Pasta originated in China. Scholars credit the Chinese with making noodles from rice flour as early as 1700 B.C.E., the 17th century before the common era (or before Christ, if you still use the old system).
The pasta-centric Italians believe pasta dates back to the ancient Etruscans, who inhabited the Etruria region of Italy (the central western portion of Italy, what now are Tuscany, Latium and Umbria). They occupied the area from the Iron Age into Roman times (the 11th century B.C.E. to the 1st century B.C.E.).
Around 400 B.C.E., the Etruscans began to prepare a very wide, lasagna-type noodle made of spelt, an early version of wheat.
The Romans who followed made what they called lagane, a kind of lasagna, from a dough of water and flour. However, both the Etruscans and the Romans baked their noodles in an oven; boiled pasta had yet to be born in Italy. Here’s more on the history of pasta.
But let’s circle back to Asia. What happened to pasta in that large region?
It’s called noodles, and it’s plentiful. Different Asian cuisines developed different types of noodles; not just from wheat, as in Italy, but from other starches that happen to be gluten-free, such as rice, sweet potato, arrowroot starch, bean curd skin, potato starch and tofu. You can feast on Asian noodle dishes in a splendid variety.
Asian rice noodle salad with pan-fried tofu. Cook the noodles and tofu, toss with vegetables of choice, rice vinegar, a bit of oil (we like sesame oil) and cilantro. Add an optional sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds or shichimi togarashi, a Japanese mixture of dried chiles and other spices. Photo courtesy Lightlife.
ABOUT ASIAN NOODLES
We’ve done our best to put together the list below. You may see some familiar names, but there are a lot of Asian noodle types to get to know. You can find them in Asian markets and of course, online.
The one challenge is that there is no standardization. Spellings will vary by region, as will the width of the noodles. We’ve included analogous Italian pasta names to give you an approximate visual.
The Differences Between Asian Noodles & Italian Pasta
Although they may look similar, Asian noodles and Italian pasta have key differences. Most pasta is designed to be cooked to an al dente texture, but Asian noodles vary widely: Some are meant to be eaten soft; others have a firm bite. Some are chewy, others are springy.
A second difference: Italian pasta is boiled in water or broth (even baked pasta is boiled first). Chinese noodles can be boiled in water, cooked in soup or stir-fried. And third, unlike Italian pasta, most Asian noodle dishes do not have a sauce on top. If there’s a sauce, they are tossed in it. Asians also add noodles to salads, a treatment not typically found in the West.
Unlike the short cuts developed in Italy (bowties, elbows, tube pasta, etc.), all Asian pasta is strand or ribbon pasta. Finally, some Chinese noodles contain eggs, but the majority of Asian noodles do not.
Wheat Noodles: Chow Mein (Chinese, like spaghetti but often cut and stir-fried), La Mien (Chinese, hand-pulled, like spaghetti or spaghettini), Lo Mein (Chinese, flat like linguine), Mee Pok (yellow and flat like fettuccine, a Chinese-style noodle used in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand), Misua (salted Chinese noodles from Fujian, very thin like angel hair), Naengmyeon* (Korean long thin handmade noodles like spaghettini), Ramen (Japanese soup noodles, often the thickness of spaghetti**), Soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles), Udon (thick Japanese soup noodles, like spaghettoni), Wonton Mee (a Chinese soup noodle like spaghetti, not the same as wonton dumplings)
Rice Noodles: Chee Cheong Fun (a Cantonese rolled rice noodle), Chow Fun (wide, flat Chinese noodles like pappardelle), Mi Xian (a Yunnan rice noodle made from ordinary [non-glutinous rice], generally sold fresh), Kway Teow (rice cake strips from Malaysia and Singapore), Lai Fun (or bánh canh, long or short Vietnamese noodles the thickness of spaghettoni [there is also a wheat-based Chinese version]), Rice Paper Noodles (these are the thin rectangles used to roll Vietnamese spring rolls), Rice Sticks (thin, flat Thai noodles the thickness of linguine), Rice Vermicelli (thin, flat noodles the width of angel hair, used in almost all Asian cuisines), Silver Needle (like Lai Fun, but with a tapered end), Tteok (Korean rice cakes made with glutinous rice flour, like gnocchi)
Other Starches: Jap Chae (Korean sweet potato noodles the shape of spaghetti), Mung Bean Threads (cellophane noodles), Shirataki (spaghetti-like Japanese noodles made from the konjac yam)
Types Of Asian Noodles
Hungry? How about a stellar version of the Americanized chicken chow mein? This recipe is from Melissa’s The Great Pepper Cookbook, now available in paperback.
*They can be made from buckwheat, but also from potatoes and sweet potatoes.
**We’re talking real ramen, not the instant fast food.
Chicken Chow Mein, the way it should be. Photo courtesy Melissas.com.
RECIPE: CHICKEN CHOW MEIN
1/2 cup soy sauce, divided
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce, divided
3 teaspoons oyster sauce, divided
1/2 teaspoon chili oil
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
3/4 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 pound dried chow mein noodles
3 tablespoons peanut oil divided
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 (1 cup) pound button mushrooms, quartered
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 green onions, trimmed and sliced diagonally
1/2 pound fresh cherry belle† chile peppers, stems and seeds removed,thinly sliced
1/4 pound sugar snap peas, strings removed, halved crosswise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
*†Substitute any cherry pepper or mild to medium chile.
1. COMBINE 1/4 cup soy sauce. 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce, 1 teaspoon oyster sauce, and chile and sesame oils in a large bowl. Add the chicken and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Place in the fridge and let marinate, stirring often, for 1 hour.
2. PREPARE the noodles according to package directions. Rinse with cold water; drain.
3. PREHEAT the oven to 350°F. Heat 1 tablespoon peanut oil and the butter in a large wok or ovenproof skillet. Add the chicken and cook 2 minutes per side. Transfer to the oven and bake until the chicken is completely cooked through and a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part reads 165°F, about 15 minutes. Cool the chicken until it can be handled, then shred it.
4. HEAT the remaining 2 tablespoons of peanut oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes.
5. ADD the garlic and the remaining 1/4 cup soy sauce, and the remaining hoisin and oyster sauces, the noodles, green onions, chiles and sugar snap peas. Cook, stirring constantly, until the vegetables are crisp-tender.
6. ADD the shredded chicken to the pan and cook until heated through. Stir in the salt and black pepper to taste. Serve.
HOW TO SHRED CHICKEN
1. COOL the cooked chicken until you can handle it; it should still be warm. Remove any skin.
2. USE one hand or a fork to steady the chicken. With the other hand, use a second fork to scrape and tear the flesh into shreds. When the fork gets clogged with chicken shreds, use your fingers or another fork to move them into a bowl.