Learn the Basics of Asian Noodles with Our Handy Guide (2024)

Walk into any Asian supermarket and you’ll be overwhelmed by the different types of noodles available. Noodles are a deep part of cultures that span millennia of history.

Don’t worry! We’re here to help decipher some of the different types of Asian noodles you’ll encounter in the market.

Learn the Basics of Asian Noodles with Our Handy Guide (1)

Shopping for Asian Noodles

In Asian grocery stores, noodles are usually categorized by country. But that can be confusing, since many different countries may have the same noodle. Not only do the same noodles have different names and packaging from different countries, but the same type of noodle may also be sold in different areas of the store. They may be dried, packed fresh, refrigerated, or even frozen.

When shopping for Asian noodles, it’s best to go to an Asian grocer. If you don’t have one near you, you can order online. Regardless, be sure to get an authentic Asian brand for the best quality, flavor, and texture.

The best way to think about noodles in general is by separating them into three main categories based on what the noodles are made of: wheat noodles, rice noodles, and noodles made from other starches.

Ready? Grab your chopsticks, and let’s dig in!

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Wheat Noodles

The majority of Asian noodles are made from some kind of wheat flour. Noodles are all loosely called “mien” in Chinese, “men” in Japanese, “myun” or “gooksu” in Korean, “bún” in Vietnamese, and “sen” in Thai.

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Chow Mein

Possibly the most well-known Chinese noodle, chow mien means “pan-fried noodle.” They are sold dried and parboiled, ready for stir-fry. They are a little thicker than vermicelli.

How to cook chow mein noodles: They are usually parboiled so that you can toss them right into the wok without having to boil them first. They are soft and chewy and often prepared to be a bit crispy in spots. Chow mein noodles can also be deep-fried to serve as a crunchy bed for Cantonese recipes. That’s why they are sometimes also called Hong Kong-style pan-fried noodles.

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Lo Mein

Lo mien, which means “mixed or tossed noodle” in Cantonese, is a soft yellow noodle in refrigerated, fresh, or dried forms. The thick round noodles are soft and dense when cooked. They are usually about a foot long and look like fat spaghetti noodles, but they are chewier and yellow from the alkaline (not egg) added to the noodle.

How to cook lo mein noodles: These noodles are usually tossed with a thick brown sauce and some vegetables and meat. The dried noodles must be boiled first, while the fresh noodles can be boiled briefly or added directly to the pan and simmered or stir-fried. They hold up well to heat and cooking, like in this easy chicken lo mein recipe.

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Yaka Mien

Sometimes called, “Chinese spaghetti,” these noodles are Westernized versions of Chinese wheat noodles. They are made by machine and similar to lo mein, but thicker and chewier. You’ll find them in your friendly neighborhood Chinese takeout joint, and both soft (refrigerated or frozen) and dried in the noodle aisles of your grocery store.

How to cook yaka mien noodles: Yaka mien noodles are usually used to make noodle soups. They turn yellow when cooked and have a thick texture similar to udon or thick spaghetti. Yaka mien noodles are used to make Taiwanese beef Danzai noodle soup or New Orleans noodle soup, since legend has it that they were created by Cantonese immigrants in New Orleans.

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Udon

Popular in Japanese cuisine, udon noodles come in a variety of sizes but are known for their thickness and chewy bite. They’re sold dried, fresh, or frozen.

How to cook udon noodles: Udon is usually the basis for a hot soup meal, topped with meat and vegetables in a broth, like in this chicken udon recipe. It can also be served in hot pots, served cold, or even pan-fried.

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Ramen

Of instant noodle fame, ramen noodles are made with wheat, flour, salt, water, and an alkaline that gives the noodle its wavy and bouncy texture (and its yellow color). Although it’s associated with Japanese food, this popular noodle originated in China. There is only one major manufacturer in the United States that makes fresh ramen noodles (Sun Noodle, based in the West). You’ll find a giant selection of instant dried ramen varieties, but you can also get refrigerated and frozen ramen for a more elevated meal.

How to cook ramen noodles: Ramen noodles are usually used in soup,, like this easy weeknight chicken ramen. They should be boiled for just a few minutes because they get too soft and mushy if they sit too long in water. Ramen can also be used in cold salads or even eaten uncooked and seasoned as a snack.

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Somen

Usually found in Korean and Japanese cuisine, these delicately thin noodles are made with oil. They have a subtle, refined flavor and are sold dried in wrapped bundles. They are white, thin, and just a tiny bit thicker than angel hair pasta.

How to cook somen noodles: In Japan, they are served chilled with a sauce on the side for dipping. In Korea, they are served chilled and tossed with vegetables or kimchi or in a delicate soup for parties. Hence, they are called also called “janchi” or feast noodles (not because they are fancy, but because they are fast and easy to make to serve a crowd).

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Rice Noodles

Like wheat noodles, there are too many different types of rice noodles to count. They are usually made with little more than rice flour and water, and are often quite flavorless by themselves, which makes them wonderful bases for absorbing the flavors of whatever recipes they are in.

Other than the fact that they are made with rice, these noodles all cook really fast. Fresh rice noodles only take a minute or two in hot water to be cooked. Some extremely thin ones only need water—not even boiling water—to be rehydrated. They can also get super sticky.

Whatever you’re making, be sure to have everything ready for your dish first and cook the rice noodles last.

