Once upon a time, if you wanted to make a recipe that called for soba, udon, or any other kind of Asian noodle, you had to find your nearest Asian grocery store. Happily, these noodles have become much easier to find in recent years. Here’s a quick guide to the most common kinds!
You generally cook these Asian noodles the same way you cook any other kind of pasta: in a large amount of salted boiling water until the pasta is al dente. The exceptions are rice noodles and cellophane noodles, which are so thin and tender that they only need to be soaked in hot water until soft.
These noodles are made from buckwheat flour and have a correspondingly strong, nutty flavor. Many buckwheat noodles have some wheat flour in them, which means they’re not gluten-free. However, pure buckwheat soba is stronger in flavor, and of course, gluten-free. We generally find dried soba in packets, but keep your eyes open for fresh soba at Asian markets or make your own. Dried soba looks like flat spaghetti and is usually light beige to dark brown-gray in color.
Chewy and soft, these thick wheat noodles are best when you can find them fresh. Dried udon is still good, but the texture is more dense. Udon has a neutral flavor, so they make a good choice for strongly-flavored dishes.
Also made of wheat, ramen noodles are much thinner and longer than udon and have a nice chewy bite when cooked. Forget the seasoning packet they come with and make your own healthy instant ramen with meat-based broth, often flavored with soy sauce or miso, and uses toppings such as sliced pork, dried seaweed, and green onions.
These are also sometimes called cellophane noodles, glass noodles, or mung bean threads. They are made from mung bean starch, and look like little bundles of very thin, translucent threads. These noodles are fantastic in Vegetable and Mint Summer Rolls or as a substitute for vermicelli rice noodles.
Vermicelli Rice Noodles
Vermicelli noodles are made from rice flour and have a very similar texture to angel hair pasta. Rice vermicelli are thin, long form noodles made from rice grains (not to be confused with cellophane noodles, made from starch). Commonly used in Asian soups, salads and stir-fries, they are probably most notable in Singapore-style noodles. Try them in Bun Chay (Vietnamese Vegetarian Noodle Salad).
These are also made from rice flour, but flatter and softer when cooked. Sometimes ingredients such as tapioca or corn starch are added in order to improve the transparency or increase the gelatinous and chewy texture of the noodles. Rice noodles are most common in the cuisines of East and Southeast Asia, and are available fresh, frozen, or dried, in various shapes, thicknesses and textures. They are used in various forms throughout Asia, ranging from thick and flat noodles to thin and skinny vermicelli. Try them in dishes like Pad Thai or Vietnamese Noodle Pho.