When perusing packaged noodles at the grocery store, you may have noticed that the designation “vermicelli” doesn’t just show up on the Italian pasta labels, but also on boxes of Thai and Chinese noodles. Vermicelli even appear in sweet Persian recipes and in Mexican casseroles, as well. It’s not that all these cultures adapted Italian noodles to their cuisines, but that long, thread-like noodles—made from rice and and other grains in addition to wheat—are ubiquitous across cultures, and that the word “vermicelli” has become the English moniker for an internationally common shape.
While there has been some cross-cultural pollination, the skinny noodles also evolved in each of these cultures independently. Europe’s home to the classic semolina variety, while rice vermicelli are popular across Asia and mung bean glass noodles are found in East Asia. The styles might vary, but the following dishes are unified by the presence of that universally pleasing vermicelli shape.
Vermicelli is Italian for “little worms” (everything sounds better in Italian, doesn’t it?). The long, string-like pasta is on the slimmer end of the spectrum: thicker than capellini, but thinner than spaghettini. Vermicelli satisfies when tossed with butter, garlic, and herbs, and some shellfish for extra luxury. It’s also good at soaking up tomato sauce, like in this recipe for Neapolitan Vermicelli from Academia Barilla.
Faloodeh, a type of Iranian granita, is made by folding cooked rice noodles into a sweet, frozen rosewater base. Often topped off with lime and sour cherry syrup, faloodeh one of the world’s oldest documented frozen desserts, dating back as far as 400 B.C. in Persia. You’ll also find the noodle in hearty legume-heavy stews, like ash reshteh, or even doubled up with rice in a savory reshteh polow pilaf with onion, carrots, raisins, almonds and pistachios.
(Image: Tasting Table)
In Mexico, vermicelli-sized fideos (that’s Spanish for noodles) find themselves in an oven-baked casserole featuring chiles, tomatoes, mild cotija cheese, chicken stock and olive oil. The delicious concoction is called sopa seca, or “dry soup.” It’s terrific topped with creamy avocado and cooling crema.
Rice vermicelli, or khanom jiin in Thai, makes an appearance in many curries and soups, such as chef Andy Ricker’s version of khanom jiin naam phrik, or shrimp noodles. You’ll also find slim, translucent noodles made from from mung bean called wu sen—also known as bean thread noodles or glass noodles—which help soak up flavorful broth in soupy dishes.
Bean thread noodles, or fen si, are a staple in Chinese cooking. The noodles don’t possess any inherent flavor, but they do boast “a pleasantly strandy and slippery texture,” writes Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop in her book Every Grain of Rice. They also work especially well in a hot pot, a pot of broth served over a burner so that it remains sizzling as diners use it to cook vegetables, seafood, noodles and meat. The broth improves with each aromatic addition. There’s no strict rules for a hot pot—only that it be eaten with friends—but you can find an extensive list of suggestions for how to orchestrate a hot pot feast here.