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A few questions about Asian noodles

What part of the meal are Asian noodles? Are they typically an appetizer, a side dish or accompaniment, or an entree? Are they served along with other dishes, or on their own as their own course? Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

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  1. I like the question. Of course, Asia is at least as diversified as Europe, so it would be good to know if you have any particular kind of noodles or any regional/national cuisine mainly in mind.

    That said, I am interested to see what people with direct experience of Asian tables have to say. For example, if people in Laos or Vietnam prepare Pho, how does it relate to other foods in the meal?

    1 Reply
    1. re: Bada Bing

      Pho is breakfast, eaten at a streatside (or floating) stall. When ever I've bought it in a US restaurant it is the meal - though one Seattle 'chain' always serves it with a side of cream puffs.

      Noodles are a common street food though out Asia. Some Japanese noodles can be traced to carts serving night time workers. There are plenty of noodle dishes that follow the pho pattern - base of noodles, broth, and garnish of vegetables and meats - all serving as a meal, or between meals snack.

      Noodles can also appear in various dishes served in multi course meals, though I don't there's anything as well defined as the pasta course of an Italian meal.

    2. "Asian"' noodles covers a lot of territory. Rice noodles, wheat noodles, Ramen, bean threads, egg noodles (E-fu), Soba noodles, etc. Each has it own place in Asian cuisine. The best direction I can point you in is to read as much as you can about Asian noodles and how they are used in various Asian recipes. From that you'll see which dishes work in each of the categories you've listed.

      4 Replies
      1. re: todao

        Interesting. The reason I asked the question in the first place is that I was wondering if noodles could replace rice as the "starch" in an Asian meal. Of course, the way I look at rice is, I believe, different from the way it is regarded in most "authentic" situations. I regard rice as a side dish whereas I've noticed that many people use it as a base for other foods. In other words, meat, chicken or vegetables might be added on top of the bowl of rice.

        1. re: CindyJ

          Noodles replace rice in dishes like 'fried noodles' (chow mein) (fried rice - chow fan). There also are versions of chow mein in which the noodles are fried crisp, and the meat sauce part served on top (is that Hong Kong style?). And I believe in Japan 'bowl meals' (donburi) can based on either noodles or rice. But I've never read of or seen plain noodles served in an individual bowl like rice.

          1. re: CindyJ

            Rice is not consumed uniformly across Asia. In China you might put food on top of your rice bowl, but in Thailand, you might make balls of sticky rice to dip in food, whereas in the Philippines you would mix a wet main into your rice and eat it moistened.

            Noodles are also consumed differently, depending on their type and what cuisine you're talking about. In Vietnam, rice noodles might be used as a "base" for some protein and herbs. In the Philippines, rice noodles could be a snack. In China, however, they could be a meal unto themselves, stirfried with protein and vegetables. So while sometimes noodles are consumed as the "starch," sometimes they are consumed as a main dish unto themselves.

            1. re: CindyJ

              Yes they are inter-changeable. In Chinese cuisine there are two components to a meal: the Cai 菜 portion (Protein+vegetables) and the Fan 飯 (grains or starch foods.) A balanced Chinese meal has the appropriate amount of both Cai and Fan.

          2. In most cases noodles are a meal by themselves, most commonly seen in noodle bowl soups or in a stirfry or topped with sauce.

            4 Replies
            1. re: joonjoon

              I do understand that. As an example, I've made Pho (from scratch -- labor intensive but well worth it) and that was definitely a meal unto itself. I was thinking more along the lines of noodles NOT in a soup when I asked my question.

              1. re: CindyJ

                Did you use Andrea Nguyen's pho recipe? It's SO wonderful.


                My next purchase is going to be a ginormous stockpot so I can make a huge recipe of the broth and have it without all that part of the work.

                1. re: c oliver

                  Thanks for the link. That DOES look like a great recipe. During my first (and only) attempt at pho, I looked at a number of recipes and then came up with a "hybrid". But Nguyen's recipe looks like it captures everything I'd want to incorporate.

                  Making a large pot of broth is a great time-saving idea; I think I have a couple of containers of pho broth stashed somewhere in my freezer. Time to dig them out!

