled “bun bo Hue” noodles.
Made from edible seaweed and native to Japan, these thin, clear ‘noodles’ are gaining lots of attention from the health-conscious. They are nutrient rich (particularly in iodine), are fat and gluten free, virtually carbohydrate free and contain few calories. Lacking any real flavour of their own, they take on the taste of whatever they are added to and are popular in soup, salad and stir-fry dishes. They require no cooking but do need a good rinse before adding them to a recipe. Find them in the health food section of supermarkets or at health food stores.
These aren’t noodles in the traditional sense - they’re more an extruded ‘paste’ in squiggly form. Thin and gelatinous, they’re made from the corm of the konnyaku plant, also known as devil’s tongue yam. ‘Shiratiki’ means ‘white waterfall’, after the ethereal appearance of the noodles. They’re composed of water and a water-soluble fibre called glucomannan, are low in carbs, have zero calories and are gluten-free. They’re most commonly found in wet form, packaged in water inside sausage-like plastic tubes. Once opened they require a thorough rinsing as they have a distinctive smell that can be borderline unpleasant if you’re not used to it. They’re most associated with sukiyaki, a one-pot dish that’s served communally at the table. Ito konnyaku are thicker version of shirataki.
Noodles made by blending some tofu with shirataki, resulting in a bouncier, more slippery noodle than true shirataki. A favourite of low-carb dieters, they come in a variety of shapes that mimics traditional pasta such as spaghetti, angel hair and fettuccine. Look for them in the refrigerator section of health food stores. They’re versatile, working well across all Asian noodles recipes, including soups, salads and stir-fries. They require rinsing and a thorough drying before being cooked for long enough to just heat them through.
Sticky sweet oyster sauce, bright holy basil, a hit of chilli - just try and make a mediocre version of this Bangkok-in-a-bowl street food classic. Pickled bean sprouts take these noodles to the next level.
Strictly speaking, this dish should be made using a whole chicken, cut into small pieces though the bone. This is how they like their bird in Xinjiang in the rugged northwest of China, where textures and flavours are bold and in-your-face. But using marylands as your starting point makes cutting the meat up easier. These rustic homemade noodles are uber simple to make; you can’t really go wrong. If yours turn out a bit irregular, that’s part of their charm. You can always substitute any thick, flat, dried wheat noodle you find in a Chinese grocer.
There are many versions of this Burmese dish that is, at it’s heart, really quite simple and features an intriguing combo of tomatoes, chicken, aromatics, fish sauce and peanuts. If you like, you could poach a whole chicken in chicken stock, shred the meat and add that to the sauce at the end of cooking to heat through, instead of using thigh fillets. With that option, you then have a delicious chicken stock, which you can serve with the noodle dish to the side. Win win!