Noodles have found a fond home in cuisines spanning the globe, and each of these wildly different starchy strands of happiness stamp the culture of their homeland firmly upon dishes made from them. In the west, it is the Italians who push conspicuously to the front with their stunningly diverse array of pasta. Not to be outdone are the Germans and surrounding nations with their delightfully squiggly little noodle-dumpling hybrids, spaetzle. Many other nations too have variations upon a similar theme, and if you include starchy dumplings into the affray, then the list expands considerably - with delightful little numbers along the lines of Jewish matzo balls.
However, when it comes down to the sheer volume of diversity, and the cunning inventiveness of using a multitude of raw ingredients to make the noodles themselves, nobody can hold a candle to Asia - the genuine noodle bowl of the world. Just about every Asian nation has at least one style of noodle that is uniquely their own and many have several. While western noodles overwhelmingly use wheat as the most popular base ingredient, Asian cuisines have not been afraid to experiment with a wide variety of wildly diverse foods to create noodle heaven. Try this short list on for size; Arrowroot is used to make translucent noodles which are eaten in China for mostly medicinal purposes. Mung bean starch is used to make wonderful noodles in an array of countries, such as the Japanese harusame, the Thai woon sen, the Vietnamese mien, the Burmese kyasan, the Chinese bi fun, and the list goes on. Buckwheat is used in Japan to make the dense and delicious soba noodles. Starchy root vegetables are also used, such as sweet potatoes in the Korean dang myun and devil's taro in the Japanese devil's tongue noodles, or shirataki.
But of course, there is no ingredient eaten in Asia that is as important, or ubiquitous as rice. You may have guessed that many Asian cuisines harness rice to make noodles, and you would be right on the money.
How they are made
Rice noodles can be found in a wide variety of shapes and sizes; thick or thin, flat or round, long and short. They can be sold fresh or dried, and are eaten with relish and gusto in just about every east Asian nation. The manufacture of rice noodles is fairly uniform across Asia, with a few isolated exceptions. Generally, rice is milled to a fine flour, then mixed with water to form a dough. The dough is pressed into large, flat, silken sheets, and steamed until fully cooked. The noodle sheets are cooled, then cut into the desired shape and size, and either packed fresh for immediate sale, or dried and packaged for extended storage. Because rice noodles are cooked as they are made, there is no need to 'cook' them before use like you would with wheat or egg noodles. If they are dried you will need to soften them in hot water, but from there, rice noodles can be added straight away to a soup, salad or stir fry.
Every shape and size
Let's start with the thinnest and work our way up. Rice vermicelli are among the most popular types of rice noodles, and like their Italian namesake are very slender indeed - only a millimetre or two wide and perfectly round. Because they are so thin, rice vermicelli are always sold dried as fresh vermicelli would stick together into an impossibly gluey mess. Among the more famous dishes using rice vermicelli is the delicious Thai dish, pad Thai and the addictive Vietnamese rice paper rolls, goi cuon.
Next up in size are thin, round rice noodles - more or less the same size as spaghetti. These are available fresh or dried and will often be found in soups, or a fabulous Vietnamese salad.
Still round, but wider again are noodles known as sen lek in Thailand. These are about 5mm wide, and aside from their pale hue they strongly resemble Chinese hokkien noodles. These are available both fresh and dried.
Flat rice noodles range from the very thin (about 3mm wide) up to the very wide indeed - flat sheets similar in size to lasagne sheets, with varying sizes in between. All these noodles are available both fresh and dried with the exception of the large flat sheets which I have only seen sold in their fresh state, wrapped up in bouncy parcels with a thin film of vegetable oil preventing the layers from sticking together. Generally, these flat sheets are used so you can cut your noodles to whatever width you choose. The widest pre-cut flat noodles have a width of between 2 and 3cm and are known as sen yai in Thai and hor fun in Cantonese. These babies are the backbone of perhaps the most luscious noodle dish in the world, the mighty Malaysian char kway teow - a smoky-flavoured stir fry sticky with thick, sweet soy sauce and punctuated by fresh clams, Chinese lap cheong sausage and crunchy bean sprouts.
Also of note, though themselves not strictly noodles are rice paper sheets, known as bahn tran in Vietnamese. These are always sold dried, in packs of 50 or so sheets. They are generally round in shape - or in rarer instances square, and can be found in sizes from 10 - 30cm. They are wafer thin and present an attractive cross-hatch pattern left by the bamboo mold used in their manufacture. To use, simply soak individual sheets in warm to hot water for a few minutes, after which they will be soft and pliable, and ready to roll up into fresh spring rolls.
Selection, storage and preparation
Although most types of rice noodles are available in their fresh state, the ability to lay your hands on some will sadly be limited by your proximity to a good Chinatown. Even better would be to travel to an expat Vietnamese community, who seem to be the most enthusiastic manufacturers of fresh rice noodles. If these options aren't viable, try asking at a local Asian grocery if fresh rice noodles are available, or if they can order some for you.
Choose your fresh rice noodles according to the dish you are preparing. Thin round noodles in soups, Vietnamese salads or fresh rice paper rolls. The fatter round noodles I love in soups. Thin, flat noodles for soups and stir fries. Wider ribbon noddles are best for fried noodle dishes, or if available, grab the flat sheets and cut them to whatever size you like.
