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Nifty Noodle

Perhaps the world’s favourite food, the humble noodle is rarely the star of the dish, but its universal appeal is worth celebrating. From perfect ramen to crowd-pleasing spaghetti bolognese, there is a lot you can do with these versatile strands. Discover it’s rich history and diversity.

Humble yet versatile, noodles are commonly made from unleavened dough using wheat or rice, water and sometimes egg, which is either rolled flat and cut or stretched into long strips or strings. Rarely the main event, they are often used as a canvas for creativity and flavour.

Beyond pantry staples like spaghetti and vermicelli, there is a vast array of lesser-known, but equally delicious (and often healthier) noodle varieties.

The history of noodles

Noodles are believed to have originated in China more than 4000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty. The earliest noodles were made from a simple mixture of wheat and water. The Chinese were among the first to develop the art of making pasta-like products, which were originally shaped by hand and then later with various tools.

Chinese noodles were introduced to neighbouring Asian countries, including Japan and Korea, as well as further west along the Silk Road, which facilitated a cultural exchange between China and the Middle East. Noodles eventually reached the Mediterranean region and became part of Italian cuisine.

The introduction of noodles in Italy led to the development of pasta, which is now an integral part of Italian cuisine. Italians are known for their various pasta shapes and types, from the dainty spaghetti tendrils to the home-cook’s favourite lasagne sheets. The word “pasta” is derived from the Italian word for dough and it has evolved into a wide array of culinary delights.

As noodles and pasta spread to different regions, they adapted to local tastes and ingredients. In Japan, udon and soba noodles made from wheat and buckwheat are popular; in Korea, you’ll find dishes like jajangmyeon and bibimmyeon made from wheat-based noodles.

Noodles hold cultural and symbolic significance in many societies. The act of making and sharing noodles is a cherished tradition that brings people together. In Chinese culture, long noodles are associated with longevity and they are traditionally served during birthdays and special occasions. Dragon head whisker noodles are eaten during the lunar new year to ask for good weather, and noodles with gravy are eaten when a family moves into a new home as a symbol of a flavoured life.

Noodles have evolved and adapted to suit local tastes and have become a beloved and versatile food worldwide.

Different types of noodles

There are countless types of noodles found across various cultures and they come in different shapes and sizes, from thin and delicate angel hair pasta to flat, wide hand-pulled Lamian noodles. The ingredients used to make noodles also vary, with options like rice or wheat noodles, egg noodles and more.

In Italy, some of the most common types of pasta include spaghetti (long, thin noodles), fettuccini (wide, flat noodles), rigatoni (large, ridged tubes), lasagne (wide flat sheets), farfalle (bowtie shaped), penne (short, diagonal cut tubes), orzo (small, rice-shaped), gnocchi (small, dumplings made from potato).

Some of the most popular Asian noodles include ramen ( Japanese wheat noodles), soba (thin Japanese buckwheat and wheat noodles), udon (thick Japanese wheat noodles), rice noodle (thin, flat rice noodles used in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine), vermicelli (thin rice noodles), glass noodle (thin transparent noodles made from mung beans, used in Korean and Thai dishes), pad Thai (rice noodles used in Thai stir fries), pad see ew (wide rice noodles used in Thai stir fries), egg noodles (yellow noodles made with egg, used in Chinese cuisine), chow mein (crispy fried noodles, used in Chinese dishes), japchae (Korean stir-fried glass noodles), naegmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles, used in Korean dishes), dbukbokki (rice cake noodles, a popular Korean street food).

There are also some middle eastern noodles which are popular such as fideos (thin vermicelli, used in Middle Eastern and Spanish dishes), and kubbeh (semolina or bulgur wheat dumplings, served in soup).

Gluten-free noodles

If you’re following a gluten-free diet due to celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or personal preference, you can still enjoy a wide variety of delicious gluten-free noodle options. Whether you’re making a classic Italian pasta dish or an Asian stir-fry, these gluten-free noodles will allow you to enjoy your favourite meals without compromising your dietary needs.

