Go to an Asian market or grocery and there’s bound to be an entire aisle (if not more) dedicated to noodles. That’s how important noodle is in Asian cooking.
It can be confusing enough for any Asian who’s just starting to learn to cook. For non-Asians, it can be a nightmare finding the right noodles for a dish. But there are tricks to get rid of a huge chunk of the confusion.
Forget the regional name of the noodle
So, you found a lovely noodle soup recipe and you’re sure you can make your kickass version IF ONLY you can find the right noodles in the grocery. The recipe says pho. You go to the grocery, there are so many noodles but you can’t find anything labeled “pho” and you go home crestfallen.
First of all, pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup, not the name of the noodle that goes into it. It’s rice noodles that you want, not pho noodles.
Most Asian noodles are made with starch and water. The starch can come from wheat, buckwheat, rice, potato, sweet potato and even mung beans.
Rice noodles from Thailand and Vietnam will have different regional names but are essentially the same. Yes, you can make kickass pho using rice noodles made in Thailand. In the same manner, you can cook pad Thai with rice noodles imported from Vietnam.
When shopping for Asian noodles, the trick is to check the ingredients list on the label (except in rare cases, there is an English translation for the ingredients). See what kind of starch was used. Even if you can’t pronounce the regional name of the noodle, if you know what starch was used to make it, you’re in a better position to judge if it’s a good choice for the dish you want to cook.
Why the right noodle matters
In practical terms, you can use most (but definitely not all) Asian noodles interchangeably because they are versatile enough to be cooked into a wide array of dishes especially stir fries and soups. But, if you’re aiming for a bit of authenticity, getting the right noodle matters a lot.
The texture, appearance and mouth feel of the noodle depends on the kind of starch used.
Rice noodles are white and opaque. Even after cooking, they remain white and opaque. They are sold flat or round. When round, they are sold thick or thin. When flat, they come in different widths and thicknesses. Kway teow, chow fun (or ho fun) and pho noodles are all made with rice starch.
Wheat and buckwheat noodles
Japanese somen and chuka men (the noodles used in ramen), Chinese lamian and mee pok… these are all wheat noodles.
Most egg noodles are wheat noodles but with egg added to the noodle dough. Be careful about judging egg noodles by their color. Just because they’re yellow doesn’t always mean they’re egg noodles. In some cases, the yellow hue is just food coloring.
Buckwheat noodles are made from the starchy edosperm of the grain-like seed of buckwheat, a plant that isn’t related to wheat at all. The Japanese noodle soba translates to buckwheat, its main ingredient.
Cellophane (glass) noodles
This class of noodles gets its name from a common visual characteristic. They are transparent and they stay transparent even after cooking. Made with potato, sweet potato, mung bean or tapioca starch, they may be thin or thick, clear or brownish as in the case of Korean dangmyeon.
Cellophane or glass noodles are often marketed as vermicelli. They are not the same as “rice vermicelli” which is white and opaque because it is made with rice starch. Rice vermicelli is bi hun in Hokkien and it spread around Asia with mostly similar-sounding names. For example, it is bee hon in Singapore, bihon in the Philippines, bihun in Malaysia and bun in Vietnam.