I’ve been slowly coming to the realization that I’m a total food traveler. In part, I think it’s a side effect of slow travel. I’m not doing something mind-blowing or visiting somewhere new every day; and some days, the excitement of being in a different country comes through finding a fantastic street stall that I’d never noticed, or discovering a weird dish that I haven’t tried before.
I’m continuously impressed with the variety of noodles found in Asia, as well as the amazing ways they’re prepared and incorporated into all kinds of different dishes. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are a few Asian noodle types I’ve come across during the past 2 years in Asia that you should definitely try if you find yourself in this part of the world.
The thickest type of Japanese noodle, udon is by far my favourite kind of noodle. Decent bread is in short supply in Asia (unless you’re willing to pay a lot for it), so fat udon noodles are a satisfying starchy surrogate. Udon noodles, which are made from wheat flour, have a slightly chewy texture and can be served hot or cold.
The most basic udon dish (kake udon) consists of udon noodles served in a hot broth and topped with green onions. Cold udon (zaru udon) is served with a dipping sauce for dunking the noodles. There are dozens of variations on these dishes, including tsukimi udon, in which hot udon noodles are topped with a raw egg. It sounds strange, but you mix the egg over the hot noodles, which has the effect of partially cooking the egg, making a warm bowl of gooey deliciousness.
There was a time when most Westerners dismissed ramen as a cheap student dish, eventually tossed aside along with burned grilled cheese sandwiches and Kraft Diner to make way for more sophisticated meals; but, fortunately, ramen is starting to break away from this unfair reputation. Fresh ramen, not this instant kind, was the dish most often cited by my Japanese students as their all-time favourite food. The noodles, which are typically made from egg and wheat, come in a variety of different thicknesses. Want to create an easy food tour of Japan? Use ramen as your base food: Almost every city and region of Japan makes its own unique style of ramen.
Two of my favourite kinds are miso ramen, which uses miso (soybean paste) as the main flavouring, because I’m obsessed with the unique taste of miso. I also love my former hometown Takayama’s style of ramen, called chuka soba (even though it’s ramen, not soba), which uses a soy base.
Lately, I eat egg noodles most often as part of khao soi, a well-known Northern Thai dish made with coconut milk, curry spices, soy sauce, chicken broth, and boiled egg noodles, topped with additional crispy egg noodles. I love egg noodles – they have a heartier, pasta-like taste that I often find myself craving when I’m missing Western food. Made from eggs, flour, and milk, egg noodles are sold both dried and fresh. They come in a variety of thicknesses, and are also used in a number of Malaysian, Singaporean and Chinese dishes, and even some Russian dishes like beef stroganoff.
Often served in Japanese restaurants that also have udon on their menu, soba noodles have a similarly chewy texture and can also be served hot or cold like udon. The difference is that soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour, and they’re also much thinner, closer to the thickness of spaghetti. They have an earthier, almost nuttier flavour compared to udon.
Mori soba, cold soba noodles eaten with a soya-like dipping sauce called tsuyu , is one of the most common soba noodle dishes you’ll see in Japan. Interestingly, Japanese people eat a special kind of soba called toshikoshi soba as part of a tradition on New Year’s Eve, with the long noodles symbolizing longevity in life.
Named for their translucence when cooked, glass noodles, sometimes called cellophane noodles, are made from yam, potato starches, or muang bean. They’re used in a number of different Korean, Thai and Vietnamese dishes, including spring rolls and salads. They come in a variety of thicknesses, and I find them relatively tasteless. I typically see them used as part of stir-fried dishes at Thai street stalls. If you’re feeling a bit intimidated by Thai food, a plate of glass noodles fried with some meat and veggies is nice and non-threatening. It has that satisfying, but relatively neutral flavour that makes for good, solid comfort food.
Made from rice flour, rice noodles are quite soft and, like glass noodles, I find their taste less distinct compared to other noodle types. That said, they’re used in some of my favourite Thai dishes like pad thai, as well as pad see eiw, which consists of wide rice noodles fried with pork, Chinese broccoli and soy sauce (another awesome street food dish for unadventurous eaters). Rice noodles are also frequently used in spring roll filling, as well as in Vietnamese, Chinese and Malaysian dishes.
What are some of your favourite noodle dishes?