I hate to break this to you, but Marco Polo did not kick-start the pasta industry in Italy by bringing back dried macaroni from China. That story was dreamt up in the mid-1900s by an American pasta manufacturing group perhaps intent on giving spaghetti a more exotic backstory.
The debunking of the Polo myth in no way diminishes the importance of Asian noodles to the world, especially as that continent’s diverse cuisines have spread to a much larger audience in the last century. It’s still possible in China to witness hand-pulled noodles being made as I once did (indulge me here) in the shadow of the Great Wall; the display was more impressive and kinetic than any virtuoso pizza dough performance as the showman tossed and whipped the strands into improbable lengths. But just as with today’s Italian pasta, most noodle production is automated and cellophane packaged. What follows is a short guide to what’s on shelves and in dishes.
China: China could easily be split into two entries as noodles are made from wheat in the north and rice in the south. Wheat noodles, called mein (as in, chow mein) can be made with or without egg and are often sold pre-portioned in dried “nests.” (Some noodles can also be found in the frozen foods chests at Asian grocery stores.) Fan, fen fun: they’re all names for noodles made from rice flour or a starch such as mung bean. Shapes vary from thread-like (saifun) to wide and flat. Cooking methods range from soups and stir-fries to deep-frying in hot oil. Ants Climbing a Tree is a Sichuan dish based on such cellophane noodles.
Japan: Our current infatuation with ramen, or Chinese-style wheat noodles, is only the tip of the chopstick in this noodle-mad nation. The three most common types are udon (normally thick, round and made from wheat flour), ramen and soba—thin, fashionably greyish-brown and sometimes mixed with yam starch or green tea powder. Soba and udon can be eaten hot or cold, in soups or drained and served (at times on a bamboo mat) with a soba dipping sauce called mentsuyu.
Korea: Korea’s noodle culture is similar to the buckwheat-based style of Japan and also features the strands (myeon or myun) in soups, stir-fries or, as in the case of naeng myun, served icy (sometimes literally) in a bowl of vinegary broth with toppings and condiments.
Thailand: Thai cuisine employs ribbon-like rice noodles in dishes such as the classic pad Thai and slithery woon sen, or mung bean threads, also known as glass noodles, in salads such as the spicy yam woon sen with shrimp and pork.
Vietnam: Vietnamese noodle cuisine is famous for pho; the bowl of linguine-shaped rice noodles in a broth of toasted spices with various odd beef parts is almost synonymous with the country—though the dish was created only in the early 1900s. But think spring rolls and you’ll recall the glassy mung bean threads that serve as a filling—yet another way the versatile noodle can be used.
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