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A great wide world of noodles. [Above photograph: Vicky Wasik; others: Kevin Cox, unless otherwise noted]

The world of Asian noodles is vast. Walk into any Asian market and you'll see aisles of noodles, each of different shapes, lengths, and textures. Noodles in Asia are more than a food—they're an essential part of culture with a 4,000 year history. Even the noodles' length has significance—they are often symbols of longevity in celebratory meals.

For the amateur noodle shopper, parsing through a grocery's many noodle options can be mindboggling. Similar styles of noodles come packaged both soft and dried from China, Taiwan, and throughout South East Asia. The number of varieties alone are overwhelming, heightened by the absence of any standardized noodle nomenclature, language, or even common classification. This makes it difficult to know which noodles are which, and how to choose between them. So here's a guide to help you identify some of the most common noodles available in Asian groceries in the U.S.

Asian Noodles vs. Italian Pasta

Though some varieties look similar, Asian noodles and Italian pasta have some important differences. Most pasta is designed to be cooked to the same al dente texture, but Asian noodles are different. Some are soft; others have a firm bite. Some are chewy; others, like ramen, have a more springy resistance to the teeth.

Asian noodles can be made with rice, yam, and mung bean in addition to wheat flour, and even that wheat is a different variety than the durum wheat used in pasta. All of these differences in texture and flavor mean you usually can't substitute an Italian pasta for an Asian noodle.

Finding Your Noodles

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Most Asian markets group noodles by nationality: soba near udon and lo mein near misua. So think about the origins of the dish you plan to make, then seek out the corresponding country. But don't overthink it: many noodles are used in multiple cuisines, so you'll see repeats under different names. And remember, the hunt is half the fun!

Storing Your Noodles

Most noodles in markets are sold dried, and they'll sit fine in a cool, dry place, though they can grow stale after a few months or so. Fresh noodles, such as Chinese egg or soft rice noodles, should be kept in their original packaging and refrigerated for no longer than a few days or a week, tops. (Though they're best fresh made on the same day if you can find them.)

Cooking Your Noodles

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As with Italian pasta, you don't want to overcook your noodles. Depending on thickness, soft wheat noodles rarely take more than three to five minutes to cook. Dried versions will take a little longer, but par-cooked noodles, like chow mein, only need reheating in a pot or pan.

Rice noodles cook even faster than wheat—they soften in less than a minute in boiling water. Mung bean and yam noodles also cook lightning fast, and you may not even need boiling water to cook them—hot water should be fine.

Wheat Noodles

The broadest category of noodles, wheat noodles are made with some form of wheat flour, water, and sometimes egg, salt or other additives, such as lye-water (alkaline). Wheat-based noodles are loosely referred to in Chinese cookery as "mien" (though there are many different names depending on language and dialect throughout Asia). Despite their common ingredients they vary in taste, texture and, most importantly, jiao jing, or "chew power" in Mandarin.

Lo Mein

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Soft noodles you can sink your teeth into, turned yellow by an alkaline salt added to the dough. Heavy, robust sauces cling to the thick noodles, which are well-suited for big, chunky ingredients like beef and vegetables.

Also called: Lao miàn, lo mi.
Shape: Sold both fresh and dried. The noodles are round and long, over a foot in length. They look like thick Italian spaghetti but with a more yellow hue.
Texture: The fat, dense noodles have a soft, almost doughy texture when cooked.
How they're used: These are the common noodles in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant dishes, where they're often doused or mixed with thick sauces and chunky ingredients. The noodles take well to heat and extended cooking while still tasting fresh.
Recipes: Stir-Fried Lo Mein With Beef and Broccoli; Stir-Fried Lo Mein With Charred Cabbage, Shiitake, and Chives; Easy Cold Sesame Noodles With Shredded Chicken

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Yaka Mien

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Westernized Chinese wheat noodles sometimes called "Chinese spaghetti." These were developed the United States (some claim in New Orleans) by Cantonese immigrants as a good noodle for soups. The machine-made wheat and egg noodles are fat and dense, similar to lo mein, only thicker and chewier. They're common in local neighborhood Chinese take-out joints and are commonly thought of as a good morning-after hangover cure.

