Skip to main content

Chinese noodles

Noodles are, to indulge an obvious pun, a staple of Chinese dishes.

Whether Cantonese or Mandarin, Hunan or Szechuan, some type of noodle is almost always found in breakfast, lunch or dinner recipes. Rice grains are more commonly associated with Chinese dishes. But, in fact, noodles are nearly always present in some form. They have been a prominent part of the Chinese meal since at least when the Han Dynasty ruled China over 2,000 years ago.

Though other cultures have sometimes claimed to have invented them, including the Arabs and Italians, the archaeological evidence favors the Chinese. Only a couple of years ago, researchers uncovered the remains of noodles at Lajia in Qinghai that are about 4,000 years old.

Chinese noodles can be usefully divided into two types, depending on whether they're made from rice flour or wheat flour. Rice noodles are more typical of southern Chinese cuisine, while wheat-based noodles are usually associated with the north. The differences are being erased as the decades go by, but historically the north was a major wheat producer. There is a third type, less common, made from Mung Bean starch.

Wheat noodles are today perhaps the more common type and are made with or without eggs. But whatever the material, like their Italian progeny, they may be long or short, fat or thin. However, unlike most Italian, Chinese noodles typically cook much faster, often reaching al dente stage in five minutes.

Egg and wheat flour noodles use the yolk as well as the white, and therefore are easily identified by their yellow color. Rice noodles, as the name suggests are made from rice flour and can be found either vermicelli style or as thick, flat noodles called hefen.

One common use for wheat-based noodles is in making mein. Lo Mein boils the noodle in a wok, then flavors it with soy sauce, sugar and other seasonings. This is often confused with the American style, which may stir fry the noodle. But that technique is reserved for Chow Mein in authentic Chinese dishes. Lo Mein is soft, Chow Mein is crispy.

One popular use for rice noodles is in a dish called Beef Chow Fun. This common Cantonese recipe uses stir-fried beef and the hefen form, along with bean sprouts. The dish can be found in nearly any Chinese food restaurant in Hong Kong. As a cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong has a restaurant of nearly every country's cuisine.

Still, the type made from Mung Bean are interesting, if for no other reason than their evocative name: cellophane noodles. Sometimes called glass noodles, they are a thin vermicelli that are nearly transparent in individual strands. Healthy and delicious, they're sometimes unattractive to the Western eye thanks to their worm-like appearance. But dipped in a spicy sauce of soy and chile powder, they're unbeatable.

Whichever style you prefer, you're sure to enjoy some Chinese noodles whenever you sample the cuisine of this magnificent culture.