Ingredient Intelligence

A Guide to 12 Types of Chinese Noodles

published Jan 14, 2023
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Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen; Design: The Kitchn

If you walk down the noodle aisle of an Asian supermarket, chances are you’ll come across many types of Chinese noodles. Some are made from wheat, while others are made from rice, mung beans, or potatoes. Chinese noodles come in a dizzying number of varieties, sizes, and shapes. Thin, thick, narrow, and wide — the options are endless.

Origin of Noodles

Many believe that noodles were created in China. Records show its history dates back to Eastern Han Dynasty, around 3rd century BC – 3rd century AD. Noodles, made of wheat dough, became the staple food of many Chinese people. It was inexpensive, filling, and affordable. Since then, Chinese noodles have become an integral part of Chinese regional cuisines, and as they have evolved and developed over the years, other countries have also adopted them in their cuisine. 

Forming the Noodle List 

As a third-generation Filipino-born Chinese, I was exposed to different types of Chinese noodles when I was growing up. Misua, known in the United States as rice vermicelli, is prepared each year to celebrate my birthday, while glass noodles, also known as cellophane noodles or fen si, is traditionally served at family banquets. 

I also had the opportunity to learn other types of Chinese noodles, while I worked and lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong for 15 years. As a food critic, I interacted with local chefs and I would often ask, “How many types of Chinese noodles are there?”and the response I’d get was the following: “Too many.” It was difficult to determine how many Chinese noodle types there are. So when I came up with this list, I narrowed it down to noodle types often served at U.S. restaurants or sold at Asian markets. 

So prepare your chopsticks and slurp your way to a delicious bowl of Chinese noodles. Here are the 12 Chinese noodle types explained. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen; Design: The Kitchn

Types of Chinese Noodles

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Mi Xian ( 米线 ) (Yunnan Rice Noodles) 

Rice noodles come in different shapes, and the most common one is the round, spaghetti-like noodles called Yunnan rice noodles or mi xian. Originating from Yunnan province in southwest China, the noodles are often made fresh from a mixture of non-glutinous rice and water. There are many variations of Yunnan rice noodle dishes, and the most popular one is the Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles (guoqiao mixian). The dish is made of chicken and pork stock infused with ginger and spices, topped with ground pork and pickled mustard greens. The noodles can also mix into cold salads or stir-fry with eggs, tomatoes, meat, spring onions, and chili. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Mi Fen ( 米粉) (Rice Vermicelli)

Rice vermicelli (mi fen) is a very fine noodle originating from southern China. Thin, brittle, and white, it’s often sold dried and in blocks in the Asian foods section of supermarkets. This type of noodle doesn’t really need to be cooked; it can be soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, drained, then added to broths and stir-fries. The noodles are great at absorbing flavors, and they tend to be less oily. Rice vermicelli is also widely used in other parts of Asia, and it is served in different ways. In Hong Kong, it is simmered in broth with fish or beef balls; in the Philippines, it is used to make pancit bihon, a noodle dish that combines cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, peas, shredded chicken, shrimp, and pork, tossed in soy sauce and chicken stock. And it’s often used to make pad Thai.

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

He Fen (河粉 ) (Flat Rice Noodles)

This thick, flat variety of rice noodles is believed to have originated in Shahe, a town in Guangzhou province, southern China. Also called shahe fen, it is often dry-fried with meat and/or vegetables, like in the Cantonese dish chow fun, or cooked in a thick, starchy sauce. A thinner version, about half the thickness of the traditional rice noodles, is sometimes served in broths. Both variations are white and somewhat slippery. Made with rice flour and water, they are generally sold fresh in strips or sheets that may be cut to the desired width and length. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

 Yin Zhen Fen ( 银针粉) (Silver Needle Noodles)

This noodle type has a white, semi-transparent color, a short length of about 5 centimeters long, and pointy ends. A popular dish among the Hakka Chinese, silver needle noodles (yin zhen fen) was originally made using cooked rice and water. As the mixture turned into a paste, it was shaped into strips. Wheat starch (sometimes with a mix of cornstarch/tapioca starch) was eventually introduced to substitute the rice paste, and as it produced a soft, chewy texture, the noodles became a hit among Cantonese people. They incorporated the noodles to their cooking, and today it can be used for stir-fries, soups, or tossed with a sauce of your choice. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

La Mian ( 拉面) (Hand-Pulled Noodles)

