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Types of Chinese noodles

Chinese noodles and other different types of noodles found in Asian cuisine are, strictly speaking, not pasta. Some might be substitutes for pasta, but the texture is quite different.

The main difference is this - Italian pastas are made from durum wheat flour or from semolina, a type of coarse flour made from durum wheat. Durum is a special variety of wheat that has the higest content of protein and gluten. This gives Italian-pastas their characteristic al dente texture that is firm yet tender.

Other types of noodles - Chinese noodles, Japanese noodles, Korean noodles, Vietnamese noodles, etc - are usually made from common flour or the flour of other grains like rice or buckwheat. These noodles have a softer texture compared with Italian pasta. I used to prefer the softer texture of Asian noodles but now I prefer the firmer bite of Italian pastas.

In the modern context, however, the word "pasta" no longer refers to just Italian pastas, but also to various types of noodles or pasta made from various flours.

With globalisation, these tyes of noodles will increasingly find their way into non-Asian markets. Already, Japanese noodles like udon, soba and ramen are known and consumed internationally. In time, other Asian types of noodles can be expected to be more widely internationally available.

Chinese noodles

The story that Italian pastas originated from Chinese noodles - and were introduced to Italy by the famed traveller Marco Polo - is a false legend, invented by the Americans to promote the use of pasta in the United States. Historical records show that various types of pasta, or similar products, existed in Europe and the Middle East long before Marco Polo travelled to China in the early 14th century.

Nonetheless, it is curious that the Chinese have various types of noodles similar in shape to Italian pastas. Some even have a firm, chewey texture similar to pasta, but this is achieved by the addition of alkaline water, containing substances such as sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate, calcium hydroxide, or potassium hydroxide.

Regular Chinese noodles, called mian in Mandarin or mee in the Hokkien and Teochew dialects, is fairly thick like spaghetti. There are many variations and they are widely used in noodle soup, fried noodles, etc. Unlike Italian pastas, regular Chinese noodles are seldom sold in dried form. You may find them in the refrigerated (but not frozen) section of supermarkets.

Chinese pulled noodles or la mian is an interesting variation, expertly made by hand-pulling and cooked fresh, usually in Shanghai noodle restaurants. Depending on how many times the noodle dough is folded and pulled, these noodles can range from fairly thick to extremely fine, to the extent that nearly 30 strands of noodles can pass through the eye of a needle!

Dried noodles

A few types of Chinese noodles are, however, sold in dried form:

  • Thin or fine Chinese noodles are about the same thickness as angel hair pasta, slightly thinner than Japanese ramen and also not curly like ramen. Some are packed as straight like pasta but most come in the form of hand-size rolled up "balls". Good quality thin Chinese noodles have a crunchy, springy texture similar to al dente.

    These types of noodles are eaten mainly by the Cantonese in Hong Kong and South China. One Hong Kong brand, Noodle King, comes in nice gift packaging and with exotic flavours like scallop, shrimp roe and abalone. All you need to do is cook the noodles in water and you get flavoursome noodle soup. Unfortunately, the flavour is "enhanced" by MSG or monosodium glutamate so I don't recommend too much of these.

  • Flat Chinese noodles look like linguine or fettucine, but are even flatter. The cooked noodles are almost paper-thin. Called mee pok, they are eaten more by the Teochews, also of South China and usually served with fish ball or fish cake.

  • Less common is a type of very fine salted wheat noodles called Mi suah, or Mee Suah. It cooks very quickly, in about a minute. This is even faster than "instant noodles", which makes it great for those in a hurry. The texture is soft and tender. Because of this, it is not suitable for stir fries and is usually cooked in soup.

Rice noodles

In addition, Chinese rice noodles are popular not just among the Chinese but throughout East Asia. They come in two main shapes:
  • Flat rice noodles are called shahe fen or he fen (Mandarin), hor fan (Cantonese) or kway teow (Teochew / Hokkien) with variations in the spelling. They are relatively broad, ranging in with from about 5mm to 20 mm. One variety, called kway chap in Teochow, even comes as mid-size rectangles.

    These are prepared as noodle soup, fried "wet" with gravy or fried "dry" with soy sauce, sometimes with the addition of chilli. Flat rice nooldes is also the type of noodles used in the Thai fried noodle dish, Pad Thai. For some reason, flat rice noodles are not widely available in dried form.

  • Thin rice noodles are called bifun or mifun (Mandarin), mai fun (Cantonese) bee hoon or mee hoon ((Teochew / Hokkien). Among the many Chinese types of noodles, this is the only one that also takes on an Italian name and it is commonly called rice vermicelli. And whilst flat rice noodles are popular in Thailand, thin rice noodles are widely eaten in Vietnam.

    And whilst Italian pastas are generally boiled before being used in other dishes, rice vermicelli is generally soaked in water to soften, and then cooked in soup or fried. Some types break up easily, especially when fried. Others have a firmer texture and retain their strands.
Healthier tyes of noodles

The natural health and organic foods movement has given rise to several healthier types of noodles, particularly those made with brown rice flour.

These include:

-- Brown rice noodles or brown rice udon, which is similar in texture (and length) to Japanese udon. This is not to be confused with gluten-free rice pasta, which is made to resemble pasta more than Asian noodles.

-- Brown rice vermicelli made from the flour of brown rice as well as "red rice" - an Asian variety of rice that has a reddish brown colour.

Bean / starch noodles

Among the many Chinese types of noodles, probably the most unusual are bean noodles or starch noodles. These types of types or noodles are usually made from green bean or mung bean flour, often with the addition of taopica, sweet potato or other types of starch. The texture is crunchy.

Bean noodles are sometimes called glass noodles or cellophane noodles, because they are translucent. They may also be called "winter noodles". Chinese names include dong fen (Mandarin), saifun (Cantonese) or dang hoon (Hokkien). Besides the usual soups and stir fries, glass noodles are often cooked in Chinese hot pot or steam boat. They are also used as fillings for spring rolls and dumplings.

Health concerns: In 2004, government authorities in China found some brands of cellophane or glass noodles contaminated with lead. Further tests revealed that companies were making these types of noodles from cornstarch instead of mung beans in order to save costs. And they used lead-based whiteners to make their noodles translucent.

In December 2006, glass noodles were found to contain sodium formaldehyde sulfoxylate, a toxic and possibly carcinogenic industrial bleach. The company that produced these types of noodles, Yantai Deshengda Longkou Vermicelli Co. Ltd. was ordered to cease production and distribution.

I did not expect this article on the different types of noodles to stretch so long... so lets end here and continue in Part II with Japanese and other Asian noodles similar to Chinese noodles.

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