Talk about Asian noodles and you're going to need to be more specific. In fact, there's so much variety under this umbrella category it's unfair to even lump them all together. Flat, round, thick, thin, wheat, rice, buckwheat, starch - there are so many types and so many ways to use them.
"The world of noodles is its own world," says cookbook author Hetty McKinnon, whose new book, "To Asia, With Love," includes a chapter devoted to noodles. "There are lots of different noodles that can satisfy you in different ways."
Fellow cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, author of "Vietnamese Food Any Day," notes that the diversity of Asian noodles is partly attributable to local tastes and regional dishes. Ingredient availability is another factor, such as the prevalence of rice noodles (and paper) in Vietnamese cuisine. And some noodles, due to their shape and makeup, are better suited to some dishes than others, Nguyen says.
If you're looking for guidance on how to differentiate between the options, and how best to prep and use them, this guide is for you.
First, you need to know where to look. The biggest selection will be on a dry goods aisle, especially at most chain supermarkets. At Asian markets, you'll need to expand your search depending on what you want. You can find noodles that are sold fresh, in the refrigerated case, including some types of rice, egg, ramen and wheat. In the freezer aisle, you may come across udon. Nguyen says noodles you buy fresh can also be frozen once you get home.
Be sure to read the labels, particularly the ingredient list, and examine what you're buying. Vermicelli can be used to refer to noodles made with rice or mung bean starch. Glass noodles might describe those made with sweet potato or mung bean starches. Especially in a typical grocery store, labels may be more generic, Nguyen says, with such names as "rice sticks" or "Chinese noodles."
Particularly if you've made the effort to get to a specialty market, don't be afraid to stock up. Dried noodles will last indefinitely, and frozen ones for many months, too.
Here's a brief rundown of some of your options, a good number of which are gluten-free and vegan.
McKinnon says she's been surprised how often people conflate pasta with noodles, but these golden yellow noodles made with egg and wheat are one of the more similar Asian equivalents to the Italian staple. Find them fresh or dried, with a number of different names and sizes, including lo mein, chow mein and wonton (thick or thin). They have a nice chew to them. Egg noodles are very versatile and can go in soups and salads or be fried, McKinnon says.
— Ramen noodles: Japan has made an art of these fresh, chewy wheat noodles served with broth and toppings. They can be sold fresh or frozen. Outside of a restaurant setting, many of us are familiar with the dorm-room-staple dried instant noodles of the same name, sold with flavoring packets and oil. But don't swear them off. You can follow the lead of McKinnon and many others by ditching the extras and just keeping the noodles to use in your own soups and broths. McKinnon says ramen noodles are great pan-fried, and Nguyen says some cold salads are made with them as well.
— Rice noodles: The multitude of rice noodles alone can make your head spin. They range from thin, round vermicelli to wide, flat planks akin to pappardelle. They're also very versatile, appearing in soups, salads and stir-fries. Nguyen says that rice noodles are neutral in flavor, meaning they can go either direction flavor-wise, from lighter broths all the way to bolder Thai dishes made with a rich coconut sauce. Don't be alarmed if you see tapioca on the ingredients of rice noodles, which Nguyen says is added for stability, as they can be fragile in both dried and cooked forms. They'll still be gluten-free and vegan either way.
— Soba noodles: These thin, round noodles are made from gluten-free buckwheat, though some brands include wheat in the mix, which would render them unsuitable for those with gluten-free needs. McKinnon calls soba "one of my favorite noodles of all time." They're great for cold salads, she says, and can fall apart more when served warm. Cool them in the fridge or an ice bath before using to help firm up the starches. Nguyen says buckwheat noodles absorb sauces well and, thanks to the somewhat nutty flavor, can hold their own against bold flavors, such as green onion.
— Somen noodles: Don't confuse these with soba or ramen. Somen are very thin (more akin to vermicelli), white and made of wheat. They're vegan. While they're traditionally served cold with a dashi dipping sauce, McKinnon uses them in soups as well.
— Glass noodles: The term "glass noodles" can refer to two different noodles made with root starches, both of which are vegan and gluten-free. The type made with sweet potato starch may also be labeled as sweet potato noodles or Korean glass noodles, McKinnon says. They're what you find in japchae, a Korean stir-fry. Mung bean vermicelli (or cellophane noodles, bean threads, bean thread noodles) are made from mung bean starch, and McKinnon recommends them for salads, soups and braised dishes. Glass noodles can serve as a filler in Vietnamese rolls, according to Nguyen. As you might guess, both types of noodles turn just about clear when cooked. They are sturdy with a robust chew and "absorb flavor like little sponges," Nguyen says, noting that starch-based noodles tend to have a bouncier bite than wheat-based ones.
— Udon noodles: These thick, white wheat noodles are often in soups, though McKinnon says they can be stir-fried, too. She recommends going for fresh noodles that are either frozen or vacuum-sealed. Dried, straight noodles labeled as udon "are not the real deal and will give you a very different finish." Nguyen says she's also had cold salads made with udon, with the wheat soaking up the sauce: "It totally worked."
— Wheat noodles: Simply made of wheat and water, these vegan noodles have "a springy texture and are a good 'any occasion' noodle that can be adapted to most dishes, particularly stir-fries or soups," McKinnon writes in the book. She adds that they're also a good substitute for recipes that may call for ramen noodles. Nguyen likes thicker wheat noodles pan-fried, too. Find wheat noodles fresh or dried.
— Prep tips. McKinnon recommends reading the instructions on whatever noodle you purchase, as the advice can vary by brand even for the same variety. That's just a start, though. Nguyen is less wedded to what the package says. "They don't know what you're going to be doing with the noodle," she says. "You gotta test it yourself."
If the noodles are going to be subjected to additional heat after boiling, such as in a soup or stir-fry, you may want to slightly undercook them - similar to the al dente conventional wisdom about pasta - so that they don't veer into mushiness in the finished dish. Even noodles that you plan to pan-fry into a crispy "noodle pillow," as Nguyen puts it, before adding toppings can stand to be a little underdone. (Not all recipes require cooking, as some call for the noodles to be soaked first instead.) Keep in mind that noodles can continue to absorb moisture, so, for example, don't let your udon or ramen sit around too long in broth lest you end up with wet noodles instead of soup.
McKinnon and Nguyen offer a couple of strategies for making sure noodles don't clump together while you wait to add them to a recipe. One tip Nguyen shares is that when she drains the noodles she places a small cup in the center of the colander, which keeps them from sticking together in the middle. Rinse the noodles under cold running water once or twice and drain. If you're waiting awhile to use them (such as for a cold salad), you can let them hang out in an ice bath, or toss them with oil and refrigerate. For shorter waits, you may choose to just leave the noodles in the colander, and if you find they've adhered to one another, simply run them back under cold water, Nguyen says.
— Be ready to experiment. Look through McKinnon's book and you'll find noodles given the full cross-cultural treatment, including cacio e pepe udon and shawarma "Singapore" noodles made with rice vermicelli. "I kind of think of them as a blank canvas," she says.
And don't be afraid to swap noodle types depending on availability or dietary needs. "Go for it," Nguyen says, giving examples of people who have made her vermicelli bowls with pad thai-size noodles or her pho with vermicelli. Just be aware you may need to adjust the cooking time or method and could end up with a different, if still equally enjoyable, result.