Hand-pulled noodles (la mian) are formed by pulling dough by hand into long, elastic strips. They are made from wheat flour, salt, and water, and sometimes alkaline is added to make the noodles springier. When cooked, they can get smooth and slippery, and chewier in texture. They are always served fresh, as the pulling and cooking happen at the same time. Unlike other types, these noodles can be thin and round, or flat and wide. Depending on preference, you can mix them with a saucy ground pork mixture to make Dan Dan Noodles or add them in hot broth to make Lanzhou Beef Noodles, a classic dish from northwest China. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Fen Si ( 粉丝) (Glass Noodles)

These skinny, long noodles have a glass-like transparency that’s easy to notice. Depending on the starch used — mung beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, or tapioca — they can appear snowy white, light gray, or with a brownish tint. You can boil them for three to five minutes, or let them sit in warm water and soften that way. These noodles are versatile; stock up on some and use them throughout the year to make flavorful noodle bowls with pork. In the colder months, toss them into a wok with sautéed vegetables, or add them into soups or hotpot. In the hotter months, use them to make salads, spring rolls, or japchae, a popular Korean dish stir-fried with beef, vegetables, sesame oil, and soy sauce. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Mi Sua (面線) (Wheat Vermicelli)

If you’ve been invited to a birthday party and the host is from Fujian, eastern China, you’re most likely going to come across these very thin and extremely delicate wheat-based vermicelli (misua). Hand-made and sun-dried, they are made by stretching out dough to over 30 meters. Known as the longest noodle in China, it is typically served at birthdays to signify long life. You can use them in soups with pork meatballs, duck, or beef, or toss them in low heat with scrambled eggs, Chinese chorizo, shiitake mushrooms, roasted nuts, fried anchovies, and green onions. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Húntun Mian (雲吞面) (Wonton Noodles)

These thin noodles, made from egg, water, and lye water, look like angel hair pasta. Originating from southern China and Hong Kong, they are cooked al dente (the noodles are blanched for 10 seconds and rinsed under cold water). A popular ingredient in Cantonese cuisine, they are traditionally served in broth with shrimp wontons, Chinese broccoli (kai lan), and garnished with garlic chives. In some parts of Asia, like in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines, the noodles are served dry, topped with barbecued meat, and accompanied with broth on the side. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Dao Xiao Mian (刀削面 ) (Knife-Cut Noodles)

When you order knife-cut noodles (dao xiao mian), you’ll find each strand varies in size, shape, and length. That’s because it uses a technique that can be mastered only after years of practice. A skilled chef holds a firm slab of dough made of wheat flour, water, and oil, and uses a special knife to cut it at a 30-degree angle downwards into strips, directly into the boiling water. Some says chefs can typically slice up to 200 strands per minute. The resulting noodles are thick with rugged edges, and chewy. A specialty in Shanxi province, northern China, they are often boiled in broth and stir-fried with vegetables. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Chao Mian ( 炒面 ) (Chow Mein) 

Chow mein, translated to “fried noodles,” is a staple at Chinese takeout restaurants. These thin, crinkly, and crispy noodles, originating from Guangdong, China, are made with wheat flour, eggs, and water. Whether they are freshly made or dried, they must be cooked in boiling water, rinsed, and drained before stir-frying. Fresh noodles are boiled for two to three minutes, while dried noodles are parboiled in boiling water for up to six minutes, depending on thickness. Vegetables and meat are kept to a minimum so the noodles can stand out. A way to prepare the noodles is by pressing them flat while frying, and the ingredients and sauces are layered on top. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Lao Mian ( 捞面) (Lo Mein)

Soft, silky, and thicker than chow mein, lo mein is another type of Chinese egg noodle prepared differently. Lo mein, meaning “tossed noodles,” are boiled first and then gently tossed with sauce and cooked meat and vegetables in a wok. This way it allows the noodles to be coated in a rich, smooth sauce, to give it a bold, delicious flavor. When cooked, they are chewier and slippery in texture. 

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

You Mian (油面) (Oil Noodles)

Oil noodles (you mian) are tubular yellow strands served at street carts in Hong Kong. Known as chei zai mien, the noodles are relatively thick, bouncy, and go well with dry sauce. They are often sold fresh at specialty Asian markets and if you want to make them at home, the dough is simply made from a mixture of water, wheat flour, and salt. Egg whites or whole eggs are added as binding agents, along with corn oil and a preservative ingredient called sodium benzoate to maintain its freshness. The noodles are typically boiled for about 15 minutes and once cooked, transfer them to a bowl with oil and seasonings, and add your choice of cooked meat, broth, or vegetables. The noodles can be served hot or cold.