Chow Mein to Banh Pho: A Guide to Asian Noodle Varieties

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Noodles were invented in China 4,000 years ago. And lucky for us, over 4,000 years, LOTS of different varieties have come to be — each one more delicious than the last.

As an Asian noodle fiend, I give a little fist pump whenever I think about all the different types in my pantry. I like to buy noodles from China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, made from many different types of flour — wheat, buckwheat, rice and mung bean.

You can find almost any type of Asian noodle sold dried, but some Asian markets also carry the fresh versions, too; check the refrigerator and freezer cases.

Ramen

In the U.S., ramen has evolved far beyond the cellophane-packaged bricks of deep-fried noodles that got some of us through college. Wheat flour gives the noodles their chewy bounce; egg, their rich yellow color. Ramen is famous as a Japanese specialty but was actually invented in China.

Udon

Made simply from wheat flour and water, these thick, chewy Japanese noodles are most often sold fresh. The traditional way to serve them is submerged in broth and adorned with a variety of toppings including tempura, fish cakes and vegetables or simply a shower of sliced scallions.

Soba

These Japanese noodles get their gray-brown hue and nutty flavor from buckwheat flour (although “soba” can also refer to any thin Japanese noodle). Especially in summer, soba is served chilled, with a simple dipping sauce made from dashi, soy sauce and mirin. In chilly weather, soba ends up in soup.

Somen

These thin, delicate Japanese noodles are made from wheat flour and a bit of oil. Like soba, somen noodles are most often served chilled, with a bowl of mild sauce for dipping.

Chinese Egg Noodles

Made with wheat flour and egg, these are the noodles you know well from takeout classics like chow mein and lo mein. In Chinese, “mein” refers to noodles made with wheat flour; those made with rice flour or mung bean starch are "fun."

Cellophane or Glass Noodles

Made from mung beans (also the source of the ubiquitous bean sprout), these dainty Chinese noodles are also known as bean threads. Soaked in hot water, they become a soft, pliable addition to soups and stir-fries. Dropped in smoking-hot oil, they puff up dramatically into a crispy cloud; use them in “bird’s nest” dishes or as a crunchy garnish.

Rice Noodles

The wide world of noodles made from rice flour involves many names, nationalities, and dishes, but are easiest to categorize simply by their four basic sizes: vermicelli, thin, medium and wide.

Because they don’t have gluten to hold them together, rice noodles are more delicate than wheat ones. Like cellophane noodles, rice noodles usually only need to be soaked in hot water (not boiled) before you add them to soups, salads or stir-fries.

Note that the names below are phonetic translations so the spellings may vary slightly across brands. And because each variety goes by so many different names even in the same language, often the easiest way to find what you’re looking for is to simply look at the noodles, which usually come in clear packages, and grab the size you need.

Rice Vermicelli

This variety is sometimes confused with cellophane or glass noodles. These thin, round noodles are packaged in small, looped bundles, with several bundles to a pack. In Vietnamese cuisine, the noodles are often served cold and topped with grilled meat (bun) or wrapped in rice paper with shrimp, lettuce and fresh herbs (summer rolls). On Chinese menus, you’ll usually find these noodles in the form of Singapore maifun, the curry-spiced dish flecked with shrimp, roast pork and sundry vegetables.

The names you’ll see on packages include:

  • Mi Fen/Maifun (Chinese)
  • Sen Mee (Thai)
  • Bun/Banh Hoi (Vietnamese)
  • Pancit Bihon (Tagalog)

Thin Rice Noodles/Rice Sticks

The thinnest variety of flat rice sticks is most often used in soups and stir fries.

The names you’ll see on packages include:

  • Sen Yai (Thai)
  • Palabok (Tagalog)

Medium Rice Noodles/Rice Sticks

These all-purpose noodles are about the same width as linguine, and are the type used in pad thai and pho.

The names you’ll see on packages include:

  • Ho Fun/Haw Fun/Hor Fun/Lai Fen (Chinese)
  • Sen Lek (Thai)
  • Banh Pho (Vietnamese)

Wide Rice Noodles

These jumbo noodles are about the same width as pappardelle. They’re most often used in stir-fries, including the Thai favorites pad kee mow (drunken noodles) and pad see ew, and the Chinese takeout standby chow fun.

The names you’ll see on packages include:

  • Shan Shui Ho Fun/Sha Ha Fun (Chinese)
  • Sen Han/Jantaboon (Thai)
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Chow Mein to Banh Pho: A Guide to Asian Noodle Varieties