In Vietnam and Cambodia, there are a variety of noodles, many of them made from rice. The everyday noodles in Vietnam fall into three main types: bun, which are long and thin, similar to Italian vermicelli and called rice sticks – they are used in soups, side dishes, and as a wrapping for meat and seafood; banh pho, also called rice sticks, but they are flatter, thicker and sturdier, ideal for substantial soups such as pho, and stir-fries; and the fine banh hoi which resemble angel hair pasta and are primarily used in thin broths.
DRIED RICE “VERMICELLI” NOODLES
Often referred to as vermicelli, these dried rice noodles (bun), made from rice flour, salt and water, are thin and wiry and sold in bundles. Before using, they must be soaked in water until pliable and then the noodles only need to be cooked in boiling water for a few seconds, until tender and al dente like Italian pasta. In Vietnam, these noodles are used in soups and salads – they are often used to wrap around raw vegetables and herbs in Vietnamese table salad, as well as to wrap around grilled meats and shellfish.
DRIED RICE STICKS
These flat, thin dried rice noodles (banh pho) resemble linguine and are available in several widths, which start at around 2mm. Also made from rice flour, salt and water, they are used in salads and stir-fries, after being softened in water.
FRESH RICE NOODLES
Known as banh pho tuoi, fresh rice noodles are thicker than dried ones. They are often served as a side dish with curries and vegetable dishes. Like the dried variety, they require minimal cooking. In some recipes they are just dipped in warm water to heat them up, or they are added at the last moment to stir-fried and steamed dishes. Use them on the day of purchase.
PREPARING DRIED RICE NOODLES
Dried noodles can be bought in various packaged forms from most Asian stores and supermarkets. The basic principle is that thinner varieties require less cooking time and are served with light ingredients and thin broths, whereas the thicker noodles take a little longer to cook and are balanced with heavier ingredients and stronger flavours.
Before cooking, dried rice noodles must be soaked in warm water for about 10 minutes, until pliable. The dry weight usually doubles on soaking. The rule is to soak well to soften, but to cook briefly. If the noodles are cooked for too long they will become soggy. Once softened, both the rice vermicelli and rice sticks need to be cooked in boiling water for seconds, rather than minutes, until tender and firm, just like a’ dente Italian pasta. Divide the noodles among individual bowls and ladle stock or a meat broth over them or put them in a wok to stir-fry.
MAKING FRESH RICE NOODLES
A variety of dried noodles are available in Asian stores and supermarkets, but fresh ones are quite different and not that difficult to make. For a snack, the freshly made noodle sheets can be drenched in sugar or honey, or dipped into a sweet or savoury sauce of your choice. Similarly, you can cut them into wide strips and gently stir-fry them with garlic, ginger, chillies and nuoc mam or soy sauce – a popular snack enjoyed in Vietnam.
As a guide to serve four, you will need about 225g cups rice flour to 600ml cups water. You will also need a wide pot with a domed lid, or wok lid, a piece of thin, smooth cotton cloth (like a clean dish towel), and a lightly oiled baking tray.
Preparing the batter
Place the flour in a bowl and stir in a little water to form a smooth paste. Gradually, pour in the rest of the water, whisking all the time to make sure there are no lumps. Beat in a pinch of salt and 15ml vegetable oil. Set aside for 15 minutes.
Preparing the steamer
Meanwhile, fill a wide pot with water. Cut a piece of cloth a little larger than the top of the pot. Stretch it over the top of the pot (you may need someone to help you), pulling the edges down over the sides so that the cloth is as taut as a drum, then wind a piece of string around the edge, securing the cloth with a knot or bow. Using a sharp knife, make 3 small slits, about 2.5cm from the edge of the cloth, at regular intervals. If you need to top up the water during cooking, pour it through these slits.
Cooking the noodle sheets
Bring the water in the pot to the boil. Stir the batter and ladle a portion (roughly 30-45ml) on to the cloth, swirling it to form a 10-15cm wide circle.
Cover with the domed lid and steam for a minute, until the noodle sheet is translucent. Carefully, insert a spatula or knife under the noodle sheet and gently prize it off the cloth – if it doesn’t peel off easily, you may need to steam it for a little longer.
Transfer the noodle sheet to the oiled tray and repeat with the rest of the batter. As they accumulate, stack the sheets on top of each other, brushing the tops with oil so they don’t stick together. Cover the stack with a clean dish towel to keep them moist.