The next time you need a quick fix for dinner, look no further than the World Flavors/International Foods aisle at your grocery store. Amid the exotic spices and myriad of of sauces lie some of the quickest bases for an easy meal that you can find: Asian noodles! Why? Most are quick-cooking and make for great beginnings to a tasty meal. After perusing them, you may be wondering which ones to use. Well, just read along and you'll be armed with a basic knowledge of the Asian-style noodles that are most commonly found in the grocery store, from cellophane to soba and everything in between.
I've separated the basic Asian noodles into three categories (rice, wheat, egg, and "other") with their corresponding sub-categories to make it a little easier to navigate.
These are made primarily with rice flour and water, sometimes with tapioca or corn starch, thus making them gluten-free. They're seen in many Southeast Asian dishes and can be found sold as dried noodles. Most simply need to be soaked in hot water before using to make them soft and pliable.
Medium/Flat Rice Stick
These noodles are similar in width to linguine and used in stir fries, like Pad Thai, and in soups, like the Vietnamese classic phở. Look for them sold as "Pad Thai noodles" or "stir-fry rice noodles." Typically, the thinner type are used in soups and the wider ones are used in stir fries. To cook, soak them in hot water until they begin to soften, making sure to not leave them soaking too long or they'll start to fall apart.
Thin Rice Stick/Vermicelli/Maifun
Similar in width to angel hair pasta, rice stick and vermicelli noodles are used in many Asian dishes including stir fries, fresh spring rolls, soups and noodle salads. Dishes that use these thin rice noodles include Chinese Singapore noodles and Vietnamese fresh spring rolls. These noodles must be soaked in hot water, then boiled or stir-fried for a few minutes. They can also be deep-fried in dried form and used as a crunchy garnish.
Asian wheat-based noodles are made with flour, salt, water and occasionally eggs and/or other flavoring ingredients. They need to be boiled until al dente or soft (depending on how you're using them), then rinsed before use. You'll find them in dried form at the grocery store, but many Asian markets sell them fresh as well.
These infamous dried noodles have been made popular by starving college students as they're often seen sold with a sodium-laden seasoning packet and can be cooked in mere minutes in the microwave. Yes, they're not the healthiest pick as they're typically deep-fried in oil before being dried (thus increasing their calorie and fat count), so look for un-fried dried ramen if you can find it. They cook up quickly and can be used in hot soups or served chilled.
Thin, brown-colored Japanese noodles are made primarily with buckwheat which lends a hearty, chewy texture and nutty flavor. They're very versatile, served hot in broth or cold as a noodle salad. Boil them for a few minutes, until tender, and they're good to go.
These Japanese thick, white, chewy wheat noodles are most often seen cooked and added to hot broth soups, though they're also great for cold noodle salads. Boil dried udon for roughly 10 minutes and fresh for about 2-3 minutes.
These hearty noodles are also wheat and water, but the addition of raw eggs gives them more body and a slightly yellow coloring (if the egg yolk is used). After cooking, they can be stir fried or used in a warm or cold noodle dish.
Chow Mein/Lo Mein
Flat or round and medium in width, these Chinese noodles can be fried and used in a Chow Mein dish or a soup, or simply stir fried and used in a Lo Mein. Boil them for about 3 minutes if fresh, and for 5 minutes if dried.
This category covers a few noodles whose main ingredients are anything from mung beans to some form of vegetable starch.
Bean Thread/Cellophane/Mung Bean Threads
Also known simply as "glass' noodles, these angel hair-like, slippery noodles are made from mung bean, yam, or potato starches — which means they're gluten-free — and become transparent when cooked. They're used all over Asia, especially in Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam, most commonly seen eaten in soups, stir-fries, and salads. They can be soaked in hot water then rinsed and drained, or fried to make them into a crunchy garnish.
Sweet Potato Vermicelli
These thin noodles, also known as "Japchae" in Korea, resemble bean thread noodles, but appear darker and more yellowish. As the name states, they're made with sweet potatoes, namely sweet potato starch. They're most often seen used in Korean stir fries but can also be used like any other noodles that are similar in shape and texture, like thin rice or cellophane noodles. They can be soaked for a few minutes in very hot water or boiled for 3-4 minutes before use.
These low-calorie and no carb fresh noodles are typically made from Japanese yams (sometimes tofu) and can be found vacuum-packed in liquid in the dairy aisle next to the tofu. They can be used in almost any fashion: stir fried, in broth or cold. To cook, they must first be rinsed from the stinky liquid they're packaged in and boiled for a few minutes.
Hopefully you feel a little more informed on this subject now and can better differentiate lo mein from soba. When you're ready to get into the big leagues of authentic Asian noodles, just head to an Asian market and have a look-see. The seemingly endless array of noodles you'll find there is mind-boggling — more than enough for a whole separate article altogether.