Going to the Asian food store looking for noodles can be overwhelming. There are literally close to a hundred different kinds of noodles to pick from. FEAR NO MORE! Here’s is the ultimate guide to Asian noodles- the dry noodle version. In this post, I’m going to demystify the noodles whether it’s good for pad Thai, chow mei fun or a Chinese noodle stir-fry.
One day, my friend Whitney complained about how her pad Thai just didn’t taste the same because she bought a different type of noodles; the other day, Shari from Spiced Up Mom came to me and told me that she was intimidated by all the different types of noodles Asian store has to offer and asked me to do a post to demystify all the noodles. I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while but never knew where to start. Being asked about it was a great motivation to actually DO IT.
After meeting up with a few other food bloggers here in Rochester, MN, talking about all sorts of ideas, I was super pumped and motivated. We walked to the Asian Food Store next to the coffee shop and I bought $30 worth of noodles! Which is a lot, considering each pack is only $3. I was going to include the fresh noodles as well but figured that I’ll cover the basics then move on to the “advanced” options.
Noodles are a big part of Taiwanese food. Whether it’s street food, banquets or homecooked, noodles are everywhere. We often decide on what to eat by narrowing the options down to rice or noodles.
In this post, however, I’m skipping the Japanese and Korean noodles, focusing on noodles commonly seen in Taiwan, China, and South East Asia. Why am I skipping Japanese noodles? Udon, ramen, and soba noodles are considered an art form and has a special place in Japan. The dried version tastes so far from the real deal. So if it’s not freshly made, I won’t even bother buying them. Sorry, I’m spoiled.
As for Korean noodles, I didn’t see them at the Asian store when I visited, plus I don’t know that much about it yet(besides that they’re tasty) so I’m not gonna pretend that I do.
Most noodles in Asia can be categorized into two categories- rice noodles and wheat noodles. The easiest way to tell these two apart is the color- wheat noodle has a yellow tint and rice noodles are usually white and sometimes almost transparent.
The names can be very confusing for these noodles, they can all be different kinds of noodles when it says “Rice Vermicelli”.
Here are three ways to help you identify noodles:
1. The best way to identify what they are might be by looking at the photos of dishes on the label.
For example, there are often photos of Pho or Pad Thai on “Rice Stick Noodles”.
2. The second way to identify them is by reading the ingredient list.
You will find out more about the difference in ingredients that they call “rice vermicelli” in this post. Sometimes rice vermicelli is made with rice flour as well as tapioca starch, common in Vietnamese noodles.
3. Identifying the languages on the label can be helpful.
There are noodles that are more popular in a certain country than others, it definitely helps to know which country the dish you’re attempting to make is from. I will try to list as many names as I can in different languages, but the most popular names will come first.
Most dried wheat noodles are very similar. The differences mainly depend on the width and the way they are made. Some are pulled into fine strings, some are machine cut; some are deep-fried, and some are simply dried under the sun. Wheat noodles are usually lightly salted with a taste of wheat. These noodles are best for soaking up all the tasty soup, any sauce attaches to the noodles well. They are great for noodle soup, stir-frying and tossed with a simple dressing.
“麵”(mian4), in Chinese is a word almost only used for wheat noodles. The word “麵” consists of the part “麥” (Mai4), wheat; almost every other types of noodles use other words instead of “麵”. I really wish that there are more words in English to describe things sometimes. It might make it less confusing for people.
Plain Wheat Noodles | 陽春麵 (yang2chun1mian4)
AKA: 白麵(bai2mian4, White Noodles)
Other similar noodles: 豆菜麵(dou4cai4mian4, Bean Sprout Noodles), 關廟麵(guan1miao4mian4, GuanMiao Noodles, named according to the region it’s made), Lo Mein (Cantonese pronunciation to 撈麵 Lao1Mian4)
This is the most basic of the wheat noodles. “YangChun”(陽春), means simple, basics or plain in Mandarin. This noodle is often served with a simple broth, stir-fried, SESAME NOODLES WITH SPINACH, or commonly seen in TAIWANESE BRAISED TOMATO BEEF NOODLE SOUP. It is used in almost every noodle dish in Taiwan but there are always other options if this type of noodle is not for you.
In Taiwan, the “noodle system” is simple- using YangChun Noodles as a base, anything wider is considered as “Wide Noodles” (寬麵, Kuan1Mian4); anything skinnier is “Thin Noodles” (細麵, xi4mian4). YangChun noodles are about 0.5cm in width.
