Using Your Noodle 

Ever read a recipe for Asian food and get confused about what noodles you're suppose to use?

Relax, you're not the only one. Many of us grew up thinking that noodles, pasta and macaroni were all the same. All that was differed was the shape - right? Well, this isn't quite true in Asian cuisines. In fact, it can get even more confusing since different countries have different names for the same noodle.

Rice is the most popular starch in Asia, so if you think about it, you shouldn't be surprised to learn that most noodles there are made from rice flour. They're also made from wheat flour, buckwheat, mung bean starch, yam starch, cornstarch, tofu and what North Americans and Europeans consider traditional ingredients - flour, water and egg. The shapes and textures, as well as the ingredients, also vary.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the most common noodles that appear in Asian recipes. All of these can be found in a Asian grocery store and in the ethnic food aisle of many chain grocery stores. If you don't see the ones you need, ask the manager to order them; when the store has a source for one, they generally have a source for all.

Rice Stick Noodles. Commonly called dried rice sticks. These noodles are, as the name implies, made from ground long-grain rice powder and water. They are twisted into a skein and sold dried. Their semi-transparent appearance turns opaque after cooking. The most common variety is slim, almost thread-like in appearance and used in dishes such as Pad Thai. A slightly larger, medium, variety is used in Pho, a Vietnamese soup. Wide noodles are used in stir-fry dishes. All three types need to be soaked in warm water for 15 to 20 minutes before using.

Chinese Egg Noodles. Available fresh or dried and are made from wheat flour, water and egg. Examples of where this noodle is used are Chow Mein and Singapore Noodles. As are most noodles, egg noodles are typically nested before they are dried. Generally they are boiled like pasta, but check the package for directions because occasionally a manufacturer will pre-cook them by steaming, in which case, the cooking time will be reduced.

Wonton Noodles. Square (about 3" X 3"), and thinly rolled out fresh sheets available in the refrigerated section of the produce area in grocery stores. Made from egg and wheat flour they are best known as the dough in wonton soup. A slightly larger square (5" X 5") is used to make egg rolls and spring rolls. Won ton noodles even make a good dough substitute for pierogi and ravioli.

Bánh Tráng Noodles. Round dried sheets made of rice flour used as spring roll, or summer roll, wrappers. Carefully, but quickly, soak them in warm water, then place on a dry towel to absorb excess water before using. Assembled like eggrolls into packages, but are served without cooking. Popular fillings include shrimp and pork. Served with a hot and spicy dipping sauce.

Bean Thread Noodles. Commonly referred to as cellophane noodles and made from mung bean starch. Like rice stick, they are semi-transparent when dry and must be soaked in warm water before using. They have little flavor, so they take on the taste of the sauce or broth in the dish. When fried, they make a nice crispy garnish.

Udon Noodles. Off-white, flat strips made of wheat flour and water served in a Japanese soup of the same name. Udon is normally sold in vacuum-sealed packages and dropped in broth for cooking. The noodles and broth make the base of the soup. Excellent when served with left overshredded chicken or pork.

Soba Noodles. Another popular Japanese variety made with buckwheat flour. They are light brown in color with a slightly nutty flavor, resemble thin spaghetti in shape and are always sold dried. Soba is frequently added to broth, either hot or cold, and is sometimes referred to as u-dong noodles.

Somen Noodles. Delicate, grayish noodle resembling angel hair pasta. Made from wheat dough with a few drops of oil added. Again, always sold in dried packages. They need to be boiled for 2 to 3 minutes before serving, which is frequently done cold and as the main ingredient in a salad.

Ramen Noodles. A curly instant noodle made from wheat flour, egg and water. Best known as the name for one-meal soups which include the noodles and a broth packet. They're generally very cheap in the grocery store and you can use the noodles without the broth packet in dishes that call for egg noodles. Boil them for 3 or 4 minutes. Also called chucka soba.

Happy noodling!