East Asian Noodles You Should Eat Instead of Ramen
In the past decade, ramen took the US by storm when the noodles went from college dorm staple and pantry punchline to one of the most sought-after foodstuffs. Seemingly overnight the soup was being slung by pop-ups, food trucks, and high-end izakayas.
But, much like you wouldn't only eat spaghetti with all that tasty rigatoni out there, you're selling yourself short if you stick to just one East Asian noodle. These are the ones you should get acquainted with now. Trust us. You'll be well ahead of the curve if and when udon becomes the next ramen.
Each region of Japan has its own style of udon so generalizations are tough, but regardless of how and where they're eaten, these noodles are fatter and spongier than their counterparts and make for an even more violent slurp than ramen (especially when served in a thick curry sauce).
Udon is the most likely next ramen contender, as there are already plenty of ramen shops that offer variations on the dish. Be on the lookout for the hotpot version (nabeyaki udon), since everything is better when served in stoneware, or take Nguyen Tran from the Starry Kitchen in LA's suggestion and order bukkake, which in addition to a Google search term that could get you fired, is actually a cold udon dish with thick dashi broth. The name alone makes it a magnet for press and the type of food phenomenon that Yelpers would pounce on.
Hand-pulled noodles (lamian)
To make a bowl's worth of Chinese hand-pulled noodles, a master noodlesmith has to pay close attention to the balance of flour, water, and external factors like humidity or else they lose the all-important springiness for which the noodles are renowned. They start as a thick rope that's kneaded and swung around in the cooking equivalent of a game of cat's cradle, then pulled into strands and traditionally served in a beef broth. Although, stateside fusion-minded chefs vary the broths and thickness of noodles. The spectacle adds a level of showmanship to the dining experience, which differentiates this kind of noodle shop from more run-of-the-mill takeout joints.
But the takeout places aren't to be scoffed at -- there's been momentum behind hand-pulled noodles ever since Anthony Bourdain stopped by Xi’an Famous Foods in a shopping mall in Queens, New York in 2008. The owner's son, Jason Wang, has since expanded the shop into a mini NYC empire. No worries if you're not in NYC though; Andrew Zimmern has a recipe for the on-the-rise noodles.
Knife-shaved noodles (dao xian mian)
A specialty of the Northern Chinese province of Shanxi, these start from a block of dough (rice or wheat), and the difference between these and the hand-pulled ones, is that the cook uses a special knife to shave them directly into boiling water. It requires a rapid-fire pace to keep the noodles cooked relatively evenly, but there's a built-in margin for error given that these flat noodles err towards the chewier side.
Like their hand-pulled cousins, dao xian mian typically end up in a spicy beef broth, but are also used in stir-frys. Even though the P.F. Chang's crowd is already familiar with this style of noodle, which often makes it into dishes like dan dan noodles, the technique is still largely unknown by the foodie world. But it's too YouTube-worthy to stay secret for long.
Sweet potato glass noodles
Cellophane or glass noodles make appearances throughout Asia and are similar to rice vermicelli, but fitting to their name, are more transparent. Varieties made using sweet potato starch take on a slightly brown tint and are most often found in the stir-fried Korean dish japchae. With the surge in popularity of Korean barbecue, a noodle dish could easily be the next big Korean craze.
Highly recommended by Shion Aikawa of Austin's Ramen Tatsu-ya (one of our 33 best slurp shops!), fusion Japanese spaghetti is rarely seen in the US outside certain pockets of California, but it's ubiquitous in Japan, and seen in everything from upscale restaurants to to-go bento boxes. "Imagine a world where one can get salted pollock roe (tarako) pasta, creamy sea urchin carbonaras, and toppings such as roasted seaweed, umeboshi, and pickled mustard greens on the regular," he says.
Also weirdly common is "ketchup spaghetti" (aka spaghetti Neapolitan) that combines a protein, ketchup, and roasted seaweed for garnish. It's the type of fusion that could draw a line around the corner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but is also accessible enough that it might just make it to middle America.
Soba noodles stand out amongst other Japanese noodles because they're made with buckwheat dough that's rolled flat then sliced into thin strands. The Western Japanese prefecture of Nagano produces much of the country's buckwheat and is closely tied to the noodles' identity, but they're found throughout Japan.
They're more likely to be served cold than the other noodles on this list, and are most commonly served plain alongside a clear dashi- and soy-based dipping sauce, but can also be accompanied by tofu, raw egg, or tempura. They're already on the menu at most Japanese restaurants, but it's only a matter of time before the ramen-obsessed start to take notice.
As opposed to most of the noodles on this list that swing both ways on the temperature spectrum, white somen noodles are typically served cold and sometimes even iced. They're the thinnest of all the styles mentioned, and the serving style most associated with them is a unique communal dining experience where the noodles are streamed down a bamboo shoot and diners use chopsticks to snag bites directly from the flow. Health code concerns might keep this out of American restaurants, but it's the type of spectacle that would work perfectly at a food festival.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.