Serious Eats

Chichi's Chinese: Non-Rice Vermicelli

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[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Vermicelli, mung bean vermicelli, mung bean thread: What's in a name?

Last week I talked about dried rice vermicelli. Now, I'd like to cover mung bean vermicelli or sweet potato vermicelli. In other words, all those wonderful non-rice vermicelli that you find in the dry goods noodle section of your Chinese market.

Defining Vermicelli

The other day someone asked me for a definition of the word vermicelli, and I realized that after all these years of eating it, I only had a working definition. My working definition was that vermicelli means extra skinny rice, mung bean or sweet potato noodle, the latter which is sometimes referred to not as vermicelli at all, but "mung bean thread" or "cellophane noodle."

But then I discovered a) that vermicelli, as it is used in the original Italian sense of the word, refers to a pasta that is thicker than spaghetti. Now this confused me, because I'd always thought vermicelli were skinny things. Kenji thinks that maybe in Italian, vermicelli can be thicker, but that the common usage of vermicelli in English means "skinny pasta," like angel hair.

And b) that rice vermicelli can actually refer to any long rice noodle regardless of its circumference. For instance Guilin rice noodles, which are the width of bucatini, are in some packages at the Chinese market also called vermicelli!

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This is all very frustrating, I know. But I think we can make the tenuous claim that not all vermicelli are thin.

OK, onto the actual cooking and eating of the frustratingly named vermicelli.

Let me just start out by saying that I can't get enough of vermicelli, rice or non-rice. When I was a kid, mung-bean vermicelli (i.e., cellophane noodles) came in those pink fishnet bags - individually wrapped, little translucent bundles of mung bean that my mother would soak in hot water, then add to her pork bone soups or stir-fry dry, with ground pork and greens.

I don't know when exactly vermicelli began to mean more to me than just rice or mung bean, encompassing now, the all-important sweet potato vermicelli. But that was a momentous development in my noodle-eating life, because now a whole new world of textures and mildly different tastes had opened up. Mung bean vermicelli (or cellophane) is slippery and slurp-able, but sweet potato vermicelli are just so much chewier. On some packages of thick sweet potato vermicelli, there is even a gutsy claim that the noodles are impossible to overcook! Impossible, they say!

I don't know about impossible, but it is indeed very difficult to overcook sweet potato vermicelli (or cellophane.) For those of you who don't like a little wrestling with your food before you digest, this may not be the noodle for you. It's not particularly flavorful, I'll admit, but it's just so darn fun to eat. Especially in soup.

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But when I'm in the mood to really luxuriate in the texture and flavor of the noodle, then I eat them swimming in a sauce of chili oil, black rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sometimes tahini. I top the noodles with chopped nuts of some kind, some cilantro or scallions. It's a pretty wonderful noodle meal, in 15 minutes or less. Served either hot or cold, the noodles are so good that I don't even care what they're technically called. What's in a name, after all?

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