Cheap. Tasty. A traveller staple. Noodles claim their place on menus the world over and chances are you’ve had some recently – whether hot or cold, sauced or plain, instant or handmade… Here are eight incarnations of this classic comfort food and where to find them; each equally delicious, down to the last slurp.
Lo mein, China
Know your noodle: wheat flour (and occasionally egg) noodles
No Chinese noodle dish is as ubiquitous as the oft-revered, sometimes maligned lo mein. Served hot with a soy-based sauce and your choice of meats, seafood and vegetables, lo mein is often understood to be Cantonese, but has been around so long that its precise origins are hard to know.
In the West, lo mein is often confused with its harder, crunchier cousin, chow mein, as both are made from the same noodles. Lo mein is the soft version, where the noodles are added to the veggies and meats towards the end of cooking – long enough to warm them up but not so much that they become crunchy. Eat with round or bamboo chopsticks, or a fork.
Know your noodle: buckwheat noodles
Naengmyeon is thought to have originated in North Korea, but is found everywhere in South Korea’s Busan region. Served cold in a metal bowl with chopsticks, naengmyeon is – like everything in Korea – spicy, laced with hot chilli paste, shredded cucumbers, Asian pear and pickles. It’s a staple for late-night partiers country-wide and available in many Korean restaurants, but nothing beats having it in Busan.
Like many noodles, it’s simple, heart-warming fare. A variant – also served cold – is mul naengmyeon, a noodle soup with a refreshing, salty broth. The long noodles symbolise longevity so they are often served uncut and trimmed with scissors at the table.
Aash e Reshteh, Iran
Know your noodle: Persian flat wheat noodles
Iran’s Aash e Reshteh, like Busan’s naengmyeon, is a noodle soup that bestows longevity on the diner, but that’s where the similarity ends. Hugely popular at Norooz (Persian New Year) feast time, Aash e Reshteh is a hearty stew made with a yoghurt-like whey product called kashk, chickpeas, lentils and onion. It is usually served with beautiful decorations made of mint, nuts and extra kashk.
The noodles are traditionally made fresh and air-dried, but boxed may be used as well. Norooz isn’t the same without Aash e Reshteh, but the soup can be made at any time of year. It is eaten with a spoon and served on a flat dish.
Spaghetti alla carbonara, Italy
Know your noodle: semolina flour pasta
Spaghetti alla carbonara (from the Lazio region, though found throughout Italy) is made using one of the world’s most familiar noodles. Pork jowl, raw eggs and Parmesan cheese are cooked over low heat so the eggs stay creamy. This dish (like spaghetti itself) has spread far and wide, as common in America and other parts of Europe as it is in Italy. Another option is to swap the pork and eggs for clams, tomatoes, and oil and have it alle vongole (with clams).
Spaghetti is nearly always kept simple and fresh, with sauces that combine a few flavourful ingredients rather than complex mixtures and seasonings. Cacio e pepe, found all over Rome, is a simple mix of spaghetti, cheese and just the right amount of black pepper. Remember to eat this with a fork only – no spoons allowed!
Know your noodle: thick wheat flour noodles
Udon is Japan’s go-to comfort food; a staple for salarymen who don’t have time to eat, mothers who need a quick meal to put on the table, or college students trying to cram in some calories between study sessions.
You’ll find udon – often served hot in a savoury broth with a choice of toppings – anywhere and everywhere throughout Japan, but Sanuki udon (a square-shaped version) from Shikoku island is supposed to be the cream of the crop, so popular that in large cities noodle shops will proclaim theirs is ‘Sanuki style’. True udon addicts will travel hundreds of miles to say they’ve had the authentic Sanuki udon.
Know your noodle: rice noodles
Any Vietnam visitor knows that Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) is as Vietnamese as apple pie is American. It’s consumed daily by rich, poor, and everyone in between with rice vermicelli (Bánh phở) as the star attraction. These thin, white noodles are usually added to a steaming hot beef or chicken broth and need to be eaten quickly as they’ll absorb the liquid and become so soft they almost dissolve.
At its simplest, good pho is just a broth with noodles, but it’s common to add slices of meat, Asian basil leaves, lemongrass, bean sprouts, or whatever toppings one desires. Bowls of pho are eaten with chopsticks, often disposable, though in restaurants a ceramic broth spoon aids the diner in leaving an empty bowl.
Know your noodle: wheat flour
Spaetzle (or Spätzle) is Germany’s answer to pasta. These ‘little sparrows’ are made by using a very loose dough and then dripping and dribbling the mixture directly into boiling hot water, often with the help of a small tool called a spaetzle hopper, which allows the dough to fall through holes in a perforated metal plate.
The oddly-shaped morsels are small, rarely longer than an inch, and can be seasoned with any number of sauces or used in casseroles, served as an accompaniment to fish or meat, or even eaten on their own with pepper and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.
Sopa seca, Mexico
Know your noodle: spaghetti
Contrary to what the name would appear to be (sopa means ‘soup’ in Spanish) Mexico’s sopa seca is a cross between a Mexican plate of spaghetti and a casserole, and depending on the cook, it can be anything from a hearty main course to a flavourful side dish.
The seca (dry) part comes from frying the noodles until they’re crisp but not burned. Then a rich sauce of tomatoes, onions, herbs and cheese is added, and it’s baked until the top is golden brown. Finished with fresh chopped avocados, cilantro (coriander) and cheese, sopa seca is often eaten with refried beans and chopped lettuce.