From China to Thailand and beyond, noodles are the ultimate comfort food in Asia
Easy to eat, slippery, soft, comforting, flavourful in all its renditions, and a cinch to cook, noodles are the perfect one-dish meal. Whether it is Chinese noodles, Italian pasta or Japanese ramen, they can be prepared hot or not, enjoyed in the bitter cold of winter or in the humidity of an oppressingly warm day. Every Singaporean who has studied abroad will agree that the ticket to happiness in a foreign land is a case of instant noodles stuffed under his bed, with one pot and a pair of chopsticks for cooking.
It is immediately warm and comforting, or cool and refreshing when you need it to be—and all the time, it offers not just sustenance but satisfaction. A staple carbohydrate, it gives you energy, fills your tummy and eventually converts to sugar to make you happy.
At the most basic, noodles are flour mixed with water and oil to become a dough, shaped then boiled, served out fresh or dried, and turned into a myriad dishes, from soup to dry, saucy or tossed into salads.
Of all the world’s cuisines, the Chinese and Italians stand head and shoulders above all others in their proliferation and love for noodles. Indeed their passion seems intertwined, as people continue to debate whether the great traveller Marco Polo brought knowledge of noodles from China back to Italy, begetting the pasta tradition. After all, the earliest evidence of noodles in the world comes from China— in the form of a 4,000-year-old length of yellow noodles found under a claypot, near Lajia at the Huang He river in western China, measuring three millimetres in diameter and half a metre in length. Not only have we been eating noodles for the longest time, it was already in mass, commercial production by 100 AD in Han China and even written about as early as 25 AD.
The early noodles in China were fresh ones, while the dried noodles came after the age of industrialisation. Chinese noodles are made from a range of grains: wheat grown in the north gave ‘mian’, from which also evolved various shapes like the flat and wavy mee pok, fine mee kia, ee-fu noodles or yi mian, and Hong Kong mee. Rice from the farms in southern China gave us rice-based noodles like bee hoon (or vermicelli), hor fun and kway teow, bee tai mak—short, tear-shaped noodles which resemble spatzle—and mian xian, which are very fine, meltin-the-mouth noodles thinner than angel hair. Even mung beans were turned into tang hoon, pretty translucent glass noodles.
Of all the noodles, la mian, or handmade noodles, is the most dramatic. Mainly the domain of the northern Chinese, it has established roots in Taiwan and Hong Kong more so than in Singapore. La mian starts as a lump of noodle dough which, when made by an expert, is deftly pulled and folded onto itself countless times until it becomes multiple lengths of thin noodles in a mere few minutes. You'll most likely see this demonstrated in restaurants in Hong Kong and never fails to impress. Its rustic cousin is ‘ban mian’, also handmade just before cooking, and either sliced into strands or roughly peeled and tossed into boiling stock.
With this staple, the Chinese have created a plethora of dishes, from soup to gravied concoctions, deep-fried, braised and paired with all manner of ingredients from the most humble root vegetable to the most sought-after sea creature. At street level, there’s white and light fish ball kway teow; hearty Hokkien mee for the hungry; prawn noodles redolent in its rich stock; ban mian all steaming with minced pork, dried ikan bilis, mushrooms and vegetables; wonton noodles all slippery with boiled meat dumplings; and char siew kolo mee tossed in its sweet hoisin-based gravy, just to name a few. On birthdays, noodles are de rigeur: Uncut and lengthy, they are happy symbols of longevity, and everyone present is obliged to slurp a few mouthfuls.
The Chinese passion for noodles had spread across Asia over the centuries and are particularly evident in the region's street foods. From the Indonesian beef bakso, and Malay soto ayam to Vietnamese pho, Nonya laksa, Thailand's pad Thai, and even Japanese ramen (derived from the Chinese ‘la mien’). In fact, the tradition of Japanese noodle making came from China, but has since evolved along its own route with noodles like thick chewy udon made from wheat flour; flat, ribbon-like kishamen, a Nagoya forte; fine vermicelli-like hiyamugi; and soba, buckwheat noodles that sometimes come flavoured with green tea or sour plum. Swimming in a light stock, or redolent as ramen in unctuous, spicy, miso-based broth, delicately tossed in shoyu and served on a bed of ice, Japanese noodles are loudly slurped across Japan and in other countries beyond. In multi-cultural Southeast Asia, noodles have inspired a merging of cultures in one dish, with the likes of mee goreng combining Indian, Chinese and Malay influences.
The beauty of noodles is that, like rice and bread, it is an extraordinarily versatile ingredient that pairs with all kinds of flavours, from light clear soups with gently flavoured ingredients such as prawns, lobsters and scallops, to heavy pairings like laksa in its spicy, coconut-rich broth and sambal, mee rebus with its sweet potato-based sauce and copious amounts of green chilli topping. It has an amazing ability to absorb the flavours it is cooked in—such as in richly flavoured Hokkien mee or spicy mee siam—and can be made as simply or as elaborately as you fancy.
This page The traditional art of making noodles by hand
Below, from left Noodles are hung to dry; Making soba by hand
Easy Pork & Mushroom
Fried Kway Teow
Dan Dan Noodles