Navigating your way through the oodles of noodles in the Asian repertoire can be dizzying. But persevere. There's something wholeheartedly comforting about eating noodles tangled in heady pork stock, a spicy stir-fry, or served cold with chilli, coriander and fish sauce. Selecting the right noodle is important, so we've asked the experts for some guidance.
Read their advice below, or click on each noodle type in the interactive graphic above for cooking tips and a recipe.
Use your noodles
Karen Martini's pad Thai (recipe here). Photo: Marcel Aucar
Soft and springy, these Japanese wheat noodles are best when fresh. At Melbourne's Nama Nama cafe, udon chef Yosuke Furukawa makes udon noodles using a traditional feet-kneading process (everything's wrapped in plastic) before hand-rolling the resistant dough and cutting it to medium thickness.
"There's something about udon that's very generous and energetic," Nama Nama co-owner Simon Denton says. "But they should never be starchy."
A vigorous cooking regimen ensures that. Before serving, Furukawa cooks the noodles in boiling water twice, refreshes them under cold water twice, and re-heats to serve. The resulting noodles are bouncy and light and are served in hot broths topped with pork, seaweed and quail egg, say, or cold with a dipping sauce and condiments like spring onion and horseradish.
Denton likes cold udon dishes, especially in summer. He admits that when he's at home and fresh noodles aren't available, he uses Spiral Organic udon noodles.
Commonly used in Malaysian and Thai hawker cuisine, the origins of thick, fresh hokkien egg noodles are Chinese. Said to be a favoured noodle of the Hokkien Chinese, hokkien noodles are ideal for stir-fries and salads. Andy Pruksa, co-owner of Sydney Thai restaurant and tuk shop Muum Maam, serves a hokkien noodle stir-fry as a lunch special from his street-style cart.
He believes hokkien noodles intensify the overall flavour of a stir-fry because they absorb and hold the sauce. Hokkien noodles tend not to be used in Thai soups as they're considered too thick to hold the sauce. Pruksa says the secret to cooking great hokkien noodles is not to overcook them.
Let's resolve the vermicelli noodle debate. Often confused as glass or cellophane noodles, vermicelli rice noodles are long thin noodles made from rice flour and are widely used in rice-paper rolls, cold salads and braises. Cellophane noodles (or glass noodles, Chinese vermicelli) are thin translucent noodles made from mung bean starch and used in hot pots, stir-fries and soups. In Korea, vermicelli noodles are made from sweet potato starch or buckwheat, and are popular in stir-fries or served cold.
Jason Lui, manager of Melbourne's Cantonese darling Flower Drum, says rice vermicelli is particularly good for stir-fries. He recommends gently poaching the noodles before tossing them through the stir-fry, which will stiffen the noodle.
"For Asian braises with lots of sauce, use rice vermicelli too," he says. The moisture is soaked into the noodle for a softer, spongier texture.
What's Flower Drum's vermicelli of choice? Happy Swallow.
It's the colour and flavour of these thin Japanese noodles that initially appeals. Depending on the amount of buckwheat flour used to make them, soba noodles range from light beige to dark brown and have a distinct nutty flavour.
Don Kim, manager at Brisbane's pint-sized noodle bar Menya Mappen, says soba noodles are particularly tasty when served cold. He suggests a traditional Japanese cold soba dish served with soy-based dipping sauce and shredded seaweed, spring onions and sesame.
At Menya Mappen, the flavour of soba noodles can take a back seat when served in hot pork or soy broths and topped with lively sauces. The bar uses dry soba noodles imported from Japan, but Kim says most packet soba noodles are flavoursome.
"They should be washed," he insists. The secret to great soba is rinsing them with cold water after cooking until the water runs clear, and re-heating to serve.
At Melbourne's fun and frugal pho haven, I Love Pho 264, Vietnamese (or Chinese, depending on who you talk to) thin pho rice noodles come twisting in exhilarating broths topped with sliced meats and fresh herbs. The soul of pho is in the broth, but good pho noodles will enhance the final bowl. At I Love Pho 264, customers choose between fresh Melbourne-made pho noodles and reconstituted pho noodles.
"Fresher noodles are tastier," says Hung Vo, son of I Love Pho 264's founders. "They're soft and thick and soak up the flavours more." Reconstituted noodles are thinner and harder and Vo recommends soaking them in cold water before cooking.
"Reconstituted noodles are popular because they have less fat, less oil and for many people the flavour is familiar," he says. If using reconstituted noodles at home for pho, Vo recommends Golden Dragon or Number One pho noodles.
Flat egg noodles
When it comes to Asian noodles, fresh is best according to Palisa Anderson, co-director of Sydney's five Chat Thai restaurants and daughter of Chat Thai founder Amy Chanta. She would know. Every day the Chat Thai chain serves an average of 90 kilograms of Asian noodles to hungry punters.
"Flat egg noodles are the most popular," she says of the soft and springy noodle served widely throughout Asia, and also known as Lo Mein Noodles or Cantonese noodles.
At Chat Thai, flat egg noodles come snaking in a five-spice duck broth with shredded duck, say, or as a dry option with barbecued pork, prawn and chicken wontons.
"They're a very versatile noodles, similar to fettuccine," Anderson says. For a quick meal at home, she suggests blanching fresh egg noodles and serving with a selection of condiments.