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Rice Sticks

Especially popular throughout China and Southeast Asia, flat rice stick noodles come in three different sizes. They are sold dried and packaged as rice noodles (thin), banh pho (medium-sized), and pad thai or jantaboon (wide). They are straight, and flat and look slightly translucent when dried and opaque when cooked.

How to cook rice stick noodles: Depending on their size and the dish, rice stick noodles are either briefly boiled or soaked in water before use in a recipe. Banh pho noodles are used to make this quick chicken pho recipe, and pad thai noodles are used to make vegetarian pad thai.

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Rice Vermicelli

These thin noodles are usually sold in dry bunches, bent in half. As their name suggests, they are very thin and brittle when dry, and soft and slightly chewy when cooked. Vermicelli noodles are used throughout China and Southeast Asia, and are sometimes called, bun, mi fen, mai fun, beehoon, or sen mae.

How to cook rice vermicelli noodles: Rice vermicelli need to be cooked very quickly so they don’t get mushy. They are put into soups, chilled in salads, tossed in stir-fries, rolled in spring rolls, or even deep-fried to make a base for a saucy dish. They are also the base for Vietnamese bun ga and Singapore noodles with shrimp (though this dish is not actually from Singapore, rather an invention of Chinese Americans).

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Flat Rice Noodles

Flat rice noodles are found throughout China and Southeast Asia. Kway teow are Chinese-inspired flat rice noodles in Southeast Asia. They come both fresh and dried and vary in width, starting at about 1/4-inch wide to fatter varieties. Some similar versions are rounder and thinner, like linguine.

The flat wide noodles are called chow fun in Cantonese. A thicker version is called “mi xian.” The extra wide version of steamed chow fun noodles is called “chee cheong fun.” They are sold fresh, quite often only on weekends in small quantities. You’ve most likely seen them at dim sum poured in a seasoned bath.

How to cook flat rice noodles: Like any rice noodles, it’s best to cook the dry versions of these noodles quickly in hot water. The fresh ones require just a dip in hot (not boiling) water. Delicious in stir-fries, they are great at holding thick sauces, like char kway teow, a Malaysian noodle stir fry. They are also used in soups like creamy coconut laksa.

The wider chow fun noodles are popular in Cantonese cooking, usually with vegetables and a sauce. The really wide rice noodle rolls are filled with your choice of meat, steamed, and then served with a light soy sauce poured over them just before eating.

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Noodles Made from Other Starches

Asian noodles are made from more than just rice and wheat. They can also be made from mung beans, buckwheat, sweet potato, yam, and more.

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Mung Bean Threads

Mung bean threads are classic noodles found in many Vietnamese and Thai dishes. Made from a paste made from mung bean starch, these glass noodles are usually very thin and sold in bundles, like angel hair pasta. Their dough is sometimes sold in sheets of “glass paper” (called “fan pei”).

How to cook mung bean thread noodles: They should be placed in hot water for about a minute and they’ll turn clear, silky, soft, and rubbery. They are often used in Thai and Vietnamese stir fries. Mung bean threads can also be deep fried for a base or tossed with chile paste and chile oil for a cold Sichuan noodle dish with ground pork.

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Soba

Popular in Japanese cuisine, soba noodles are known for their extra protein and earthy flavor. They are usually greyish brown in color and traditionally made from buckwheat or a buckwheat and wheat flour blend. They are earthy and nutty and sold in packaged bundles.

How to cook soba noodles: The best way to cook soba noodles is to boil them for just a few minutes, although they will retain a bit of a bite even after cooking. Usually served cold with a dipping sauce on the side, they can also be tossed in a salad or eaten in a hot soup, like this easy miso fish soup with soba. They are also delicious in this fast and healthy soba noodle bowl.

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Naengmyeon

These Korean noodles are usually made with barley or buckwheat with some potato, arrowroot, or kudzu to add extra springiness. They are super long and extra chewy—so much so that they are usually served in restaurants with scissors on the side, or the server offers to cut them for you. They are sold dried, refrigerated, or frozen, usually with broth or seasoning packets.

How to cook naengmyeon noodles: Originating in North Korea, they are served chilled either in an icy beef broth or mixed in a spicy sauce topped with beef and vegetables, like in this Korean spicy cold noodles recipe.

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Japchae

A classic Korean noodle, japchae is typically made from sweet potato starch. It’s sold dried in large plastic bags. Sometimes you can find them fresh in the refrigerated sections of Korean grocers. The grey and slightly translucent noodles are rubbery and slippery.

How to cook japchae noodles: Japchae is the name of both the noodles and the dish in Korean cuisine. The chewy noodles serve as a base for a stir-fried dish made with vegetables and beef. They can also be tossed into stews and soups for added texture.

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Shirataki

Usually sold as a health food, this Japanese noodle is full of fiber and very low in calories. Shirataki are made with yam starch, but tofu or seaweed are sometimes added for additional nutrition. They are thin, white, and sold in soft packs packed with water. They are just slightly thicker than vermicelli and have virtually no flavor.

How to cook shirataki noodles: Shirataki noodles cook quickly and are slightly rubbery and firm when cooked. It’s best to rinse the noodles of their holding water before cooking for better flavor. They can be used like any Japanese noodles, in soups, sukiyaki (Japanese beef hot pot) and stir-fries.

Learn the Basics of Asian Noodles with Our Handy Guide (2024)
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