Noodles are an integral? part of Asian cuisines, ?from China and Japan? to Thailand and Vietnam.? According to archeological findings, the first noodles, in fact,? came from China as long ago as ?2,000 BCE, predating pasta in? Europe by centuries.
Unlike traditional Western pasta—which ?is made from durum semolina? flour and ideally cooked al dente (firm)—Asian noodles are made? from a variety of grains and other ingredients and are cooked to different textures, from soft to springy. In some Asian cultures, noodles are associated with longevity, which is why long ones are often eaten at birthday and New Year celebrations.
Here are six noodles from the East that have made their way westward. You can find them—and many more—in Asian markets, health-food stores, and some grocery stores.
- Soba. These long, thin, brown noodles originating in Japan are made from whole-grain buckwheat flour, which gives them an earthy, nutty taste. Despite its name, buckwheat is not related to the wheat plant, though wheat flour is often added to soba. The higher the percentage of buckwheat, the higher the quality and price of the noodles. Soba noodles have a firm texture and are served either hot (traditionally in soups) or chilled (often with dipping sauces). They are a good source of protein, fiber, potassium, and B vitamins (particularly thiamin), as well as zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, iron, and other nutrients. Plus, buckwheat is rich in flavonoids, notably rutin and quercetin.
- Udon. These thick and chewy white Japanese noodles are made from wheat flour and have a neutral flavor. They work well in soups and in dishes that have bold flavors such as curried stir-fries; but like soba noodles, they’re often also served chilled. Because the flour is typically refined (meaning that the wheat has been stripped of its bran and germ, where much of the nutrients and fiber reside), traditional udon noodles are not as healthful as whole-grain noodles. Some companies sell whole-wheat udon noodles, however, which have more protein (8 grams per 2-ounce serving, dried) and fiber (5 grams), plus higher amounts of potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, B vitamins, and copper.
- Rice noodles. Made from rice flour, these come in different shapes and thicknesses; some are thin and delicate (rice vermicelli), others thick and more robust. Depending on the type, these noodles can cook very quickly; fresh noodles need no cooking at all. The key ingredient in pad thai, rice noodles can be served hot or cold. They provide only small amounts of protein, selenium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and fiber, however.
- Bean thread. Also called glass or cellophane noodles, these are made from mung bean starch and can be prepared very quickly—just one minute in hot water is enough. They have a rubbery texture and tend to be slippery (making them difficult to eat with chopsticks for the unpracticed). You may have encountered them in soft summer rolls, wrapped along with veggies, shrimp, and mint. (Note that cellophane and glass noodles can also refer to noodles made from other ingredients, such as sweet potato starch or cassava starch.) Bean thread noodles have few nutrients and negligible protein and fiber.
- Ramen. These thin noodles, which are often wavy, are usually made of wheat; an added alkaline mineral solution, called kansui, gives them a yellow tinge and firm elastic texture. Though they’re the key ingredient of traditional Japanese ramen soups, the term “ramen” is perhaps more commonly associated, at least in the West, with the cheap dried instant noodles made popular in the early 1970s with the introduction of “Cup O’ Noodles” (just add boiling water to the cup). Unlike fresh ramen noodles, most instant noodles are deep-fried to dry them, so they have about 7 to 8 grams of fat (half saturated) per serving, with a cup typically containing two servings. They’re also very high in sodium(800 milligrams or more per serving). A 2014 study in the Journal of Nutrition linked instant ramen noodles to increased cardiovascular risk factors in South Korean women (but not men) who ate them at least twice a week, independent of other dietary patterns. The cause of the association was not clear, but the researchers hypothesized that the adverse effects could be due to the high calories, saturated fat, sodium, and glycemic load of the noodles, among other factors.
- Shirataki. These thick, semi-translucent, and slightly rubbery noodles are made from the root of the konjac yam (also called “devil’s tongue”), which is rich in the soluble fiber glucomannan. Because the noodles consist mostly of this fiber (3 percent) and water (97 percent), they have near-zero calories and thus are promoted as a weight-loss aid. They’re also touted for heart and digestive health, among other supposed benefits, with one brand calling itself “Miracle Noodles.” There’s some evidence from clinical studies that glucomannan can lower cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and, slightly, body weight—and that it might help ease constipation, possibly by increasing stool bulk and growth of certain colonic bacteria. But so, too, can other soluble fibers, like those in oats and barley. These noodles can be a good way to add heart-healthy fiber to your diet and make you feel more full, but they are no miracle food—and they’re lacking in protein and other nutrients. Don’t believe claims they can prevent cancer. Packaged in water, the noodles have a fishy aroma, which can be eliminated by draining and then rinsing and drying them before cooking. You can use them in soups, stews, and stir-fries, where they’ll pick up the flavors of the other ingredients. Or use them as a pasta substitute.
Bottom line: Asian noodles can add interesting textures and flavors to your meals. Many of them are gluten-free and thus can be good substitutes for wheat pastas for people diagnosed with celiac disease or other gluten sensitivities (but always read labels, especially on soba noodles, which may contain wheat).
For the most nutrition, look for whole-grain udon and brown rice noodles (instead of their refined counterparts) and 100% buckwheat soba noodles. We recommend skipping instant ramen noodles. Preparation times for all these noodles vary, so check the instructions on packages.
Dried noodles are best stored in airtight containers in a cool, dry place; fresh noodles can keep for up to three days when refrigerated in a sealed plastic bag.