Your first introduction to noodles may have been of the spaghetti-and-meatballs or macaroni-and-cheese variety. However, noodles were, in fact, invented in China (dates back 4,000 years) and gradually spread all over the planet.
Whether you slurp them, gulp them down, or twirl them on your fork, everyone seems to love noodles. Nearly all cultures have at least one cherished noodle dish, from German Spaetzle (homemade noodles with egg), to Jewish Kreplachs – noodle pastries filled with beef, chicken, and spices. But only the Italians rival China for the title of the culture most devoted to noodles.
The Chinese believe that every meal should contain an equal division between fan, grains and starches, and t’sai, fruits, and vegetables. One of the grains they rely on to provide this harmonious dietary balance is noodles.
Chinese noodles, known collectively as mien, fall into three main categories. The most common are wheat flour noodles, which can be made with or without eggs. While today wheat flour noodles are enjoyed throughout China, they originated in the north, where wheat is a staple crop. Depending on the remaining ingredients, wheat noodles can be white or yellow, thin as spaghetti or thick as fettuccine, stiff or extremely elastic.
Made from rice flour, water, and salt, rice noodles can be thick or very thin, the latter almost resembling long strings of coconut. The same is true of rice sticks. There are also rice paper wrappers which come in either circular or triangular shape. Finally, cellophane noodles are clear noodles made from ground mung bean paste.
How to Enjoy Noodles
Noodles are eaten hot or cold, steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, boiled, or served in a soup. For the nutritionally-inclined, noodles are an excellent source of protein. Besides being low in calories, they are extremely high in complex carbohydrates.
Types of Noodles in Chinese Cooking
Also called bean threads, slippery noodles, or even bean vermicelli, cellophane noodles are made from mung bean starch. Before using, soak them in hot (not boiling) water. Cellophane noodles work well in soups and stir-fries, absorbing the flavor of the foods they are cooked with. When deep-fried fried they puff up and become quite crispy.
Egg Flour Noodles
Fresh or dried, you’ll usually know these noodles by their yellow color. Made with eggs, wheat flour, and water, they come in a number of widths and shapes, from the thinner vermicelli to flat thicker noodles. Instant Ramen noodles are a type of egg flour noodle. Used in soups and stir-fries, they need to be boiled before using.
The wide world of rice noodles 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, noodles made from rice flour are more delicate than those made with wheat flour. Like cellophane noodles, rice noodles usually only need to be soaked in hot water (not boiled) before you add them to your soup, salad or stir-fry.