Skinny Wheat Noodles | 細麵(xi4mian4)
AKA: 素麺(Japanese: SoMen, Mandarin: Su4Mian4)
These noodles are skinnier than the plain wheat noodles, but the ingredients are similar. What people consider “skinny noodles” may vary, but generally anything skinnier than YangChun noodles is considered XiMian. Skinny noodles are often an alternative to YangChun noodles, often tossed with a simple dressing and served as dry noodles. Skinny noodles served in soup is also common, but it is less common to see skinny noodles stir-fried. (unless it’s a type of fresh, alkaline noodle)
Dandan Noodles also falls under this category, tho usually thicker than the photo shown. Roughly 0.3cm in diameter.
My favorite way to enjoy these noodles is blanched for about 3 mins, toss with sesame oil, soy sauce and a bit of minced garlic or in TOMATO AND EGG NOODLE SOUP.
MEE SUA | 麵線(mian4xian4)
AKA: Misua (also spelled mee sua or miswa). The pronunciation “Mee-Sua” derives from Hokkien, a Chinese dialect; while Mian Xian is the Mandarin pronunciation.
Mee sua is the skinniest out of all the wheat noodles. The photo shows the “White Mee Sua”, there’s also a “Red Mee Sua”. Mee sua is usually pulled till it’s literally as thin as thread. It is most commonly seen as a side dish to lamb hot pot, or braised pork knuckle on big birthdays. White mee sua is often served dried with an oil of choice, black sesame oil, duck oil, tea seed oil and more, to really showcase the flavor of the oil and the noodles.
When in soup form, Mee sua is often used as a thickener that makes a gooey soup called “麵線羹” (mian4xian4geng1), which means… mee sua thick soup. Mee sua are broken into a bunch of little pieces in this soup and act as a binder to seriously amazing flavors. Red mee sua is commonly used in “蚵仔麵線” (e2a4mee3sua3, Taiwanese pronunciation), which is oyster mee sua soup. It’s a streetfood loved by many Taiwanese.
Rice noodles are now ever popular with the growth of gluten-free community, but did you know that there are still many many different kinds of rice noodles? We are only discussing the dried versions here and there are so much more beyond this. Most rice noodles need to be soaked prior to cooking, it helps with the cooking process especially if you’re stir-frying them without boiling first.
“粉” (fen3) in Chinese is a word associated with any noodle that’s not wheat based. You can use it as a guide when looking for noodles that are not made with wheat.
Mei Fun | 米粉 (Mi3fen3)
AKA: Mei Fun, Bee Hoon, เส้นหมี่ (sen mee), ビーフン (bīfun), bihon, சேவை (sevai),
English Names: Rice vermicelli, Rice noodles, Rice sticks (you see how the English names can be complicated here? If not, you’ll find out why when I introduce the next 2 rice noodles.)
Mei Fun is a rice noodle made with rice and only rice, it is most often a product of Taiwan or China. This type of noodle has a bouncy texture, doesn’t break as easily, and stiffer than other rice noodles. Mei Fun also comes in different thickness, as do most rice noodles. Mei fun is most commonly served as a stir-fry dish in the US, while in Taiwan we also enjoy the skinnier(about the thickness of mee sua, 0.05cm in diameter) and thicker(about 0.5cm in diameter) version of mei fun in soup form.
This type of rice noodle takes longer to absorb the flavor. When stir-frying, the chef would layer the flavors in the wok and create a beautiful broth just enough for mei fun to soak up. Once the broth is gone, the mei fun is done and every bite is full of flavor. Since rice noodles are not salted like the wheat noodles, it often requires more flavor to elevate the noodles.
Bún Tươi | 米線 (Mi3Xian4)
AKA: Bún(Vietnamese), Bún khô(Vietnamese, dried), ขนมจีน (Khanom chin), MiXian(Chinese Variety), Sen Mee (เส้นหมี่)
English Names: Rice Vermicelli, Rice Noodles
Bún, is a round-shaped rice noodle made with part rice flour, part tapioca starch. It’s chewy when it’s not cooked enough, and much softer than mei fun when cooked. While mei fun is slightly see-through when cooked, bún is pure white. Like most noodles, bún comes in different sizes, dried version is often made in Vietnam or Thailand.
“Bún Tươi” is what you’ll see on the packages at the Asian store, yet it is also known as bún khô. The difference being the freshly made version is called bún tươi, and bún khô is the dried version. So why the name on the label? I don’t know.
