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Seriously Asian: Cellophane Noodles

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[Photograph: Chichi Wang]

Cellophane noodles—known in various guises as Chinese vermicelli, bean threads, bean thread noodles, crystal noodles, or glass noodles—should be one of those items you keep in your pantry to use in a pinch. Made from mung beans, yam, or potato starch, the gluten-free noodles are quite versatile. They are equally good tepid as they are warm, and they can be served in soups and hotpots, used in stir-fries in place of wheat noodles, or served cold in salads.

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Cellophane noodles are not as elastic as wheat noodles, but there's a pleasing slickness to the texture. They're somewhat tasteless, like konnyaku, unless you count the absence of flavor as a characteristic.

The noodles soften quickly in soup, but when kept tepid they remain al dente and soak up much of the seasonings in the dish. Fish sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, and chili oil are all common flavorings.

Look for cellophane noodles at any Asian grocery store. They come in various widths; the most common is a bundle of string-like noodles wrapped in plastic and a pink fishnet bag. To prepare the noodles, let them soften in boiled water for a few minutes, then use them in soups or dry dishes. If you're really pressed for time, consider adding the noodles to whatever soup broth you're having.

Growing up, cellophane noodles were a common addition, along with daikon and seaweed, to the pork or chicken stock my mother used for soup. The noodles are also in the Chinese classic dish, "ants climbing trees," combined with stir-fried ground beef or pork, garlic, and chili bean paste, (the name alludes to the way the ground meat bits cling to noodle strands).

One of my favorite cellophane noodle preparations is the vaguely Thai version of "ants climbing on a hill." The noodles, tepid, are tossed with stir-fried ground meat and plenty of garlic and chili, plus lots of cilantro and Thai basil. Light but filling,this make for a nice side dish or a casual meal.

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