Also called: Yat ca mien, yet ca mien.
Shape: Sold both soft or dry. The noodles are round with a similar thickness to thick spaghetti or udon, and are 10 to 12 inches long.
Texture: Cooks to a yellow color with a dense and doughy noodle bite.
How they're used: Most traditionally used in noodle soups with sliced beef, egg and vegetables.
Recipes: Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

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La Mien

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Though it sounds similar to lo mein, la mien is a different noodle, traditionally sold soft and fresh, though mass-produced versions are available dried. The best are made by hand: a noodle-maker slaps, stretches, and twists a lump of dough into long strands that signify prosperity and longevity.

Also called: La mian, hand-pulled noodles, longevity noodles, yellow mee (if made with egg), hokkien mee.
Shape: The round, moderately thick noodles are usually sold soft, though sometimes also dried. They are very long—they can reach two feet or longer—and the longer the noodle, the more auspicious the symbolism. The exact thickness depends on the skill and intentions of the noodle-maker.
Texture: Chewy, dense and a little slippery with a slightly porous surface that absorbs some sauce.
How they're used: Boiled and added to soup or tossed with stir fries.

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Misua

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These noodles are thin like vermicelli, which means they tend to form a large mass that is used to bind other ingredients in a dish together.

Also called: Mee sua, miàn xiàn, mein sin, gong miàn.
Shape: Usually sold dried. The noodles are round and very thin, like angel hair, but pale yellow. Usually 10 inches or longer.
Texture: Chewy but delicate due to their thin diameter. These noodles hold sauces well.
How they're used: Boil them to soften, then stir fry quickly with light ingredients like shrimp and vegetables. They brown easily and are perfect for picking up smoky wok hei flavor.
Recipes: Taiwanese Pan-Fried Rice Noodles (wheat noodles work well in this recipe)

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Chow Mein

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Unlike lo mein ("lo" implies boiling in Chinese), chow mein come to the table crispy ("chow" refers to frying). These noodles are used in fried dishes where they are meant to retain a satisfying firmness or crunch.

Also called: Jau mein, chu miàn, Hong Kong-style pan-fried noodles.
Shape: Usually sold parboiled so they can be tossed right in the wok from the bag. They're thin and round, about double the thickness of vermicelli.
Texture: Becasue they are usually stir fried in dishes they offer at least some crispy firmness when cooked, but with soft, chewy spots. Often cooked to a hard, crunchy texture.
How they're used: You can pan—or deep—fry these noodles without boiling them first. They're popular in stir-fried noodles dishes when a firm or crispy noodle texture is desired. They can also be deep fried into a "bed" of crunchy noodles for Cantonese dishes.
Recipes: Stir Fried Chow Mein With Four Vegetables; Crispy Pan-Fried Noodle Cakes With Seafood

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Mee Pok

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Firm, slender flat noodles used in stir frying or soups. Whether sold dry or soft, the noodles have a loose flour powder coating that is shaken off before blanching. Their width helps sauce cling on, delivering plenty of flavor and a soft, rich texture with every bite.

Also called: Miàn bao.
Shape: Skinny and flat, about 1/4 inch wide and about 10 inches long. When soft they are often longer but cut down to the desired length.
Texture: Slippery, springy, firm, and chewy.
How they're used: These are commonly used in dishes doused with sauce or quickly stir fried. The noodles are cooked to a springy, al dente firmness and commonly mixed with sauces and fishball (as in mee pok) or meat and veg (bak chor mee).

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Wonton Noodles

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Made from the same dough as wonton skins, these noodles are usually sold fresh in the refrigerated section. They come in a variety of widths, but all work well in wonton noodle soup.