Bún is commonly used in Vietnamese cuisine, thus the reason I said that if you can identify the language, it will help with the identification of noodles. Bún is seen in dishes like bún bò Huế, bún riêu, BÚN CHẢ, and gỏi cuốn(Vietnamese spring roll). You will see this noodle in soup or dried dishes with a light, sweet and sour sauce. This type of noodle is often in Thai street food as well.
There’s also MiXian, the Yunan(a province in China) version, which I believe is the origin of Bún. If you’ve ever tried Yunan cuisine, you’d find traces of similarity in their cuisine with Thai and Vietnamese food. The processing of mixian in Yunnan is unique, involving a fermentation process. In many areas, there are at least two distinct thicknesses produced, a thinner form (roughly 1.5mm diameter) and a thicker form (roughly 3.5-4mm diameter).
Bánh Phở | 越南河粉(yue4nan2he2fen3, Vietnamese He2fen3)
AKA: Cọng phở(usually wider), 河粉(he2fen3), 沙河粉(sha1he2fen3), Sen Lek (เส้นเล็ก, Thin), Sen Yai (เส้นใหญ, Wide)
English Names: Rice stick noodles, Stir-fry rice noodles, Pad thai noodles, Rice Noodles
Bánh Phở is very similar to bún, only the shape is different. It is made with part rice flour, part tapioca starch, just like bún but instead of a round body, it’s flat. It’s commonly used in Vietnamese and Thai cuisines, such as the famous “Phở” or Pad Thai(Thai style fried noodles). That being said, this noodle is often labeled made in Thailand or Vietnam.
Bánh Phở is popular for stir-frying, especially the wide ones, they are similar to “ho fun”. Though the “ho fun” used in Taiwanese cooking is usually fresh, not dried. I personally haven’t tried any of bánh phở that’s wider than 0.6cm, so I can’t compare the difference in texture. By the way, ho fun is a different pronunciation for 河粉(he2fen3) in Chinese dialect.
Bánh Phở is also great in soup dishes, often considered the gluten-free alternative to YangChun noodles in the west, but not commonly seen as a substitute in Taiwan(unless you’re at a Vietnamese restaurant).
Bean Thread Noodles | 冬粉(dong1fen3)
AKA: Tanghoon, วุ้นเส้น (Wûns̄ên), Bún Tàu, 粉絲(fen3si1), 細粉(xi4fen3), Saifun(Cantonese pronunciation for 細粉(xi4fen3))
English Names: Bean Thread Noodles, Mung Bean Noodles, Cellophane Noodles, Glass Noodles, Bean Vermicelli, Mung Bean Threads
Similar Variations, made with potato starch: 春雨(Harusame, Japanese), 당면 (dangmyeon, Korean. Also spelled dangmyun, or tangmyun)
The easiest way to tell this noodle apart from the rice noodles is that it’s completely transparent when cooked! It might be a bit confusing with mei fun but when they’re both cooked and soaked in broth, it’s really obvious.
Bean thread noodles are commonly paired with hot pot, soup dishes and sometimes stir-fried in Taiwan. In other countries it can be found in salads or cold noodles, ex: Yam WunSen in Thailand and Japchae (잡채; 雜菜) in Korea.
The texture of this noodle is chewy sometimes even hard to break apart by teeth when it’s undercooked, but when it’s cooked it remains a bit chewy and bouncy, not as soft as bún or Phở; but more tender than mei fun. You will usually see this noodle sold in little bunches in pink nets(sometimes other colors, but this seems to be the only kind of noodle that gets packaged in nets).
Bean thread noodles are most often made in Taiwan or China. Unless it’s the other variations mentioned above.
My best advice for buying dry noodles at the Asian store? Don’t trust the name in English, always look for a second confirmation in its native language to make sure you’re buying the right noodle. OR… buy them all and experiment!
Is there something you’d like to add to these Asian noodles or have more questions?
Let me know whether this ULTIMATE ASIAN NOODLE GUIDE is helpful by leaving a comment in the comment section below or send me a DM on Instagram! I’d love to help and hear from you.
Learn More about Taiwanese Food:
Noodle recipes and pairing:
– Great with: Plain Wheat Noodles, Skinny Wheat Noodles, Easy Homemade Noodles, GF: Bean Thread Noodles, Bánh Phở
– Great with: Plain Wheat Noodles, Skinny Wheat Noodles, Mee Sua, Easy Homemade Noodles
– Great with: Plain Wheat Noodles, Skinny Wheat Noodles, Easy Homemade Noodles
– Great with: Plain Wheat Noodles, Skinny Wheat Noodles, Easy Homemade Noodles, GF: Bean Thread Noodles