                  1. re: CindyJ

                    We've had two meals so far (just the two of us) and have about six cups in the freezer. Our daughter and SIL are probably coming up this weekend. I see a little pho in our future. The broth is the only tedious part but, as you say, so worth the effort.

            2. The only thing I can think of are bean thread noodles which are used in casseroles or single dishes (for example ants climbing on a tree) in Chinese cooking. Each dish would be one component of a traditional meal (one soup, one vegetable, one protein, one fried, one braised, etc). These would still be eaten with rice though.

              1 Reply
              1. re: jadec

                In 'ants climb a tree' the noodles are cooked with their sauce. Bean threads are also quick fried, and used as a garnish.

              2. I think that noodles become part of a specific meal or dish (i.e. japchae - a Korean noodle dish; cold soba noodles in dipping sauce; Vietnamese bun, etc...) whereas rice is a vehicle for whatever else is on the table. Growing up, in my family (Korean), plain white rice was mandatory even if there was some type of noodle dish. (I don't necessarily abide by this when cooking for myself though.)

                2 Replies
                1. re: Queen Felix

                  Chap Chae is actually interesting because it's the only Korean noodle dish that's intended as banchan rather than the centerpiece of the meal. Specifically, it's the only noodle dish that gets eaten with rice that I can think of. Every other noodle dish I can think of is supposed to be the main.

                  1. re: Queen Felix

                    So then, as I'm beginning to understand, rice is typically topped with some other food, and the two are eaten together. I've seen people doing that in Asian restaurants -- adding food to their rice bowl. That makes sense to me now.

                  2. Asian noodle dishes are so diversified. They can be served as side dishes, as a salad or main dish. Real chow mein has pan fried noodles vs those hard noodles that a lot of chinese take out places use. There are asian noodle salads which are served cold. Asian noodle soups which is a meal in its self. There is no end to what can be make with asian noodles. If you visit an asian grocery store you will see there are many choices for noodles ranging from dry noodles to fresh noodles. Hope this helps.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: ticrta

                      Funny you should mention "real chow mein." My mom is on a perpetual quest for what she really does call "real chow mein." But what she's actually seeking is 50's Brooklyn-style chow mein, which consisted (I think) of mostly gloppy fried onions and celery, maybe bean sprouts, too, served with steamed rice and topped with crispy noodles. Is it any wonder she's ALWAYS disappointed when she orders chow mein in a Chinese restaurant and is served something that is more authentic. ("What are these noodles doing in my chow mein?")

                      1. re: CindyJ

                        You and your mother might enjoy reading this old thread I started that got quite 'active' :)


                    2. In Taiwan, noodles are a very common street food item. The ones off the vendors at the night markets (or stalls that open throughout the day) are of a snack portion, and can be enjoyed any time during the day, and in many case, late into the night.

                      In Cantonese Chinese banquets (wedding or non wedding), the fried rice or fried noodles plate is usually served at or towards the end.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: K K

                        "...served at or toward the end" -- is that so you don't "fill up" on the noodles before you have a chance to enjoy the rest of the meal? My grandmother used to serve the soup course at the end of the meal for that reason, and I'm wondering if there's another reason for serving noodles at the end.

                        1. re: CindyJ

                          Helps to signify the end of the meal is at hand.

                          1. re: CindyJ

                            Yep and what scoopG said. Banquets tend to have a theme and the idea of indulgence (and celebration) is not to get filled up by starch, but via the variety and luxury of the entrees (meat, seafood, veg).

                        2. Cindy,

                          Noodles can be anything, but I will say most of time, they are served as entree and often without dishes. Of course, one would usually add vegetables and meats to the noodle, but a combined noodle dish is usually a meal on its own.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            ChemicalK -- when you say, "...without dishes," what, then, holds the noodles? (Or am I misunderstanding you?)