Also called: Yun-tun mian; wan-tan min, wonton mee.
Shape: There are two main varieties: round, similar to a thin spaghetti; and flat, similar to linguini. Each shape is about a foot long.
Texture: Soft, springy, and tender.
How they're used: Commonly cooked into soups and stir fried with with a bit of stock, as in Singaporean hokkien mee.
Recipes: Wonton Noodle Soup With Chicken and Shiitakes

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Udon

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One of the thickest noodles you'll find in a market, it's prized by the Japanese for its big, chewy bite. Udon are extremely popular and come in a variety of sizes and thicknesses. They're sold dried, fresh, and frozen.

Shape: Usually round, though sometimes oblong or square. Most varieties are about 12 inches long.
Texture: Dense and chewy.
How they're used: Often the centerpiece for hot soups, brothy Asian "casseroles," or the base of a large bowl with toppings of meat and vegetable toppings with a light soy sauce.
Recipes: Japanese Udon with Mushroom-Soy Broth with Stir-fried Mushroom and Cabbage; Yaki Udon With Shrimp; Udon Noodles with Bay Scallops and Baby Bok Choy; Tom Kha Udon Soup with Mushrooms

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Ramen

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A classic Japanese (though Chinese-inspired) noodle made of wheat flour, salt, water, and an alkaline agent that turns the noodles especially wavy and springy. Despite their recent media attention, alkaline noodles are nothing new—just a wheat-flour noodle with the addition of "lye water," or kan sui (an alkaline mixture) which imparts a signature "jian" flavor. The alkaline salt turns the noodles yellow-ish and keeps them springy and firm in hot broths.

Though some manufacturers sell fresh ramen (like Sun Noodle), by far the most common version in grocery stores is inexpensive instant ramen, pre-cooked and fried to become shelf stable. Dirt cheap and darn delicious (though not as springy as their fresh counterparts), they're ready to eat after just a couple minutes of boiling.

Also called: Oil noodles, instant noodles, yi mien.
Shape: When sold dried, the noodles are compressed into a brick. As they cook they unfurl to about 12 inches long, with wavy kinks and curls.
Texture: Springy to the teeth, but that texture will soften after prolonged exposure to water. Ramen fans slurp their noodles as fast as possible to taste them at their textural best.
How they're used: Slurped in soup or broken up and eaten "raw" in salads or as a quick snack.
Recipes: Ramen Hacks: 30+ Easy Ways to Upgrade Your Instant Noodles; Rich and Creamy Tonkotsu Ramen Broth; Chicken Ramen; Miso Ramen With Crispy Pork and Burnt Garlic-Sesame Oil

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Soba

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These iconic buckwheat noodles from Japan are full of protein and fiber. They're famous for a distinctly nutty, savory flavor in a strong, earthy buckwheat base. The higher percentage of buckwheat in the noodle, the higher the quality and price.

Shape: Long, thin and round, with a beige or light brown color. The noodles come in serving-sized bunches, often with a ribbon around them. They are straight sticks like short spaghetti, about 8 to 10 inches long.
Texture: Firm with an almost meaty texture that retains some bite even after cooking.
How they're used: These noodles are most popular served in a cold broth, or neat alongside one or two dipping sauces. Proper eating etiquette is to slurp them from chopsticks to mouth (some say the louder the better). They are also commonly stir fried or cooked into soup.
Recipes: Hot Soba; Soba Noodle Soup with Chicken, Tofu, and Bok Choy; Soba Noodles With Shrimp and Wakame; Make-Ahead Peanut Soba Noodles with Tofu and Pickled Bean Sprouts

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Somen

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Japanese wheat flour noodles enriched with oil to make them thin and delicate. These elegant noodles are used in similar ways to soba but have a more refined, less nutty flavor.

Shape: Bundled in straight dried sticks like soba. Thin, round, and white, they are a little thicker than angelhair pasta.
Texture: Dense with some bite, but their thinness means they're also delicate.
How they're used: Like soba, usually served cold and neat with sauce for dipping on the side. But also used in some soups. As with soba, slurping loudly is respected.
Recipes: Cold Somen Noodles with Dipping Sauce

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Naengmyeon

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Korean noodles made with a variety of starches, but most typically buckwheat that may be bolstered with potato, arrowroot, or kudzu starch. Long, thin, and springy, they have a chewier, more jelly-like bite than soba, but similarly excel in cold soups. The soups are so cold that they sometimes come with ice shaved into the bowl. Dried naengmyeon packages will often include broth flavor packets to add to cold liquid.

