“I prefer dry noodles,” chef Kasem Saengsawang tells me. “As a chef, I think a good, dry noodle has more texture and crunch when you bite into it. Also, it holds the sauce better.”
Saengsawang is chef-owner of the renowned Farmhouse Kitchen, which now has outlets in Portland, San Francisco, and Oakland. As we chatted, he prepped for Foodbeast’s Nood Beach, an all-noodle food festival held on September 1st, where he was serving a ramen-pork-belly umami bomb dubbed, “The Tornado Cup.”
Our conversation — in which Saengsawang shouts out Pad Thai as his favorite noodle dish and sings the praises of the very versatile rice noodle — underscores the fact that noodles are an integral part of global food culture. The building blocks of infinite dishes and holders of a multitude of sauces. And while there’s a massive chasm between a plate of fried chow mein in a Safeway heating tray and a bowl of bún chả on the streets of Hanoi, both can be transcendent under the right circumstances.
The 20 noodle varieties below are must-try dishes for anyone who wants to broaden their palates. We’re talking straight up noodles, though — no dumplings or mantu or tortellini. It’s also important to note, this isn’t a comprehensive list by any stretch. There are 350 noodle varieties in Italy alone with only two of those styles (three, technically) making this list. Still, if expanding your awareness of food culture is a personal goal, this primer will do the trick while taking you around the world.
If you want to get your fix closer to home, we’ve also included one of our favorite US iterations of each dish.
RAMEN — Japan
What To Talk About:
Ramen is synonymous with Japanese cuisine. However, this is a Chinese migrant dish. Chinese wheat noodles are the base of this dish and were brought over by Chinese migrants to Japan sometime between the 1600s and 1800s. Origins aside, each region of the island nation now has a version to call their own.
The real game-changer for Japanese ramen came post-WWII when Momofuku Ando changed the food world forever with “instant” ramen noodles. That fast-food revelation propelled ramen to every dorm room, office canteen, and corner shop around the world.
Where To Find It In The U.S.: Momofuku (multiple locations)
Chef David Chang’s Momofuku (yes, it’s named after Ando) is one of the best places to grab a bowl of ramen in the country. Hands down. There are eleven spots between New York, DC, Vegas, and L.A., but we’d suggest hitting the Noodle Bars in New York for this dish. It’s closer to a fast-casual/hole-in-the-wall concept that you can easily walk into without a reservation.
LAGHMAN — Central Asia
What To Talk About:
Laghman is a cornerstone dish in Central Asia between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Uyghur and Dungan China, Tajikistan, and parts of northern Afghanistan. You can find the dish served either dry with wok-fried lamb or beef and root veg or in a thin, tomato-based soup with plenty of spice and the same ingredients as the dry version.