Fresh rice noodles are always sold at room temperature, and this should give you a clue as to the best way to store them. Try not, if at all possible, to store them in the fridge as cold temperatures causes the noodles to turn hard and brittle - with a tendency to snap. Sadly though, when kept at room temperature they have a very short shelf life indeed - only a matter of 2 or 3 days, after which they will begin to turn mouldy. If you really need to store them for a longer period, keep them in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
To use, soak the noodles in warm water for just a minute or two to soften them a little and separate the strands. They can then be drained and added to your recipe. If using fridge-cold or defrosted noodles, you will need to soak them in slightly hotter (but not boiling) water, and for a few minutes longer than you would with room temperature noodles. Feel them after they have soaked for a few minutes. When they are soft and pliable - like they were when you bought them, then they are ready to use.
Dried rice noodles are another matter entirely. They are much more widely available - in fact, you may even find them nestled in the aisles of your local supermarket. However for the best selection a trip to your local Asian market is, as always, the best choice. Being dried, storage is no major pain - they will last in the pantry virtually indefinitely. I always keep a couple of differently shaped dried rice noodles in my pantry, meaning a filling and delicious noodle dish is only ever a matter of minutes away.
Quite often, dried rice noodles are sold under the name rice sticks. This can be a little confusing, as Chinese 'rice sticks' are the thinnest vermicelli type, while their Vietnamese brethren are the mid-size flat variety.
To prepare dried rice noodles for use, place them in a heat proof bowl, then cover them entirely with boiling water. The amount of time it takes to rehydrate the noodles is dependent on their shape. Vermicelli will only take 1 minute or so, while wider ribbons can take up to 7 or 8 minutes. Test by lifting a strand out and biting into it. If it is at all hard or chalky, then they need a few minutes more. Try not to over soak dried rice noodles, as they can end up soft and mushy when you cook them later - especially in fried noodle dishes. When the noodles are softened enough, drain them in a sieve or colander and immediately run them under cold water to stop them softening any more. Shake away any excess water and you are ready to proceed with your recipe.
So, if you have managed to find yourself a pack of rice noodles, I'll bet you are champing at the bit to test them out in a recipe. The following number is one of my favourites which I make at home all the time. It is nothing grand or glamorous - just a simple to prepare, tasty and nourishing dish that is perfect for a lazy Sunday dinner. For this dish, I like to use flat ribbon noodles about 1cm (1/2 inch-ish) wide. As always, don't be bound to the list of ingredients that follows. Don't feel like pork? Use chicken or prawns instead. Vegetarian? Use firm tofu and egg. You get the idea.
Stir fried rice noodles with pork, bean sprouts and mushrooms
- 250gm (1/2 lb) dried flat rice noodles (or 500gm fresh)
- 250gm boneless pork (neck is good, or try loin, fillet or leg steaks)
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2cm piece of ginger, peeled
- Pinch of salt
- 6 green onions (scallions)
- 2 cups fresh bean sprouts
- 250gm fresh mushrooms - shiitake, enoki, wood ear, oyster, shimeji - hell, even use plain old button mushrooms
- 3 Tbs (50ml) kecap manis (thick, sweet Indonesian soy sauce) -OR-
- 3 Tbs dark soy sauce mixed with 1 Tbs soft brown sugar
- 3 Tbs vegetable oil
Soak and prepare the noodles according to the directions I explained above, then drain and set aside. Cut the pork into thin strips and slice the mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. If you have a mortar and pestle (go on - you want one, I know you do), pound the garlic, ginger and salt to a paste. If this essential piece of kitchen equipment is still on your shopping list, simply mince the ginger and garlic as finely as you can manage, then mix them with the salt.
Trim the roots off the green onions, and trim away and wilted sections. Slice the green tops into thin rounds until you have about 1/2 a cup and set aside as a garnish. Slice the remaining green onions into 1cm lengths.
Heat a wok, or a deep non-stick fry pan to a nice hot temperature, then add 1 Tbs of the oil. Add the pork and stir fry until it changes colour and is just about cooked through. This should only take a minute or two. Add the mushrooms and green onions (not the thinly sliced garnish), stir and cook for 30 seconds more. Tip out onto a plate, then wipe out the wok with a paper towel.
Heat the wok again with the remaining oil to a medium-high heat (slightly closer to high than medium) then add the ginger and garlic. Stir constantly for about 30 seconds, watching like a hawk to ensure that the garlic doesn't burn. Add the noodles and stir well to coat them with the paste. Add the pre-cooked pork-onion-mushroom mixture, along with the soy sauce. Stir well to combine, then continue to stir fry for another 2 minutes - until the noodles are soft and glossy, and the pork is cooked through. Add 3/4 of the bean sprouts and stir through. Cook for a further 30 seconds, then tip out onto 4 waiting plates.
Scatter each serve with the remaining raw bean sprouts and the thinly sliced green onion tops. Serve immediately, passing extra soy sauce and perhaps some chilli sauce for the punters to add at their discretion.