Also called: Raengmyeon, naengmyun, or mul naengmyeon.
Shape: Bundled in straight dried sticks like soba. Thin, round, and usually dark brown.
Texture: Buckwheat makes these noodles dense while other starches can add a jelly-like chew. They have a springy edge despite their softness when cooked.
How they're used: Most commonly served in a very cold broth (poultry or beef) with julienned vegetables, daikon radish, eggs and thin slices of meat or fish. Ingredients are served in a steel bowl with mustard oil or Korean chili paste (gochujang) to add heat.
Recipes: Korean Cold Noodle Soup

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Rice Noodles

Like wheat noodles, rice noodles come in a dizzying number of varieties. Loosely referred to as fun or fen in Cantonese, they're usually made with little more than rice flour and water. Most rice noodles are quite bland—beyond a subtle rice flavor they're mostly a carrier for bolder ingredients in a dish. They're more interesting for their texture, which can be thin and delicate or thick and soft.

Rice noodles cook up extremely fast. Fresh ones need only a minute or two while some dried versions need only to rehydrate, not boil, before further cooking. So when cooking them, be sure to have everything else ready so the noodles don't sit too long and bind together.

Rice Vermicelli

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Very thin, snow-white noodles with a delicate appearance and texture. They are used in many dishes (such as stir fries) to intermingle with other ingredients, or in soups and fresh spring rolls.

Also called: Mi fén, bun, sen mae, mai fun, bee hoon.
Shape: Usually sold in dry hard bunches bent in half. Very thin, round, and up to 18 inches in length.
Texture: Soft, slippery and slightly chewy when cooked.
How they're used: Cooked into soup, chilled in salads and spring rolls, tossed into stir fries, or deep fried into crispy nests for sauces. Great with seafood, such as the Singaporean dish crab bee hoon.
Recipes: Vermicelli in Chili Oil, Soy Sauce, and Vinegar; Vietnamese Pork With Vermicelli Noodles and Nuoc Cham; Fried Bee Hoon (Singapore Noodles)

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Kway Teow

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A thicker, wider, and more robust version of rice vermicelli that stands up better to bold flavors. The width—about as wide as fettucini, though sometimes wider—grabs hold of sauce, which makes for a silky dish of noodles. An extremely popular street food in Singapore.

Also called: Gou tiao, sen yai.
Shape: Both fresh and dry versions are long, flat, and about 1/4 inch wide. Similar varieties are round and thinner, like linguini.
Texture: Mildly slippery and opaque with slight chewiness and a wide surface area for absorbing flavors.
How they're used: These flat noodles are excellent in stir fries with thick, hearty sauces or strong-flavored ingredients, such as in char kway teow, or other dishes with a thick gravy to get trapped between the noodles. Also often used in soups like spicy, coconut-enriched laksa (round noodle version).

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Rice Sticks

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Straight flat noodle sticks in three different sizes that each have their own name. Extremely popular throughout Asia. Usually sold dried.

Also called: Rice noodles (thin), bahn pho (medium), pad thai or jantaboon (wide).
Shape: Long (10 to 12 inches), straight, flat, and opaque, like bleached fettuccini.
Texture: Soft and slippery when cooked with moderate firmness and chewiness.
How they're used: Ubiquitous in Southaast Asia in soups, pho, pad Thai, and stir fries.
Recipes: Traditional Beef Pho; Quick and Easy 1-Hour Pho; Chicken Pad Thai

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Chow Fun & Mi Xian

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Chow fun are flat, shiny, and wide noodles with a soft, voluptuous chew. They're extremely popular in Cantonese cooking. A fatter version, mi xian, offers an even more satisfying bite. Usually sold fresh in a sealed plastic pouch, as the edges can dry out in open air.

