What Are Rice Noodles and How Are They Made?
Rice is one of the most important grains in Asian cuisine. So important that in several Asian languages, people will use the word for “rice” to refer to any food or meal. It shouldn’t come as a shock then that this multifaceted grain is also used to make an equally versatile noodle—the rice noodle. But, exactly what are rice noodles and how are they made?
What are rice noodles?
Essentially, rice noodles are made of two main ingredients—rice flour and water—thrown together in a recipe that has stood the test of 2000 years since they were first made in China. While not as whimsically shaped as some pastas, rice noodles come in a variety that ranges from hair-thin vermicelli to the wide silky rice sheets used in Chinese dim sum. Like rice itself, these noodles don’t have much flavour on their own, but they pair well with light broths or punchy sauces, in stir-fries or dipped in curry.
The Origin of Rice Noodles
Historical records suggest that when invaders from the North of China landed in the South of the country, they were more accustomed to eating wheat noodles rather than cooked rice. As rice grew plentifully in the South, Northern cooks tried making noodles from rice flour, and thus the rice noodle was born. Since then, rice noodles spread to other parts of the continent and are now a part of the local fare throughout Southeast Asia in dishes like stir-fried Char Kway Teow or spicy, soupy Laksa.1
How Are Rice Noodles Made?
Graphic by Paulina Cerna-Fraga
Before any noodles can be made, raw (un-milled) rice is aged for up to 9 months by keeping it in storage to naturally undergo physiochemical changes. Ageing the un-milled rice in this way makes for fluffier and harder cooked rice, as well as noodles with a firmer, more desirable texture.2, 5
After the rice is nice and aged, it is cleaned before it is steeped in water for several hours to several days where it undergoes fermentation thanks to the naturally present lactic acid bacteria and yeast in the water.3
The rice is finally processed into a wet-milled flour by rolling it through a mill while periodically adding water.4
Since rice flour lacks gluten and has poor binding properties, it is put through a process called pre-gelatinization that has to be done to help it form a cohesive dough. Simply put, pre-gelatinization involves adding boiling water or steam to the rice flour to draw out the natural starch in rice to help bind the dough together when it’s kneaded into balls.5 At this point, tapioca, potato or cornstarch is sometimes added to give the final noodle a chewier texture and glossier appearance.6
Once a dough is formed, it is then shaped and moulded into noodles. For a flat rice noodle like in Vietnamese Pho or Pad Thai from Thailand, the dough is pressed into sheets and cut into long strips before cooking. Other noodle types like thin vermicelli or slim laksa noodles are made by extruding the rice flour dough through a mold and into boiling water to be cooked for 1-2 minutes. Once cooked, these noodles need to be quickly cooled in a cold water bath (0 – 10℃).8
The quick succession of heating then cooling is a necessary step to further gelatinize the starch in the noodles, so that they become smooth and slippery to avoid clumping together when packaged.
Drying and Packaging
The noodles are washed to remove any sticky starch on their surface, then they are packaged as either fresh rice noodles or dehydrated further. Fresh rice noodles can be cooked immediately and should be eaten within a few days, whereas dried rice noodles can be stored for years without worry, but they usually need to be rehydrated according to brand instructions by soaking the noodles before cooking.9
Are Rice Noodles Good For You?
Seeing as rice noodles are made predominantly of white rice, they’re mainly a source of carbohydrate and don’t offer much in the way of other macro or micronutrients. However, rice-based noodles can be an alternative to wheat noodles for anyone who avoids eating gluten - just be sure to check your labels. If you’re looking for something more nutritionally dense, brown rice noodles are a better bet since brown rice contains more vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fibre than polished white rice, and eating this whole grain has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease.10, 11
Whether savoury and spicy or sweet and fresh, there are thousands of ways to cook a hearty rice noodle dish. Take your cue from the Philippines and stir-fry some vermicelli with soy sauce and citrus, or shape the noodles into cakes to dip into sweetened coconut milk like Idiyappam from South India. Even simpler, boil your noodles in a clear, flavourful broth with your choice of toppings—that’s how it’s been eaten for thousands of years, and surely how it will be eaten for a thousand more.
Do you have a favourite rice noodle dish? Tell us in the comments below!