For many years, the origin of noodles has been a topic of much debate. Some argue that noodles were first created in the Mediterranean region. Others claim that the first technology for creating noodles was developed in the Middle East. However, the oldest written records referring to noodles date back to the East Han Dynasty around AD 25 to AD 200, and archaeologists recently unearthed the world’s oldest noodle in China. That noodle was about 4,000 years old. So the evidence now suggests that ancient inhabitants of modern China were among the first to produce noodles,1 although whether or not the Chinese acquired noodle technology from the Middle East is still a matter of debate.
Ancient Chinese noodles were made from millet grass grains. The modern wheat-based noodle that most people are familiar with did not reach Asia until much later, perhaps around AD 100. It is believed that noodles quickly spread from China to other Asian countries. Since then, they have spread to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and even many Southeast Asian and Asian island countries.
The Meaning of Noodles
In Chinese culture, the noodle is a symbol of long life. For that reason, noodles are traditionally served on birthdays and on the Chinese New Year as an emblem of longevity. The Chinese version of birthday cake is birthday noodles. In Japan, noodles were incorporated into the Japanese tea ceremony, and noodle-making was considered its own art form. Noodles became even more important in Japan after WWII, when food shortages were rampant and dried foods like noodles were often the only available food item. In just about every Asian culture that uses them, noodles are associated with well-being and long life and can be considered an Asian comfort food.
Types of Asian Noodles
There are many types of noodles used in Asian cuisine. Whether thin or thick, flat or round, wheat or rice or mung bean, every single noodle in Asia has its own history and its own culinary use. Tracing the use and history of each type of noodle reveals an intricate tapestry of culinary exchange throughout the centuries.
La Mian Noodles
The oldest noodle ever discovered resembles the la mian noodle of modern China. La mian literally means “pulled noodle.” It is a hand-made wheat noodle, made of dough that is twisted and stretched until a long, thin piece is produced. It is used in soups and stir fries. It is similar to the Cantonese lo mein noodle, but is much thinner than most lo mein noodles served in America.
Ramen Noodles or “Chuka Men”
Many claim that ramen noodles were developed from the Chinese la mian noodle, and that the word “ramen” is a Japanese derivative of the word “lamian.” There is good linguistic evidence for this connection, and the noodle commonly used in ramen is also called “chuka men,” meaning “Chinese noodle” in Japanese.
Chuka men is an ultra-thin, round wheat noodle that is also used for other Japanese dishes, such as champon – fried pork with seafood, vegetables and broth, which is also popular in Korea – and yakisoba – fried noodles, a dish similar to the Chinese chow mein. The history and usage of ramen noodles clearly highlights the culinary exchange that occurred in China and Eastern Asia.
Thick Japanese wheat noodles are known as “udon” noodles and are usually served in a hot broth-based soup, usually topped with scallions. The noodle likely derived from a similar Chinese noodle known as “cu mian.” It is said that Japanese Buddhist monks in the 800s brought the udon noodle back from China. This history highlights the importance of noodles in Japanese Zen or Buddhist culture.
Thin buckwheat noodles are a popular ingredient in Japan. Soba noodles are used to make country-style soups, and occasionally they are eaten cooled with a dipping sauce. Soba has been eaten for centuries, but became a main staple of the Tokyo region during the Edo period, when the wealthy of this region began to prefer white rice – low in thiamine – over the thiamine-rich brown rice, and buckwheat became the main source for thiamine instead. Soba noodles were thus not only a comfort food, but also a necessary source for nutrients.
Mee pok are flat, yellow wheat noodles hailing from China that are tossed in sauce or served in a soup with mushrooms and minced meat on top. The dish, called “bak chor mee,” is served in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia as well. Traditionally, the noodles are blanched, drained and mixed with the sauce or broth. Another similar dish often using the same noodles mixed with fish balls or fish cakes is called “yu wan mee.”
He Fen and Pho Noodles
A broad, flat, slippery rice noodle, he fen, also known as “hor fun” and “shahe fen”, has its origins in China, where they are stir fried with beef to make “chao fen” or served in soups. However, the noodle has also traveled to other countries. In Thailand, a similar noodle is used to create a variety of Chinese-inspired stir fries, and in Vietnam this same rice noodle is used to create pho.
Also known as glass noodles, mung bean noodles, bean thread noodles and Chinese vermicelli, cellophane noodles are ultra-thin, translucent noodles traditionally made from mung bean starch. Nowadays, cellophane noodles can be made of yam, potato, cassava or canna starch as well. These noodles are eaten all over China in stir fries, soups and hot pots. They have also spread to Japan, Korea, Vietnam and several South Asian countries, where they are used in stir fries, spring rolls and even desserts.
Rice vermicelli are very thin noodles similar to cellophane noodles but made of rice flour instead of mung bean or potato starch. They are eaten throughout Asia, but are especially popular in Singapore, where they are used to create peanut satay noodles (satay been hoon) or seafood fried noodles (hokkien mee). They are also used in the Phillipines, where they are known as “pancit” and are stir-fried and eaten on birthdays, as they have been in China for centuries.
Thin strings of rice or wheat noodles are popular in India and Sri Lanka and are known as “idiyappam.” They resemble modern-day ramen or rice vermicelli, and are often served along with curry and chutney.
Dotori guksu are unique Korean noodles made from acorns. Given the long history of acorns in Korea and noodles around the area, it is likely that these noodles have been eaten for several millennia in Korea. The thick, acorn-flour noodles are similar to soba noodles and are eaten in stir fries or chilled and served with dipping sauce. Thin vermicelli-style dotori guksu are made from acorn starch and are generally eaten chilled.
As the history of these noodles shows, culinary practices in Asia are not divided by country. Rather, common ingredients are found throughout adjacent countries. The pattern of culinary trade that occurred between different regions of Asia continues today, when noodles are still an important part of many Asian cuisines as well as Asian-inspired fusion dishes.
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