Also called: Chow fun: shahe fen, ho fen, hor fun. Mi Xian: bee sua, sen lak, guilin mifen, mai sin.
Shape: Chow fun: Flat, bright white, and wide—up to two inches. Mi Xian: Round or slightly flat, medium thin, cut into 12-inch-long ribbons.
Texture: Very slick, slippery and chewy. They soften and start to disintegrate after sitting in hot broth for too long. Often described as silky.
How they're used: Less-than-fresh noodles can be steamed or briefly boiled, but they're best eaten soon after they're made. Chow fun are stir fried with rich sauces like soy thickened with cornstarch. Mi xian are used in stir fries and spicy soups.
Recipes: Dry-Fried Chow Fun with Chinese Broccoli; Bok Choy with Chives, Black Bean Sauce, and Chow Fun

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Chee Cheong Fun

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An extra-wide version of steamed chow fun noodles rolled up around itself like a stubby Swiss roll cake. They're silky smooth, soft and chewy, and instantly addictive. You can find them in some specialty stores—often on weekends—when they're made fresh in small quantities, but they're sometimes sold packaged. Freshness is everything with these noodles, and you may have to look hard to find them, but if you've ever had them at dim sum, you'll know they're worth it.

Also called: Chee cheong fen, steamed rice roll, pig intestine noodles, zhaliang noodles.
Shape: The scroll-like rolls are quite distinctive; most are between six and eight inches long. They turn into thin, floppy squares when unrolled, but are usually eaten in their rolled-up form.
Texture: Super silky and slippery, bright white, and slightly chewy with a soft bite.
How they're used: A popular dim sum dish consists of steamed chee cheong fun filled with shrimp, beef, or pork, and doused with soy sauce. The noodles are also served as a snack called zhaliang: steamed noodles with fried you tiao (fried savory crullers) inside.

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Silver Needle

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Stubby pointed worm-shaped noodles made with rice flour and tapioca starch. The tapioca adds a slippery sheen on the surface of the noodles and a firm chew factor, giving it a delightfully satisfying texture. You may need to special order these, as they're not the most common noodles in Chinese markets.

Also called: Lao shu fen, pearl noodles, rat tails.
Shape: Sold fresh in liquid or vacuum-sealed plastic. Round, short and fat, about two inches long and up to 1/4 inch wide, with pointed tips on each end, like little white pointy worms.
Texture: Very slippery and chewy with silky-yet-firm texture.
How they're used: Stir fry dishes and clay pot casseroles where you need a firm, hefty noodle.

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Lai Fan

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Semi-thick noodles made from rice flour and tapioca starch, like silver needle noodles, only long and uniformly thin with cut ends, instead of tapering "tails." Generally sold fresh.

Also called: Lai fun (Cantonese) or bahn canh (Vietnam).
Shape: Like silver needle noodles, they're round and chubby, but thinner and longer, about six to eight inches.
Texture: Extremely slippery, firm, and springy.
How they're used: Most commonly served as Malay fried lai fan: stir fried noodles with chicken, shrimp, fishcake, and greens. Also served as noodles for soups and even fish-based Penang-style laksa.

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Rice Paper

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Though not truly a noodle, these flat sheets are made from a similar rice flour dough, which is pressed between bamboo mats to get flattened. The mats leave a distinct basket weave impression on the paper.

Also called: Bahn trang, summer roll wrappers/skins.
Shape: The dried sheets are typically sold in circles, but they also come in square and triangular shapes.
Texture: When dipped in lukewarm water to rehydrate, they turn soft, sticky, and almost clear. They dry in seconds, developing a tacky, pliable skin that adheres well to itself.
How they're used: Rehydrated circular sheets are used to wrap Vietnamese summer rolls. Square and triangular sheets are often wrapped around meat for grilling.

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Ddeok

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Though technically not noodles, these Korean rice cakes are made from glutinous rice flour that's steamed, pounded, or boiled into many different shapes and sizes, from flat oblong "chips" (a common Cantonese form) to dense, thick tubes. Sometimes other starches or flours are added for extra flavor. Eating ddeok in soup is almost a de rigeur New Year's tradition, but these are a staple noodle in Korean kitchens.

