A Noodles Primer
Long, short, thick, thin, minute, spirals, shells, bowties… Whatever their size or shape, noodles are the foundation for many of the world's favorite dishes. From China to Italy, Germany to North Africa, Thailand to America, noodles are often as much a part of the culture as they are the cuisine.
The term "noodle," derived from the German word nudel, indicates texture, culinary use, and in some instances, length (e.g. spaghetti, vermicelli, ramen). Noodles can be cut into flat, thick, or thin ribbons of various lengths and forms, as well as irregular shapes like gnocchi. The most common noodles are wheat-based. However, rice, buckwheat, and egg noodles are familiar alternatives. Each has their own unique flavor profile and texture. Popularity and availability of these three types of noodles vary based on environment and culinary proclivity.
Easily the most common class of noodle, wheat-based varieties include Italian pasta, Chinese mein, Japanese udon, and German späztle. Wheat noodles are largely available throughout the culinary world, as there are specific Asian, European, and Middle Eastern styles.
Commercially-produced dried noodles are made with semolina flour, which is derived from durum wheat. Durum wheat is believed to have originated in the Middle East and North Africa, but it was likely refined for use as noodles by the Italians. Durum is high in fiber and gluten and has a low moisture content, which helps the noodle maintain its shape during manufacture and when cooked in boiling water. It also offers its own form of preservative. Mein, udon, spätzle, and fresh or homemade noodles are also made of wheat flour, but not specifically durum. Softer flour is used in the production of these noodles. Chinese noodles were first made with the wheat and rice indigenous to that area.
Rice noodles consist mainly of rice flour and water. They are predominantly used in southeast Asian cuisine, especially Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Mild in flavor with a chewy texture, rice noodles are a frequent component of Asian-style soups and stir-fry dishes. Wider cuts are sometimes deep fried and served with salads and as a side to soups in Chinese and Thai restaurants. Rice noodles are free of gluten and, therefore, may be used as an alternative to wheat noodles.
Buckwheat noodles are frequently referred to by their Japanese name, soba. While soba has a strong, earthy flavor, the noodle itself is very fragile. Buckwheat is gluten-free. However, some commercially produced noodles are made with a mix of buckwheat and common wheat for longevity and substance. Like most noodles, buckwheat noodles may be served hot or cold and make frequent appearances in Japanese soups and other Asian dishes.
Cellophane noodles, also called glass noodles, are popular in Eastern Asian cuisine. These transparent noodles are usually made from mung bean or potato starch and water, making them another popular gluten-free option.
Egg noodles are often made with wheat flour. However, there are gluten-free and kosher versions available that are made with potato starch, matzoh meal, or xantham gum. Traditional egg noodles are higher in cholesterol than ordinary wheat noodles; yolk-free egg noodles are also produced commercially.
So where did the noodle originate?
It has been long debated whether credit for the noodle belongs to the Italians or the Chinese, and each points to their own historical evidence as proof of origin.
In their desire to be recognized as creator of the noodle, Italians point to a set of Etruscan reliefs dated to the 4th century BC. They depict a knife, a sack of flour, a board resembling a modern pasta board, and an iron pin the Italians claim was used to create tubular pasta. However, this theory is unlikely. There is no other record from this era that would indicate the pin was used to make a tubular form of pasta. In fact, there is no conclusive evidence that noodles of any kind were known to the Etruscans.
Written record of a pasta-like dish did not appear in Italy until the 1st century BCE, when the Roman poet Horace wrote of his fondness for lagana, fried sheets of dough that were served in a tureen with chickpeas and leeks. By 1279, a basket of dried pasta, termed macaronis, was listed among the estate inventory of a Genoese soldier. At that time, Genoa was an Italian city-state. The inclusion of the noodles as part of the soldier's estate indicates that the food was prized and likely valuable.
The noodle's Italian roots were contradicted by an article published in The Macaroni Journal, an American food industry magazine, in 1929. The article alleged that Italian explorer Marco Polo was introduced to the noodle during a 1295 trip to China and that he brought them back to Italy. This story was perpetuated in the 1938 Gary Cooper film, The Adventures of Marco Polo. While the claim has been disproved by historical evidence, the legend remains. It is plausible, however, that Polo was introduced to rice noodles in China and brought them back to Italy.
Despite the claims of the Italians, evidence points to China as the originator of the noodle. The earliest written documentation of the noodle dates back to the Han Dynasty in China, circa 25-200 AD. The discovery of 4,000-year-old noodles in 2005 fueled the legend of the noodle. The noodles, which had been preserved in a sealed bowl, were found buried under 10 feet of sediment near the Yellow River at the Lajia archeological site in China's Qinghai province. These earliest noodles were made from foxtail and broomcorn millets. Indigenous to that region, millets are seeded grasses that are still used today in cereals and as animal fodder.
Since their origin, noodles have found their way into kitchens all over the world.
A Quick Trip around the Globe
While Asia and Italy have contributed the largest variety of noodles, many other countries have done their part to add to the assortment.
Spätzle is a soft noodle that is believed to have originated in Swabia, a region in southern Germany. It is a dish of tiny noodles that are comprised mainly of flour and eggs. The dough can either be firm enough to be rolled out and cut into small pieces or soft enough to be forced through a colander or special spätzle-maker. The processed spätzle is then boiled and tossed in butter. In Germany, it is often served as a side dish with gravy or sauce. Throughout Germany, Austria, and Hungary, spätzle noodles are also a prime ingredient in soups and hearty stews.
Couscous, while not technically a noodle, is made from the same durum semolina that constitutes most wheat-based pastas. The small, rolled pearls originated with the Berber people, an ethnic group from North Africa. It is traditionally served beneath meat or vegetable stew. Couscous has become a staple food throughout northern Africa and the Middle East, as well as in France.
Noodles also feature prominently in Jewish cuisine and culture; most notably, kugel. Kugel is a type of casserole or pudding that can be either sweet or savory. They are popular side dishes for Shabbat kiddushes and Passover seders. In fact, noodles made from matzoh meal were developed so that these favorite dishes had a kosher noodle alternative and could be enjoyed during Passover, which prohibits consumption of leaved breads. Matzoh meal is an unleavened cracker that has been ground down for use as a binder.
Noodles offer many nutritional and economical benefits. Most are low in saturated fat and cholesterol; are good sources of thiamin, folate, manganese, and selenium; and are an excellent source of dietary fiber. Thiamin is a B vitamin that helps the body turn carbohydrates into energy. Another B vitamin, folate assist in the production of red blood cells and DNA formation. Manganese and selenium promote bone growth and healthy brains, muscles, and skin, respectively. Whole grain versions of wheat-based noodles are steadily growing in popularity, as they offer more fiber and protein than their original counterparts. Rice noodles are also low in fat and calories. They are lower in sodium than wheat noodles and have a higher fiber content. Buckwheat noodles are high in manganese and selenium.
As noodles grew in popularity over the years, they became both more easily obtainable and more affordable. Grocery stores across the nation stock a large selection of dried noodles. These include noodles enriched with additional vitamins and minerals and those flavored and tinted with tomatoes, beets, or spinach. Best stored in a cool, dry place, dried noodles have an almost indeterminate shelf life. The natural longevity of dried wheat noodles make them a staple food in traditional dishes and modern fusion foods. Fresh noodles are also available commercially, but have a shelf life of three days and require refrigeration.
With all their merits, it's no wonder noodles have been a culinary staple for over 2,000 years.
The Noodles: The Long and Short of It series aims to cover everything you ever wanted to know about noodles – and maybe a few things you didn't.