Chewy, Slurpable, Totally Delicious Noodles from East Asia
With over 4,000 years to reach perfection, noodles are arguably at their best in the region where they were invented
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Thousands of years before durum wheat pasta was being rolled out in Italy, the Chinese were pulling broomcorn and foxtail millet noodles. And long before “pasta” — from “paste,” implying wheat dough — rose up to take the top spot for noodle association, groups across the Chinese empire and its sphere of influence had been experimenting with noodles made from rice, mung beans, sweet potatoes, tapioca, buckwheat, and eggs.
So when it comes to noodles in Eastern and Southeast Asian cuisine, length isn’t just about the pasta itself. Chewy, toothsome, and as varied as the cultures they spring from, noodles’ traditional preparations are testaments to culinary ingenuity. After all, if the saying holds that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, this part of the world is the title-holder for noodle masters.
From Japan to Singapore, Hong Kong to Korea, Thailand to Vietnam, and the wealth of culinary subregions across China, there are oodles of flavorful Asian noodle recipes to love. Here are some of the most classic, authentic ways to get wrapped up in what is arguably one of humankind’s greatest inventions.
And note that you’ll need to head to an Asian grocery store to find many of these noodles and seasonings. Culinary adventure awaits!
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Asian wheat noodle recipes
Has there ever been a manmade ingredient as versatile and chameleon-like as wheat noodles? They can be thick or thin, chewy and dense or soft and melting, or springy with a snap. Every culture has a range of interpretations. Noodles may just be the world’s most interesting food.
Also called Fujian Red Wine Chicken, this dish is especially close to my heart as a signature food of the region of my family’s origin. It’s as distinctly Fuzhou as the local language — both of which are proudly not to be confused with any other part of China. Made by braising chicken on the bone in red yeast rice, the broth has a unique bite due to its fermented nature, and is typically paired with misua or mee sua noodles. These are very thin, salted wheat noodles packaged in neat, looped bundles or packets of white sticks. If you can’t find the red yeast rice used for coloring, the recipe suggests you can just skip it.
There are few things the Chinese love more than creating stories, legends, and superstitions, and food is no exception. Longevity noodles — called yi mein or e-fu — are a celebratory dish you’ll typically find at New Year’s feasts, weddings, birthdays, and other events that celebrate reasons to live as long as possible. If you’ve ever fantasized about one long, endless noodle, this is your dream come true — these are not meant to be cut or broken. Which is fine, since the dried noodles are actually very light, yet chewy due to the use of soda water in the dough. You’ll boil them briefly, then stir-fry them in the sauce. This recipe calls for Chinese chives, which are available in many Asian markets, but they’re not mandatory.
This famous dish brings us to a province that’s becoming mainstream knowledge in the Western world: Sichuan. If you ever see food gorgeously drenched in chili oil, chunky with seeds, and vivaciously red with crispy chili flakes, you better believe it can be traced to Sichuan. Dan Dan Noodles are a common street food that’s now taking the U.S. by storm, as tastes have acclimated to handle the heat. You can buy the thin, light-colored, wheat-based noodles by the bag in the refrigerated section of Asian markets. (Head there too for sesame paste; or sub peanut butter.) But the recipe creator recommends making the chili oil yourself — it’s not as hard as it sounds!
Instant Pot notwithstanding, this pasta-with-meat-sauce spin-off is uniquely and distinctly Hong Kong! The recipe calls for tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, but many versions of the dish sub in or add ketchup, which would be egregious in Bologna. However, with the addition of Shaoxing wine, oyster sauce, and soy sauce, all can be forgiven under the rebrand of “fusion” food, as cultural sharing makes for strange — and exciting! — bedfellows.
No Asian recipe rundown could be complete without solid representation of Japan’s contributions. Chicken Udon is a great place to start, and this easy recipe is perhaps one of the simplest on this entire list. Only a handful of ingredients are needed, and with Japanese cuisine so mainstream in the U.S., many can be sourced from major supermarkets. As for the thick, chewy wheat noodles, fresh refrigerated or frozen udon works equally well. You may even find dry instant udon, though fresh or frozen are preferable. Whichever option you go for, it lends itself well to additions like bok choy, carrots, baby corn, and other crisp vegetables.
