Plus, what to substitute if you can't find what you're looking for.
Let’s talk noodles: They’re the backbone to some of your favorite Asian and Asian-inspired dishes. They’re the perfect vehicle for irresistible sauces and a fun addition soups that you can’t help but slurp out of the bowl. They’re starchy, carby, addictive, and a guaranteed crowd-pleasing favorite. But as greater variety of Asian noodles reaches our supermarkets, and recipes call for them with more specificity, staring down the wall of noodles in your international aisle or Asian market can be overwhelming. Here’s the full breakdown you need to make sure that you’re picking up the best noodles to make that dish shine—along with some substitutions if your store doesn’t stock the exact variety you’re searching for.
Made of buckwheat flour, these Japanese noodles are nutty, earthy, and pair especially well with pork and beef—but we’re also a fan of vegetarian recipes like this Satay Soba Noodle Bowl and Sesame Soba Noodles that let the noodles’ nutty flavor take the spotlight. They are sold either dry or fresh, and can be cooked like you would pasta—about five to seven minutes in boiling water—and are especially tasty in cold preparations. Can’t find soba noodles at your grocery store? Whole-grain spaghetti or linguine are easy swaps and provide just the right amount of nuttiness that comes closest to buckwheat.
You’re most likely familiar with the curly, dried noodles in plastic packaging from your college days, but your Asian market may also sell fresh ramen if you’re ready to up your noodle game. They’re made with wheat flour, salt, water, and “lye water” which gives them their signature flavor and keeps them nice and springy when they’re cooked. The best part: Ramen bowls are endlessly customizable to whatever veggies, protein, and seasoning you have on hand. Add some cooked chicken, poach an egg, drop in some cabbage and carrots, and this quick-cooking noodle—we’re talking just two to three minutes—will get dinner on the table super fast. Start with this easy Vegetable Ramen for inspiration. If you can’t find fresh ramen, those dried packages will work perfectly well—just skip the super salty flavor packet.
These Japanese noodles look similar to soba, and in some recipes you can substitute one for the other, but udon noodles are lighter in color, thicker, longer, super chewy, and hold up to heavier sauces and meaty broths. You can find these dense noodles fresh, dried, or in the freezer section of your Asian market. Try this Peanut Chicken Noodle Soup or Kare Udon; the thick noodles are perfect for the flavorful sauces to cling to. Because of its distinct size, shape, and texture, we don’t recommend trying to substitute Udon noodles with any Italian pasta varieties from your supermarket. If you’re committed to an Udon noodle recipe, it’s worth the splurge to purchase online.
Chinese Egg Noodles
This is a broad category that encompasses wheat and egg noodles in a variety of shapes and sizes. It’s the versatile, blank-canvas noodle that you’re most familiar with in American-Chinese cuisine: think basic lo mein stir-fries. They have that slight yellow tint from the addition of lye like in ramen noodles—that’s what gives that distinctive chew. These noodles hold up to high cooking temperatures, and long cook times without getting mushy, making them almost foolproof to work with. Give homemade Dan Dan Noodles or Stir-Fried Noodles with Roast Pork a try—and if you can’t find egg noodles, spaghetti or fettuccine can work in a pinch.
Like rice vermicelli, this noodle variety is known for its super thin, brittle shape and texture. It’s made with wheat and little bit of oil that helps it hold its shape. You can find it under the Japanese name, somen, or by how it’s known in South Asian cooking: sevayan where it’s commonly used in desserts like Sevaya Kheer, a vermicelli milk pudding. The noodles are broken and toasted in butter or ghee to develop a rich nutty flavor before being cooked in milk, sugar, dried fruits, and spices like cardamom and saffron. Angel hair pasta is a good substitute for wheat vermicelli if you can’t find it at your Asian grocer or South Asian market.
These flat rice noodles come in three different sizes (small, medium, and large), and it’s what’s used in soups, stir-fries and classic Pad Thai—you may even find them sold as “Pad Thai noodles” at your grocer, fresh in the refrigerated section, or dried on the aisles. Rice noodles cook up easily and quickly: Soak them in hot water until they’re soft and then just add them to your dish to finish up. If it’s a stir-fry, it’ll take about eight minutes to cook through, and only a minute or two if you’re dropping it into a hot soup. After you’ve given homemade Pad Thai a try, make this Easy Thai Steak Noodle Bowl with rice noodles for a flavor-packed and super fast weeknight dinner.
If you can’t find rice sticks, fettuccine or linguine are substitutes that come closest in size and shape—but the flavor will be slightly different, so we recommend only using it as a swap in recipes that have heavily seasoned sauces and toppings.
“Vermicelli” is an Italian loanword for the super thin rice noodles used extensively throughout Asia that go by different regional names in Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese cooking. Made from rice flour, salt, and water, rice vermicelli noodles are much longer and thinner than rice sticks, and can be purchased either fresh or dried. Because they’re so delicate, they have minimal to no cook time: Soak them in hot water until soft, and boil for just a few seconds and they should be fully cooked through, according to Essentials of Asian Cuisine.
They make great additions to soups, and when you deep-fry them, they puff up into noodle nests that you can use for garnish or snacks. Our favorite way to enjoy them: Bun Tom Xao, a Vietnamese shrimp and noodle bowl. Can’t find rice vermicelli? You can use angel hair pasta as a quick substitute in recipes that call for heavy seasoning and spices—it’s the closest in size, shape, and texture, though the flavor will be distinctly nuttier. Stay away from whole-grain pasta as a sub; its flavor is much heartier and heavier than rice vermicelli.
Other Starch-Based Noodles
Mung Bean Noodles
You can also find these by the name glass noodles, bean thread noodles, or cellophane noodles. They look translucent and white, and are versatile and neutral enough in taste to hold up to a variety of preparations. Making an Asian-inspired salad? Fried mung bean noodles make the perfect crunchy addition. If you’re adding these noodles to a stir-fry or soup, they cook up super fast—just a quick couple minutes in hot water should be enough to make them soft enough to eat. Can’t find them at your store? They’re distinct texture is hard to replicate—this is another variety that’s worth ordering online.
Potato Starch Noodles
This Japanese noodle also goes by the name Jap Che or Japchae, and are made from sweet potato starch—but the flavor doesn’t taste overpoweringly like it. We recommend keeping it simple with this noodle: It’s delicate, cooks quickly, and absorbs a lot of flavor, according to the Essentials of Asian Cooking. They look a little grayer in color than mung bean noodles, and become translucent after cooking. These noodles work best in quick stir-fries and light seasoning.
Common in South Asia and the Middle East as a dessert, you’ll find tapioca vermicelli under the name falooda or faloodeh. It’s eaten cold, as a dessert, usually with an assortment of toppings such as ice cream, dried fruits, fruit jellies, basil seeds, rosewater, and milk. Can’t find tapioca vermicelli at your market? Angel hair pasta is a good sub, though it’ll be considerably thicker than the brittle, thread-like strands of tapioca vermicelli.