Some popular gluten-free noodle alternatives include rice noodles, maize noodles, quinoa noodles, 100 per cent buckwheat noodles, sweet potato noodles (Korean glass noodles), zucchini noodles (spiralized zucchini), lentil noodles (high in protein and fibre, great in pasta dishes), chickpea or black bean noodles (high\ in protein and fibre) and mung bean noodles (bean thread or glass noodles).

When using gluten-free noodles make sure you follow the package instructions for cooking times, as gluten-free noodles often have different requirements.

Delicious ways to enjoy noodles

Noodles are such a versatile ingredient that can be used in a wide variety of dishes and cuisines. The ways to use noodles are almost limitless and they can be adapted to suit your dietary preferences, from vegetarian and vegan options to dishes with various types of meat, chicken or seafood. Whether you prefer Asian, Italian, Middle Eastern or other cuisines, there’s a noodle dish to satisfy your cravings.

Noodles are a classic addition to soups, for examplechicken noodle soup with egg noodle; miso Japanese ramen in a broth made with miso and chicken bone broth, with vegetables, bok choy, green onions, fried tofu or ground meat. Japanese udon soup with thick wheat noodles in a broth made from dashi ( Japanese stock), soy sauce and mirin; or Vietnamese pho with rice noodles in bone broth with thinly sliced beef topped with bean sprouts, fresh herbs, lime and chilli.

Noodles can be stir-fried with a mix of vegetables, chicken, beef, prawns or tofu, with toasted cashews, peanuts or sesame seeds, fresh herbs and bean sprouts, and flavourful sauces like soy sauce, tamari, oyster sauce, teriyaki or creamy peanut sauce. This results in dishes like lo mein, pad Thai or chow mein.

Create refreshing salads with cold noodles like soba or rice noodles. Toss them with vegetables, fresh mint and coriander and a tangy chilli and lime dressing with shredded chicken, tofu or meat, for dishes like Vietnamese bun cha or cold sesame noodles.

Assemble noodle bowls with a variety of healthy toppings. Ramen bowls are popular, featuring chicken or vegetable broth, ramen noodles and toppings like sliced pork, soft-boiled eggs, shitake mushrooms, shredded carrots, spring onion, ginger and nori seaweed.

Prepare classic Italian dishes like spaghetti with meatballs, penne carbonara with chicken or prawns, or fettucine alfredo with seafood by cooking pasta and pairing it with various tomato based, pesto or creamy sauces, topped with parmesan and fresh basil. For a hearty meal use lasagne noodles to create baked pasta dishes like lasagne or baked ziti with layers of tomato sauce, cheeses, vegetables and your choice of proteins such as minced meat, or legumes for a vegetarian option.

Use large lettuce or cabbage leaves as wraps and fill them with stir-fried noodles, shredded vegetables, fresh herbs and sprouts and your choice of protein like ground chicken, pork, beef or tofu. This makes dishes like Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese style dishes like san choy bow.

Explore sweet noodle dishes like kugel, a Jewish noodle pudding made with egg noodles, cottage cheese, sour cream and cream cheese. Kugels are a mainstay of festive meals, particularly on the Jewish Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. It is thought to bring special spiritual blessings. Semiyan Kheer is an Indian rice noodle pudding dish made with roasted vermicelli noodles and milk, topped with toasted nuts and dried fruits, flavoured with cardamom, saffron and rose water. This dessert is commonly made during festivals or the winter months.

Healthiest noodles

When choosing which noodles to use, some are healthier than others.

Wholewheat noodles are made from wholewheat flour which retains more fibre and nutrients like iron, magnesium and zinc, compared to refined wheat noodles. Wholewheat noodles are a good source of complex carbohydrates, which supply a slow and steady source of energy to fuel the body, while also helping to keep you full and satisfied.

When you choose brown rice noodles over regular white rice noodles you will also get more fibre from the germ and bran, along with B vitamins, which are removed when rice is processed. Brown rice noodles are another good source of complex carbohydrates.