Also called: Korean rice cakes, tteock, dduk, ddeog, thuck, chapssal (if sweet).
Shape: There are many shapes and sizes, but the two most common are flat circular chips and stubby cylinders.
Texture: They usually have a silky-smooth surface and dense, almost sticky center. Sometimes they develop a pasty or creamy exterior as the rice flour dissolves in hot broth.
How they're used: These appear in hundreds of soups, casseroles and stir fried dishes, but the most popular version is ddeok guk, a hearty pork or beef broth with slices of ddeok cooked in it along with herbs and other ingredients.
Recipes: Korean Rice Cakes (Dok Boki); Fried Rice Cakes with Bacon and Cabbage; Rice Cakes with Kimchi, Bacon, and Spinach; Rice Cakes With Chili Paste, Fermented Black Bean, and Sichuan Peppercorn; Stir-Fried Rice Cakes

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Noodles Made With Other Starches

Other vegetable starches like sweet potato and mung bean are also used to make noodles. The refined starches are mixed into a paste with water and then extruded into different shapes before steaming. They cook even faster than rice noodles—just a dip in hot water for some—and they tend to be clear with chewy, almost rubbery textures. They're also the most slippery noodles, so hold on with your chopsticks.

Mung Bean Threads

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Clear, glass-like noodles made from mung bean starch paste. They are usually sold dry and brittle, folded into individual bunches with several bundled together in the package.

Also called: Cellophane noodles, glass noodles, crystal noodles, fun sze, wun sen, fan pei.
Shape: Usually very thin and round, like clear angelhair nested into bundles, but they can come thicker. The dough is also made into sheets called fan pei (glass paper).
Texture: A minute or less in hot water turns these noodles clear, silky, and almost rubbery. Once they're soft they're ready to join any dish.
How they're used: This is a classic noodle for many Thai and Vietnamese stir fries and soups. They're also get cooked with chili paste, chili oil, and ground pork and cooled for a cold Sichuan noodle dish, or are deep fried into dramatic brittle "birds nests."
Recipes: Cellophane Noodles with Pork and Thai Basil

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Jap Che

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

The classic Korean cellophane noodle made from sweet potato starch. It has a similar texture to mung bean noodles and is most popular mixed with stir fried ingredients.

Also called: Korean glass noodles, chap che.
Shape: The dried noodles come in foot-long sticks or squiggly bundles that straighten out when softned. Fresh noodles are sometimes sold wrapped in plastic.
Texture: Rubbery, slippery, and dense to the bite.
How they're used: Best known for the classic Korean stir fry dish jap che, delivering a clean background for meats and vegetables cooked in sesame oil. Also served with stews/casseroles and soups.
Recipes: Korean Japchae (Noodles with Spinach, Carrot, and Beef)

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Shirataki

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A Japanese yam starch noodle marketed as health food since it's full of fiber and has virtually no calories. It's sold soft, packaged in water. Sometimes tofu or seaweed is mixed into the dough for the addition of protein (and a few calories). The plain noodles are largely flavorless, though some find a tingle of starchy taste from the liquid they come packaged in—easily eliminated by a rinse in warm water before cooking.

Also called: Yam noodle, tofu shirataki.
Shape: Round, thin white strands like thicker than normal vermicelli.
Texture: Opaque to translucent with a slightly gelatinous surface, and a chewy springiness.
How they're used: Like other starch noodles, these cook very quickly and retain a slight rubbery firmness. It's best to rinse the noodles before cooking to eliminate any taste of the packaging liquid. Once cooked, the noodles can be used like other rice-based noodles in Japanese soups, hot pots like sukiyaki, and stir fries.
Recipes: Wheat Gluten and Cold Noodles, Sichuan-Style; Beef Trim Sukiyaki; Traditional Sukiyaki (Japanese Beef Hot Pot)

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