                            1. re: CindyJ

                              I think CK means that a noodle dish on its own may suffice as a meal - if it has the balanced combination of Cai and Fan. For example a simple bowl of Beef Noodle Soup:


                              1. re: CindyJ


                                I misspoke. I meant noodle will be the main ingredient in an entree. There will be meats and vegetables and other things among the noodle, just like any pasta entree. However, the noodle dish (with other ingredients) is an entree and does not need OTHER dishes.

                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  Oooooooh... thanks for the clarification. :-)

                            2. I must say, I'm intrigued by each of your replies, and I'm suddenly aware of how much I DON'T know about noodles. So then, where would a "noodle newbie" like me start in terms of incorporating noodle dishes into my cooking repertoire? I've walked through the Asian supermarket and I've been thoroughly confused and a bit overwhelmed by the choices in the various aisles -- Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean; wheat, rice, bean; wide, thin, etc. Are the noodle products similar with different packaging, or are certain types of noodles unique to various cultures? I really am taken with the notion of a noodle entree. Where do I begin? Is there a particularly good cookbook that might help me through the learning curve? I feel like I'm on the verge of something really fun and interesting.

                              11 Replies
                              1. re: CindyJ

                                "I've walked through the Asian supermarket and I've been thoroughly confused and a bit overwhelmed by the choices in the various aisles -- Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean; wheat, rice, bean; wide, thin, etc"

                                Probably not any more confusing than all the variation of pasta. :P

                                Some of the products are similar, but many are very different. Needless to say, the wide rice noodle (Shahe fen) used in beef chow fun is very unique than flour noodles and other thin rice noodle.


                                I think (in my experience). The best way to start is to start with the noodle dish you like the best.

                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  Great advice, CK. I'm beginning to cook, rather than just eat, some Asian food. I know I like pho so I found a great recipe, followed it scrupulousy and it was great. Next will be dan dan noodles. Rather than buy a noodle and find a recipe, I found the recipe and bought the appropriate noodle. (And other ingredients)

                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    Ahhhh... now pasta is something I can relate to, and that's a really good analogy. There are separate and unique uses for various kinds of pasta, and certain toppings go better with certain pastas. Like the duck ragu I made yesterday was perfect on paperdelle, but would have been awful with just plain spaghetti. And yes, like noodles, pasta IS the main part of the dish, but the topping, or sauce, is what makes it yummy and interesting. I'm beginning to see the light!

                                  2. re: CindyJ

                                    this question would only be asked by a westerner, because asian don't even think that way. Most asians (chinese, japanese, korean, vietnam etc) consider noodle as staple food. Regardless of ingredients and method of preparation, they are eaten round the clock, mostly as the main and only part of their meal.

                                    1. re: ducati999

                                      I'm the first to admit I've never been properly introduced to noodles. In my experience, they've always been an addition to a dish, rather than the main part of the dish, itself. I've always served soup with noodles, not noodles with soup. It's clear that where Asian dishes are concerned, I need to shift my thinking.

                                    2. re: CindyJ

                                      Being a 'westerner' I could be very wrong about this but I'd be surprised if there's an "Asian noodle" cookbook. My gut tells me that one would go to a Sichuan or Vietnamese or Japanese etc. book and peruse the noodle dishes. I had a little 'found money' last year and decided to buy a few cookbooks. After consulting some of my knowledgeable Chow-friends I bought about a half dozen books including one each of the above. The year got kinda crazy and I've only just started using them and noodles are where I'm beginning. I love every variation (Eastern, Western, Northern, Southern) of noodle so it's a pleasant journey.

                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        A quick search on Amazon for books on "Asian Noodles" shows 379 results. I've just put holds for a couple at my local library.

                                        1. re: CindyJ

                                          Ya know, after I posted I thought 'I bet there really is something like "The Giant Book of Asian Noodles" :) I'd be interested if you think they're comparable to single cuisine books.

                                      2. re: CindyJ

                                        I think I wrote that Asian noodles are not served alone, like a bowl of rice. But I just remembered a significant exception. Japanese soba, buckwheat noodles. Often these are cooked, rinsed so they don't stick, and then served by themselves on a slotted bamboo plate (they may be cold). The diner picks some up with the chopsticks, dips it in a flavored broth, and eats.


