Updated June 2010.
My name is Lydia, and I'm a noodle-holic.
You know the drill.
If there's a Noodles Anonymous chapter nearby, please let me know. I need it. I have never, ever, met a noodle I didn't love. I'd like to think I'm picky, like a chocoholic who eschews Hershey bars for cacao with a pedigree. But when it comes to noodles, I'm not picky, and my pantry proves it.
One shelf stocks Italian pasta: rotini, gemelli, cavatappi, spaghetti. Farfalle and lasagna. Orzo and teeny weeny ditalini. On another shelf, you'll find a stash of Asian noodles, with exotic names like banh pho, lo mein, banh trang, cellophane noodles (translucent, made from mung beans) and rice vermicelli.
Wait a minute. Vermicelli — isn't that Italian? What's it doing on the Asian shelf?
Popular in every Asian cuisine, rice vermicelli, a.k.a. rice sticks, a.k.a. mi fen or mee fun in Chinese, sen mee in Thai, maifun in Japanese, bihoon in Tagalog, banh hoi in Vietnamese and bee hoon in Malay, probably originated in China, which has been called the mother-cuisine of all Asian cooking.
Product labeling is inconsistent; what's called rice vermicelli comes in a variety of thicknesses, from thread-like to the flattened ribbons resembling fettucini, commonly used in making pad Thai. You want to buy the thin noodles, the ones that look like Italian vermicelli (thinner than spaghetti). Shop with your eyes, and read the ingredients on the label (always listed in English, for packaged food sold in the US) to make sure what you're buying is made from rice and water.
Dried rice noodles need a bit of a presoak, in warm tap water for 15-20 minutes. Then, drop the noodles into boiling water for 1-2 minutes. Rinse under cold water, and drain.
Bun gao (rice noodle salad with chicken)
Goi cuon/nime chow (fresh Vietnamese salad rolls with or without shrimp)
Two recipes in one: same ingredients, different sauce. Or maybe you want to use the same sauce? Or switch them around? These dishes expand or contract with the number of people you’re serving. Make as much or as little as looks good to you. With the components cooked, shredded and chopped, and stored in the fridge, assembling these dishes takes only a minute. Serves 6 or more, depending on what else you serve.
1-1/2 lb rice vermicelli
1 package banh trang (rice paper rounds)
Leftover cooked chicken (1 lb for 6-8 people)
1 dozen cooked and cooled medium shrimp, optional
Shredded cucumber (European seedless cukes work best)
Shredded iceberg lettuce (3/4 head for 6 people)
Handful of mint leaves
Mung bean sprouts (1/2 lb for 6 people)
Chopped peanuts (dry roasted, unsalted), for topping – a few tablespoons
Fill a bowl with hot water. Soak the rice vermicelli for 15 minutes, until flexible. Drain. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop in the rice vermicelli, and cook for 1 minute. Drain, rinse under cold water, and drain again. Set aside.
To make the bun gao salad: To a large serving bowl, add the cooked rice vermicelli , carrots, cucumber, lettuce, bean sprouts, and mint leaves. Top with chicken. Toss with nuoc cham. Top with chopped peanuts and serve. (If assembling the salad ahead, don’t add the dressing until you are ready to serve.)
And here's my recipe for goi cuon salad rolls, using the same ingredients.
VARIATIONS: Cooked pork instead of shrimp for the salad rolls, or grilled tofu strips for a totally vegetarian dish. Grilled shrimp or thinly sliced grilled flank steak instead of chicken in the salad. Use leftover meat, chicken, fish, even grilled tofu in the salad. Fresh basil leaves instead of, or in addition to, mint leaves in either dish.
Other recipes that use rice vermicelli:
Fried rice vermicelli, from Rasa Malaysia
Fried bee hoon with stewed pork, from Noob Cook
Beef brisket rice vermicelli soup, from Christine's Recipes: Easy Chinese Recipes
Mee Siam, from Teczcape
Singapore rice noodles, from Tigers & Strawberries
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