Posted by Andrew
I have a confession to make... I have a penchant for noodle dishes. Ever since I was a kid I'd always wanted to scarf down noodles. Perhaps it's because it's a "fun" food to eat, or perhaps it's a craving I somehow picked up. In any case, noodles have been a staple in many cultures around the world, much like bread, potatoes, rice or other starches that can be found today. Although East Asia is arguably a global hub of noodle-dom, other countries and regions have their share in this food realm, and it has also resulted in a large variety of noodles in existence today all over the world in more ways than one.
1. Key Ingredient
What is mixed into the batch can result in completely different textures and tastes. The following are groups of noodles classified by the key ingredient used in the mixture to create them.
A) Wheat Noodles
It can't get any simpler than mixing flour and water at the very least. Wheat-based noodles are easily found worldwide. Most types of pasta for example are made of especially durum wheat. Shanghai-style thick noodles are also wheat-based, as are Japanese udon, yet both types of noodles have completely different textures. Out of Japan also comes soba, a type of thin noodle that is made of buckwheat. I'd have to say that udon noodles are perhaps my favourite right now, but noodles in general have all been in a tight race in my mind for years.
B) Egg Noodles
This type is also found worldwide. In Chinese cuisine however I've tended to notice egg noodles only in southern Chinese (especially Cantonese) cuisine. Italy also has egg noodle pasta, and even southern Germany has its spaetzle. In China there's also a type of noodle that uses only the egg whites; the richer yolk is not added to the mix. Unlike Italian pasta, where rinsing of cooked pasta is considered sacrilegious, the rinsing of most forms of cooked Chinese noodles (especially egg noodles) is actually a must. Fresh Chinese egg noodles (and some forms of wheat noodles) are often covered in a coating of flour (whereas fresh pasta usually isn't). The excess starch therefore has to be rinsed out before the noodles can be ready for use. Cold water is recommended to preserve the firmness of the noodles.
C) Rice Noodles
Rice noodles have originated mainly from the rice-growing regions of East and Southeast Asia. By far the most common forms of rice noodles one can find are flat rice noodles (about half the width of tagliatelle) and rice vermicelli (thicknesses can vary from the equivalent of true vermicelli to spaghetti). Like the other types of noodles noted above found in East and Southeast Asian cuisines, rice noodles are useable in both fried noodle and noodle soup dishes. Although I'm fine with fried rice noodle dishes, I'm personally not so keen with rice noodle soup dishes. I find that the slippery rice noodles somehow make my stomach feel a bit queasy than I've thought they should.
D) Mung Bean Noodles
Mung beans have green shells and yellow kernels and are the seeds of those bean sprouts you see in the supermarket. Yes, noodles can be made from these beans as well. These noodles tend to be as thin as cappelini (angel hair pasta), but unlike pasta, mung bean noodles are chewier. Although they are technically noodles, in Chinese cuisine dishes containing mung bean noodles aren't classified as "noodle dishes", making this type a bit of a culinary oddball. I find they're great mixed in a hot stone pot with either garlic shrimp or satay beef!
E) Konjac Noodles
A special mention must also be made about Japanese konjac (not cognac) noodles. Also known as shirataki noodles, the key ingredient is the konjac (or konnyaku) "yam". The texture is on the chewy side (arguably more so than mung bean noodles), but its low caloric content has some touting it as a health food. Our family was curious enough to try some one night several years ago during a homemade shabu-shabu dinner, and I don't recall us having such dinners without the konnyaku noodles since.
2. Method of Creation
Just as the different ingredient combinations can create different noodles in their own right, how they are created from the dough/mixture itself can also produce different results.
A) Knife Cut
This is the simplest way to make noodles; if you have a knife and a large flat surface in your kitchen, then you can do it. One usually flattens the dough (sometimes one may also gently fold over the dough if it takes up a lot of area) and simply cuts the dough into strips. A good chef can easily cut noodles of even width in quick succession. If you wish to make your own batch of fresh noodles, haven't mastered the art of hand-pulling and don't have your own pasta making machine, this method to amateurs may be crude but is quite effective.
B) Hand Pulled
Also known as lai-mein, creating noodles by the hand-pulling method is by far the most artistic (and IMHO most fun to watch) of all the methods listed here. The idea is that from one piece of dough a noodle maker will stretch it into one large strand, fold it over end-to-end without the two halves sticking to each other, repeat the stretch, fold again, repeat the stretch, and go on so many times until you have a good batch of long thin noodles ready to be cooked and served (just snip the handheld ends and the noodles are primed for a hot water bath). The idea is simple enough, but it's actually more difficult to master than one might think, and the thinner the noodles, the more skillful the noodle-maker is. Hand pulled noodles tend to be slightly chewier than your run-of-the-mill factory made noodles of similar ingredients.
(If you're in the GTA, there's a Chinese fast food stall on the 2nd floor of the Pacific Mall in Markham where someone still openly makes hand pulled noodles. It is definitely worth watching the artistic skill come to life!)
This is arguably the most popular method in today's world of noodle mass-production, and while legends say Marco Polo brought the idea of noodles from China to Italy, the Italians can lay their claim to fame of creating different shapes of noodles beyond the traditional long strands we so commonly see around the world. How is that possible? Machinery, of course! In this case dough is flattened/compacted and fed through a machine that pushes (or extrudes) the mixture through holes that help create the different shapes from fusilli and wagon wheels to linguine and penne. In order to stock supermarket shelves well today, many other noodles of other culinary cultures are now made using this method.
Legend has it that a chef in ancient China had just made a batch of noodles when he mistakenly tossed it into a wok full of hot oil, not boiling water. He quickly shuffled the fried noodles into the water, and that was the "accidental" birth of ee-mein or E-fu noodles. You'll see them often packed in "cakes" in Chinese supermarkets, and the noodles feel oily when you remove the packaging as they've already been "pre-fried". However, boil them for a few minutes (they unfortunately have a knack for floating) and they're ready to be used often in either a fried or braised noodle dish.
Many of today's instant noodles you find on your supermarket shelves are still being created using the frying method. The idea behind it is that fresh noodles can't last long unless they're either refrigerated or dried, but dried noodles often take more time to cook. The fried noodles in the instant noodle packages can store far longer than even refrigerated fresh noodles can and only need 3-5 minutes of cooking time (depending on some brands).