So you think you know noodles?
Chinese cuisine is one of the more complicated culinary traditions in which one English word may refer to several foods or ingredients — both jiaozi and huntun can be called dumplings, for example, because their fillings are folded in flour wrappers.
The words noodles or rice noodles can mean very different things in Chinese cuisine. Basic ingredients such as fensi, fentiao and kuanfen can all be called noodles, but they are different in terms of composition, flavor and use. These special noodles are not like the flour or rice flour-based pasta that is served as staple dishes.
Fensi, which translates directly as starch shreds, normally refers to cellophane noodles or glass noodles. They are a white and opaque product that looks similar to dry rice noodles but become transparent when cooked. The ingredient used to make cellophane noodles is mung bean starch and pea starch instead of wheat or rice flour.
Longkou fensi are the most renowned cellophane noodles in the Chinese market. Two county-level cities in Shandong Province — Longkou and Zhaoyuan — started making and selling cellophane noodles around the late Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
As one of China’s traditional specialty products, Longkou fensi stands out for its uniform shape, consistent quality, elasticity and the advantage of remaining complete in cooking. The cooked noodles are very smooth and chewy at the same time and, according to national standards, no additives are allowed in the production and the ingredients are limited to starch and water.
Zhaoyuan is the largest production base for Longkou fensi in China and generates billions of yuan annually. Cellophane noodles are easy to cook and can be stored for up to two years. Before dried cellophane noodles are added in various dishes, they should be soaked in hot water for a few minutes until soft.
Garlic-flavored cellophane noodles can be a simple yet flavorful dish that appeals to many people. After soaking the noodles, prepare flavorful ingredients such as garlic paste, oyster sauce, red chilis and scallions.
The garlic paste is sautéed with a little bit of oil and oyster sauce until the aroma emerges. Then the chilis and half of the chopped scallions are added so they cook a little before adding cellophane noodles with a large spoonful of light soy sauce. Before turning off the heat, add the other half of the scallions and serve.
Ants climbing the tree, or mayi shangshu, is a Sichuan dish with an unappetizing name and presentation, but rest assured, no real ants or trees are used in the cooking.
The dish is actually made with minced pork and cellophane noodles which, when mixed together, creates an image similar to ants climbing a tree. The richly flavored dish seasoned with vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, garlic, ginger and chili paste is usually served with steamed rice.
Duck blood and cellophane noodle soup is a popular street food in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. The simple, umami-flavored soup is enjoyed across China. The duck bone soup is put together with braised duck offal (liver, intestines, heart and gizzard), slices of duck blood tofu, cooked cellophane noodles, cilantro and ginger. It’s a convenient dish for breakfast and dinner, especially in colder days as it provides instant warmth and energy.
Cellophane noodles are also cooked with steamed scallops and garlic paste, as they can take in the flavor of the seafood and provide a contrasting texture.
Fentiao, on the other hand, are dried noodles made from potato and sweet potato. It’s an ingredient used in a spicy and sour noodle dish in Sichuan Province, as well as in the pork and Chinese cabbage stews of northeastern China.
Regular fentiao are similar to noodles in appearance. When cooked, they are smooth, bouncy, yet easy to chew. Fentiao should be rehydrated before cooking so that they won’t soak up all the soup or sauces instantly and can cook more evenly and quickly.
Chopped fentiao are sometimes used in the fillings of dumplings or steamed buns because they can absorb the extra moisture in the vegetables or meat.
The flat, thick fentiao called kuanfen or shaofen are a more exciting variety. It takes a longer time to cook kuanfen, but the result is stunning as the broader surface can take on the sauces better and the texture is also very satisfying. Hotpot kuanfen is a Sichuan street food, the broth made from hotpot condiments is quite spicy and oily.
Vermicelli, a super thin rice pasta, is actually a type of mifen that can be cooked in soups or stir-fried with eggs and vegetables. It’s the ingredient used in Pad Thai or Vietnamese Pho.
Konjac, the miracle food
Noodle or tofu made with konjac yam is a low-carb food that’s ideal for the post-holiday diet. The thin konjac noodle, or shirataki noodle, is often called miracle noodle because the calorie is close to zero.
The main ingredient of konjac products is glucomannan starch, an indigestible dietary fiber extracted from the konjac plant (also known as devil’s tongue) which grows in Japan, China and Southeast Asia.
Konjac product is very popular as meal replacement because it can provide the feeling of being full. With little flavor of its own, the simple ingredient can be incorporated in all kinds of cuisine ranging from salads, stews to snacks.
Two varieties of konjac products are commonly available in the market, the black konjac normally sold as twist, stick or block is rougher than the white type, which is usually in thin noodle shape (loose or braided).
Black konjac can replace meat or tofu in Chinese cooking, it has a bouncy yet tender texture that won’t break after longer cooking time, while the white konjac is more suitable in salads and soups. Both can be cooked in hotpot to take on the rich flavor of the broth
This miracle ingredient is easy to cook — it only takes a few minutes in boiling water and then a quick salad is ready after adding a classic dressing of soy sauce, vinegar, salt, chili oil, sugar and scallion.
Black konjac and duck stew is a quite classic Sichuan-style dish that braises the two ingredients with spicy fermented broad bean paste, chilies, garlic, tender ginger alongside other herbs and spices.
One can make a quick konjac stir-fry for dinner by tossing the sticks or slices of black konjac with vegetables like green chili, celery or leek. Sour pickles are popular companion to konjac as well, since its distinct flavor can make the blank konjac very delicious.
Konjac snacks are also fun and low in calorie. The white konjac can be shaped as beef tripe as the alternative and then mix with spicy dressing to imitate the chewiness of spicy beef tripe.
Some brands are attempting to use konjac as a staple replacement to make low-calorie products like Xi’an-style rice noodle, but the result is less than ideal since the slight crunchiness and chewiness of the konjac is very different from the starch-based noodle and an authentic sauce is not enough to make it right.