Long or short, thin or fat, there’s no shortage of noodles to whet your appetite. But first, let’s answer this very important question: what’s the difference between pasta and noodles? The short answer: durum wheat, or semolina. Typically used to describe Italian noodles, “pasta” is a type of noodle made from ground durum wheat and water or eggs. Noodles, on the other hand, come from unleavened dough that’s made from wheat, rice, or buckwheat. So, in a nutshell, pasta is a kind of noodle, but noodles are not a kind of pasta.
Now, get a taste of a few popular strands from around the world.
When it comes to Italian food, spaghetti might be the most iconic dish of all (especially when you top it with a meatball or two). The long, thin noodle spread across Italy during the 19th century, thanks to factories that made mass production of spaghetti possible. Since then, the recipe has basically remained the same—the noodle is traditionally made from water and durum wheat semolina, but it can also be made with other kinds of flour like whole wheat.
Often served in a hot soup, udon noodles are soft, chewy wheat noodles. In its simplest form, udon is made with a mildly flavored broth called kakejiru and topped with chopped scallions. Other common toppings include tempura, thinly sliced fish cakes, and deep-fried tofu seasoned with sugar, mirin, and soy sauce. The flavor of broth and the types of toppings vary from region to region, but the signature thick noodle remains the same.
Though instant varieties are all but ubiquitous, ramen traditionally consists of wheat noodles served not with a powdered flavor packet (no shade), but a meat- or fish-based broth that’s flavored with soy sauce or miso. Popular additions include sliced pork, dried seaweed, and green onions, to name just a few. Whether thick or thin, straight or wrinkled, most ramen noodles are made from four basic ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui, a type of alkaline mineral water that gives ramen noodles their signature yellow hue and firm texture.
Fun fact: Instant ramen noodles were invented in Japan in 1958, but the name “ramen” is actually of Chinese origin.
China: Cold Sesame Noodles
When you think noodles, you might picture a steaming bowl of ramen or pasta. Chilled noodles can be just as satisfying as their warmer counterparts—and cold sesame noodles are all the proof you (and your tastebuds) will need. This standout summertime dish is a Szechuan speciality made with thin egg noodles tossed in a spicy sauce of peanut oil, peanut butter, sesame oil, and hot chile. The contrast of chilled noodles and spicy sauce make for an unbelievable pairing that’s hot, cold, and completely delicious.
Oft considered a thinner type of spaghetti, vermicelli noodles are made from rice flour and have a texture reminiscent of angel hair pasta. These thin rice noodles are often used in East Asian cuisine, particularly Vietnamese—but when used in Chinese cooking, they’re commonly made from mung bean instead of rice.