Once you’re ready to “graduate” to a more complex Japanese noodle soup preparation, move on to ramen. And when I say ramen, as much of a guilty pleasure as they may be for me, I’m not talking about those curly blocks of fried and dried noodles with flavor packets. I’m talking about the chewy, fresh versions cut from wheat dough and set to swim in a broth of soy sauce-tinged stock with scallions, fish cake, chashu slices, and eggs floating among the noodles. Making ramen from scratch is a lot of work, but the best thing about making it at home is not having to ask for kaedama, the extra bowl of noodles. Thanks to your Asian market’s refrigerated area, you’ve got it covered.
The origin of ramen noodles — like most noodles — is Chinese, but soba noodles are as Japanese as can be. These brownish-gray buckwheat noodles are earthier and nuttier than their all-white-flour counterparts, and as firm as they are slippery. (While buckwheat is a different grain from wheat, in practice, soba are often made from a mix of both grains, so I’m including them in this category.) Soba noodles are also a bit more temperamental than straight wheat noodles since they’re coarser and cook faster, while being prone to stickiness and clumping if you don’t cook them just right. This authentic recipe for Zaru Soba sets you up for success. Just make sure you check the ingredients on the noodle label. True soba should list buckwheat as the first item, and it should constitute more than 30% of the noodle’s composition.
If you’ve mastered cooking soba, why not add a little yaki to it? Just kidding; like drunken noodles (below), yakisoba (“fried soba noodles”) is a misnomer. This stir-fried dish is typically made with Chinese wheat noodles — often fresh ramen styles. And in another cultural mash-up, yakisoba is flavored predominantly with Worcestershire sauce. Intrigued? Join the club! Yakisoba noodles are often sold in kits with seasoning mixes included right in the package; however, this recipe gives you the option of mastering the flavor base yourself.
Rice noodle recipes
Mm, rice noodles. Slippery, chewy, and happy to take on the flavors of the sauce they’re tossed in, these versatile and gluten-free noodles are widely found throughout Eastern Asian cuisine.
The key points for cooking rice noodles like chow fun — a wide, flat, chewy cut — are to make sure the pan or wok is screaming hot, your noodles are not overcooked, and that they’re nice and dry before they hit the cooking surface (drain them well). Otherwise, you may be looking at a soggy clump of smashed-together, sticky rice goo. Tossing the cooked noodles in some oil before you start the noodle stir-fry process also helps prevent sticking. For authentic chow fun, you want to go with fresh rice noodles if you can get them. At Asian markets these are refrigerated in clear plastic bags or a box. If they’re not available, dried will do, as this recipe evidences — they just won’t be as wide as the fresh ones.
This Thai recipe also specifies fresh rice noodles for best execution, proving that no matter the country of origin, fresh is best when it comes to wide cuts! See ew translates as “soy sauce,” and thick, slightly sweet Thai black soy sauce adds a lot of flavor. The dish’s beauty is in its simplicity and speed, which is what makes it a common street food in Thailand. You can swap out regular broccoli for Chinese broccoli, and any protein for the beef, but the egg ties it all together, so don’t skip it.
Drunken noodles, pad see ew’s spicier, more ingredient-heavy cousin, is another Thai specialty that benefits from the use of fresh wide rice noodles. Also called pad kee mao or drunkard noodles, this traditional stir-fried dish is a demonstration of both Thai noodle execution and misnomers. No alcohol is involved in the making of this rice noodle dish — rumor has it that its name is simply the Eastern equivalent of a hangover helper, garbage plate, or kitchen sink scenario, where everything the (presumably drunk) maker has is thrown into one hearty, satisfying platter of boldly flavored deliciousness.
The previous few recipes made the case for fresh rice noodles, but there is a time and place for dried ones, and pad Thai is it. Pad Thai benefits from the use of thinner noodles to better jumble up with ingredients. This is also a common street food, and one of the country’s banner dishes. And what a banner to wave! Simultaneously sweet and tangy from tamarind, lime, and sugar; nutty with peanuts; and refreshingly crisp from bean sprouts and green onions, it trumps dishes that have been in existence far longer. Invented in the 1930s by Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram to boost nationalism and establish the country’s cultural identity, these noodles helped to put Thai cuisine on the international culinary map.
Another instance of when dried rice noodles are best? In Vietnamese bun, or noodle bowls. Vermicelli rice noodles need to be treated gently; all it takes to prepare them is a quick dunk in hot water to rehydrate. Though the creator of this recipe suggests boiling them, most Asian cooks soak them instead — you have far greater control this way, and avoid the risk of overcooking and disintegrating the noodles. Bun noodles are meant to be served at room temperature. The hot meat and crisp, chilled vegetables like lettuce, carrots, bean sprouts, and cilantro arranged on top make bun more akin to a noodle salad. Consider the sweetened fish sauce a dressing, and feel free to squirt in some sriracha to add another layer of complexity.
