Noodles are a pillar of many Asian cuisines, and the key to many beloved dishes across the continent. Attempting a full taxonomy would be nearly impossible: there are about as many types of noodles as there are uses for them, from simple breakfasts to celebratory dinners. Asian noodles are sold fresh, dried, or frozen, and range in color from bright yellow to completely translucent. Region-specific ingredients increase the selection even further, and unlike Italian pasta, for which an al dente texture is king across all shapes, some Asian noodles are tender and springy while others chewy and dense. Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite varieties to help you discern the difference between soba and vermicelli in the grocery store, on a menu, or in your Blue Apron box. Slurp away!
Wheat noodles are perhaps the first that come to mind when considering the world of Asian noodles. Rounded or flat, cut or hand-pulled, wheat noodles are the backbone of many soups and stir-fries, lending their sturdy chew to light broths and heavy sauces alike.
Also called cumian, which literally translates to “thick noodles,” Shanghai noodles are a chewy variety made from wheat flour and water. You’ll find them in soups and stir-fries, particularly in northern China.
A Japanese noodle variety that can be served hot or cold, udon is very thick and fat, occasionally flat but most often rounded, like super inflated spaghetti. Udon is chewy and dense, standing up to hot broths or stir-frying without falling apart. Buy this noodle fresh, frozen, or dried. Some fresh or frozen versions don’t even require boiling, and can be added straight to a pan of vegetables and sauce or a pot of hot broth to heat through.
A variety of very skinny wheat noodle in Japanese cuisine, somen preparation shifts with the seasons. In the winter, look for it in steaming soups; in summer, to help beat the heat, the noodles are served chilled with a cold dipping sauce, and sometimes even over ice. Somen is also the star of a fun Japanese culinary tradition called “flowing noodles,” or nagashi-somen, in which diners use chopsticks to pluck noodles out of a bamboo chute as they flow by in a rush of cold water.
A slight variation on the wheat noodle recipe — namely, subbing in all or part of the wheat flour for gluten-free buckwheat flour — yields soba, another Japanese favorite. Like udon, soba can be served hot or cold, but is slightly too tender for stir-fry preparations; its nutty flavor shines in soups, alongside a dipping sauce, or tossed with vegetables in a bright dressing.
Ramen is a springy Japanese noodle served either in hot broths or flavorful sauces. Buy ramen dried (with a strong flavoring packet to create instant soup broth) or fresh; both forms require only a few minutes in boiling water. Ramen noodles contain wheat flour, water, and an alkaline agent called kansui, which helps the noodles maintain their tender texture while sitting in hot soup.
Technically a sub-category of wheat noodles, egg noodles contain the same basic ingredients, but with the addition of — obviously — eggs. The resulting dough is yellow in color, but be warned: some brands simply add dye to their wheat noodles to approximate the look of egg noodles without actually adding any egg! Always check the ingredients list to ensure you have true egg noodles on your hands before buying.
Thick and dense, lo mein noodles hold their own against heavy sauces and rigorous cooking methods. A Chinese-American menu staple also called lo mein is a flavorful stir-fry dish featuring these noodles, vegetables, and your choice of protein.
While they look similar to thinly-sliced wonton noodles, chow mein noodles get crispy in hot oil, lending an addictive texture to stir-fries. This is another noodle with which a Chinese-American menu item shares its name; though always studded with vegetables and protein, chow mein from a restaurant is either steamed and tender or fried and crispy.
Wonton noodles are made from the same dough as wonton wrappers, which means they’re springy and tender in texture. They’re sold in a variety of thicknesses, and you’ll most often find them in hot soups.
The rice noodle section of your local Asian grocery store can be an overwhelming place; the range of sizes, shapes, thicknesses, and textures is vast, though most contain just rice flour and water, making them naturally gluten-free. Some are sold simply as “rice noodles” (like what you’d find in pad thai or khao soi) but two of our favorite more specific varieties are vermicelli and tteok-bokki.
While “vermicelli” is a term used to describe thin noodles across various global cuisines, rice vermicelli specifically (also called rice sticks) is a favorite in East and Southeast Asian cooking. The noodles are pale white, nearly translucent, and are most commonly sold dried in folded, crunchy bunches. Though you’ll often find rice vermicelli stir-fried or in soup, a traditional Vietnamese dish called bún chả features the noodles simply boiled, then topped with pork, sauce, and herbs.
Though technically not noodles, these Korean rice cakes warrant a mention for their super chewy texture and easy preparation. Look for tteok-bokki in the freezer section, either as little logs or oblong slices; they can be added to a pot of boiling water straight from frozen, and bob to the top in just a few minutes to indicate doneness. Very sturdy, tteok-bokki is delicious sautéed, coated and stir-fried until crispy, served in thick sauces, or dropped into hearty soups.
Alternative starches make up a significant segment of Asian noodles; most are thin and glassy, and can range in color from pale orange (sweet potato starch) to completely clear (mung bean starch).
Cellophane noodles, aka glass noodles
A skinny, semi-transparent variety, cellophane noodles are made from water and a starch, such as mung bean, potato, or tapioca. Look for them in dried bunches, which need only to be soaked in water to rehydrate, rather than boiled. In Korean cuisine, cellophane noodles feature prominently; a variety made from sweet potato starch becomes a popular stir-fry called jap chae, while an acorn starch-based variety is made into soup, called dotori guksu.
The product of Japanese konjac yams, shirataki noodles are gummy and gelatinous and come packed in liquid in refrigerated bags. Often marketed as a health food due to their low carb and calorie count, shirataki come in a variety of shapes, sometimes mimicking Italian pasta shapes.