Quinoa noodles or pasta are known to be richer in fibre, protein and complex carbohydrates. They not only fill you up but they also deliver more nutrients such as iron and magnesium compared to wheat noodles.

Buckwheat noodles are a healthy gluten-free alternative to regular wheat noodles, offering less carbohydrates and higher levels of protein, along with magnesium, iron and phosphorus.

Legume pasta made from legumes like chickpeas, lentils and black bean are a good source of fibre, protein and minerals such as folate, iron, phosphorus and potassium. Legume pastas contain around 25 per cent more protein compared to regular wheat pasta. Legume pasta is a good iron rich food for vegans and vegetarians. Switching from regular pasta to a legume variety can help boost your digestive and cardiovascular health.

Zucchini noodles, often called zoodles, are a low-carb alternative to traditional noodles, especially popular in low-carb and paleo diets. You can use spiralised zucchini as a noodle substitute tossed through your favourite pasta sauce, salad or stir-fry.

Konjac or shirataki noodles, made from the konjac root, are popular in Japanese cuisine. These gluten-free noodles are low in carbohydrates and rich in a type of fibre called glucomannan, which can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It also acts as a prebiotic which promotes gut health and the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria.

10 cooking tips for perfect noodles

Perfecting noodle preparation involves some tricks that can help you achieve the best results, regardless of the type of noodles you’re using.

  • Use plenty of water to cook your noodles. Insufficient water can cause the noodles to stick together and cook unevenly.
  • Bring the water to a rolling boil before adding the noodles. This helps to prevent your noodles from sticking together and ensures even cooking.
  • Add salt to the cooking water to enhance the flavour of the noodles.
  • When you first add the noodles to the boiling water, stir them gently to prevent sticking. They tend to clump together when they first hit the water.
  • When cooking long noodles like spaghetti or fettuccine, don’t break them in half to fit the pot. Instead, let them soften in the boiling water for a minute or two, and then gently push them down into the pot as they soften and become more pliable.
  • Pay close attention to the cooking time indicated on the package. Different types of noodles, especially gluten-free noodles have different cooking times. A minute or two before the suggested cooking time is up, start tasting the noodles. The ideal texture is “al dente,” which means the noodles should still have a slight firmness when bitten. Overcooking can lead to mushy, unpleasant noodles, while undercooking can result in a doughy texture.
  • Reserve a cup of the pasta water. It’s starchy and can be used to adjust the consistency of your sauce when making pasta dishes.
  • Once the noodles are cooked to your desired level of doneness, immediately drain them in a colander. If you’re using the noodles in a cold salad or want to prevent further cooking, rinse them under cold water to stop the cooking process. However, for hot dishes, rinsing the noodles isn’t necessary. In fact, it washes away some of the starch that can help your sauce adhere to the noodles.
  • If you’re making a pasta dish, it’s a good idea to finish cooking the noodles in the sauce. This allows them to absorb the flavours of the sauce and ensures that the sauce coats the noodles evenly.
  • When preparing noodles for stir-fries, consider slightly undercooking them, as they will continue to cook when stir-fried with other ingredients.

Article Featured in WellBeing 209

Lisa Guy

Lisa Guy

Lisa Guy is a respected Sydney-based naturopath, author and passionate foodie with 16 years of clinical experience. She runs a naturopathic clinic in Rose Bay called Art of Healing and is the founder of Bodhi Organic Tea.

Lisa is a great believer that good wholesome food is one of the greatest pleasures in life and the foundation of good health. Lisa encourages her clients to get back to eating what nature intended: good, clean, wholesome food that’s nutrient-rich and free from high levels of sugars, harmful fats, artificial additives and pesticides. Her aim is to change the way people eat, cook and think about food.

Lisa is an avid health writer, being a regular contributor to The Sunday Telegraph's Body and Soul, and leading magazines including WellBeing. Lisa is an author of five books to date, including My Goodness: all you need to know about children’s health and nutrition , Pregnancy Essentials, Heal Yourself, Listen to your Body and Healthy Skin Diet .

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