We can’t mention Vietnamese noodle dishes without touching on a stalwart. Pho is a product of cultural crossover, originating in northern Vietnam at the turn of the century as French colonization and high demand of Chinese workers living in Nam Dinh province popularized beef. Rice noodles of any width are the most popular choice for these hearty, oversized soups. But as is appropriate for a dish with a multi-origin story, you can swap in wonton noodles, udon noodles, or anything you feel like to add to the dish’s global journey, and riff on it with greenery like baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli (choi sum), and others.
Here’s one of my absolute favorite rice noodle dishes of all time, one of those kitchen sink meals that invites personal interpretation as long as curry powder is permitted to take its brilliant lead. This recipe is the closest to what my Chinese restaurant chef father has always made for us, specifying napa cabbage, char siu if you can get it (the recipe here opts for roast pork), and his signature secret ingredient, Shaoxing rice wine. I love it too with rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, as much broccoli as can be unreasonably added, plenty of eggs, and thin slices of crisp-cooked bell peppers.
Recipes with Asian glass noodles
An adventure in sensory novelty, starch-based (as opposed to grain-based) glass noodles are impressive at any table. Good hot or cold, they’re a light foundation with applications that go beyond the classics I introduce here.
Translucent, shiny, slippery, and toothsome, glass noodles were once reserved for royalty, but are now often found on Korean tables for special occasions, banquets, or — if you’re lucky — part of the banchan assortment at a Korean barbeque. Ingeniously made from sweet potato starch or other starches, glass noodles are light and delicious in a vegan noodle stir-fry like this one. When buying glass noodles, bear in mind that they may also be labeled cellophane noodles or sweet potato vermicelli.
Just to muddy the clear noodle waters a bit, let’s mention bean thread noodles. They’re another form of glass or cellophane noodles sold dry and reconstituted, but instead of sweet potato starch, these super-thin strands are made from mung beans. This recipe is Thai in character, and pad woon sen is on every respectable Thai restaurant menu, but it’s weeknight- and home cook-friendly, as the chicken thighs, vegetables, and seasonings are ones you can find in most any supermarket.
Asian egg noodle recipes
Thanks to the widespread popularity of Cantonese cuisine, Asian egg noodles are one of the most familiar — and comforting! — of the styles of Chinese noodles.
Though familiar in America, Hong Kong-style noodle soups are no less authentic to Chinese cuisine. Just the fragrance of this complex, comforting broth takes me right back to lunches in New York City’s Chinatown with my dad. The lacquered sweetness of scarlet char siu is a perfect foil for the salty liquid, while the crisp choy sum greens or Shanghai bok choy cleanse your palate between savory bites. Homemade wontons add their own distinctive element with their juicy shrimp-filled centers, but despite the name of the dish, can be optional if you don’t want to put in the work. Wonton noodles are actually a specific type of fresh, thin-cut egg noodle available from the refrigerated section of an Asian market. Drop them in to parboil right before eating, letting the noodles soften and absorb the liquid’s flavor.
Say “Chinese food,” and it’s often Americanized Cantonese that comes to mind. The Cantonese were the first wave of Sino-immigration to the U.S. and have defined classic Chinese take-out, adapting their techniques and flavors for Western palates. However, lo mein is not one of those dishes created just for American clientele. These fat, chewy egg noodles are just as common in their land of origin as they are here, and prepared in much the same way, stirred and tossed in oil with a medley of vegetables. Can’t find lo mein noodles? In some parts of the country, they’re labeled as chow mein, even though at some New York takeouts, chow mein refers to fried noodles topped with a vegetable-heavy stir-fry … which is not to be mistaken for Cantonese Chow Mein, which is pan-fried thin wonton noodles topped with a veggie-forward thick sauce. Confused yet? Not to worry — they’re all delicious!
If you’ve never heard of Hokkien noodles but like lo mein, it’s time to get acquainted. Like mee sua, the first recipe in this collection, Hokkien noodles came from Fujian, but the thick, eggy noodles couldn’t be more different from those thin, salty ones. Versatile and meaty, they’ve been adopted by multiple cultures, including those of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand. Buy fresh Hokkien noodles; the oil they’re coated in is useful in a stir-fry like this one, which is a mix of various influences, as is fitting for this multi-purpose noodle.