                                        1. re: paulj

                                          Correct. Sometimes topped with scissor-cut nori strips or sesame seeds. Ilike a little wasabi in the dipping sauce.

                                        2. re: CindyJ

                                          If you can find a copy, look for Asian Pasta by Linda Burum. It covers pastas from Japan, vietnam, laos, cambodia, thailand, burma, phillipines malasia, singapore, indonesia, china and korea. It describes varieties, ingredients, and has recipes.

                                        3. I can speak to my experience with Japanese culture.
                                          Ramen is historically a fast food and is typically served on its own, although some people eat gyoza with it. Same is generally true with Udon. There are more and more upscale ramen and udon restaurants and they are becoming very popular.

                                          Soba is where you see more variation as an individual course in a multi-course meal and it is usually served towards the end-I think that is is used to soak up some of the alcohol consumed throughout the meal. Many places served soba as part of set meal.

                                          There are so many noodle dishes in Asia, its staggering. I tend to prefer Japanese and my favorites are:
                                          Kamo nanban-soba in broth with duck breast and scallion
                                          Kimchi ramen-ramen in soup with kimchi and pork
                                          Curry udon-thick udon in a curry flavored broth
                                          Yakisoba-pan fried noodles with vegetable and pork
                                          Cellophane noodles at the end of a shabu shabu or sukiyaki meal cooked in the left over broth
                                          Somen-very thin udon noodles served cold with ginger, scallion and a dipping sauce

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: AdamD

                                            Hey, Adam. This post caused me to save this thread. Each dish sounds great. Thanks.

                                            1. re: c oliver

                                              Very welcome!
                                              We eat a lot of noodles in our house.

                                          2. It really depends on where in Asia. In China, which is the cuisine I happen to know best, the main starch south of the Yangtze river is rice, and it is the most common starch component of an every day meal, usually served steamed as an accompaniment to other dishes. Since most early Chinese immigrants to the US were from south China this is the style of Chinese food most familiar to Americans. In the south of China most noodle dishes are less common as a part of a family meal, and more common as a stand alone meal served with soup and some protein, often at stalls/restaurants outside the home, but also as a "one pot" dish or snack at home.

                                            North of the Yangtze River the main starch is wheat, and it is cooked in a variety of ways, including steamed bread, flat bread, dumpling wrappers, and various types of noodles. It is very common in north China for noodles to be served in a light broth or even cooked drained and "sauced" with just a little oil and broth as an accompaniment to other dishes, used as a starch exactly the same way rice is served in the south of China. It is also common in north China for noodles to be served as "one pot" dish in the home, for example Za Jiang Mian are often served as a meal in homes in the north.

                                            1. The answers to this question are really interesting, even to a noodle whore like myself. I think it's okay in most cases to just think of noodles as the starch to a meal, although there are some exceptions. In my experience, those can include how my brother would eat ramen at home, then eat the leftover soup with rice since there were no more noodles. Or in Korean BBQ, how after the meat course, they bring out the hot soup with rice and also the cold noodles, and some people eat one or the other, and some eat both. My Korean mom makes lots of soups and stews and is amused at how I prefer to eat all of them with noodles (and an egg!) rather than rice. Everyone else gets a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup, and I dump the soup with some cooked noodles in a big bowl. To quote Lady Gaga, we were born this way baby.

                                              If you want to get familiar with different noodles, I think a good way would be to visit different Asian restaurants. So much good stuff out there - Vietnamese soup noodles and dry noodles, Korean knife-cut noodles and cold noodles, Japanese soba and udon, Thai fried and boat noodles.... it's endless....

                                              4 Replies
                                              1. re: esquimeaux

                                                Maybe that will be a goal for me this year. To eat as many different types of noodles as I can. A dark and lonely job, for sure :)

                                                1. re: c oliver

                                                  Maybe you'd like a "noodle-buddy"? I'm up for the challenge!

                                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                                    Wouldn't it be amazing if that was your job? I need to think of a way to turn noodling into a career...

                                                    1. re: esquimeaux

                                                      How about writing a weekly noodle column for your local paper? You can call it "Noodle This..." :)