Get ready to fall in love with rice noodles.
August is hot upon us, and with it arrives an opportunity to try absolutely everything in lieu of turning on that damn oven. We buy toasters and toaster ovens. We buy electric pressure cookers and then scour the internet and books for recipes. In my house, I refuse to cook rice—simmering a pot over an open flame for 25 minutes turns my apartment from cool as a cucumber into a raging furnace—so I’ve been thrilled to rediscover rice noodles.
You know rice noodles. You know them from your beloved Vietnamese summer rolls, wrapped snug with fat shrimp and lettuce and ready for a dunk in peanut sauce. You know them from soups and bowls like bún. The Thai Kitchen brand of thin rice noodles is widely available, but you’ll find them more cheaply at Asian supermarkets. (Just be sure you’re not buying glass noodles, which many experts think are less flavorful, or mung bean vermicelli.)
These bad boys cook in just three minutes. If you have an electric kettle, you don’t even need a flame. Just add salt and hot water, and they’re ready to be chilled, spun with whatever sauce you’re craving, and nestled next to pressed tofu, veggies, meat, or whatever else your heart desires. Rice noodles are simply a faster path to rice when you’re craving that particular starch but want something that feels lighter—and you can serve them hot or cold.
What are rice noodles?
Sometimes labeled "rice vermicelli," "bún noodles," or "thin rice noodles," you're looking for a package with an ingredients label that reads simply, "Rice, water." I have only worked with the dried version, which looks like crunchy, skinny, pale sticks in the package that cook up white and tender to the bite.
As Fuschia Dunlop says in her remarkable cookbook Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, in China, a common type of rice noodle is the wider one, “known by the Cantonese as ho fun, [widely] eaten in the far south of China.” Wider rice noodles are sometimes called rice fettucine, ban pho, haw fun, gway tio, kway teow, kui teow, lai fen, and sen lek, according to The Food Lover's Companion, which says these are more of an “all-purpose noodle” suitable for soups and stir-fry recipes.
How to cook rice noodles
I like to salt my noodles, no matter the type. I’ll bring a pot of water to a boil, pour it over a block of the wiry, crunchy noodles waiting in a heavy-bottomed pot along with a teaspoon of salt, toss the whole thing a couple of times, and wait till they’re tender to the bite—like pasta. Then I immediately drain them and rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking. (Unlike with pasta noodles, you don’t really need to save that cooking water.) Use them quickly if you can.
How to eat rice noodles
I love to use one of my three staple dressings with thin rice noodles. The mix of lime juice, fish sauce, and chili flakes delivers acid, salt, and heat in one fell swoop. If I’m going this route, I’ll add in garnishes and proteins that are a smart flavor match. I might crumble salted, roasted peanuts, slice up limes, or pull out the mint, cilantro, or basil. (For a real hit of protein, I’ve been loving this tofu with Chinese five-spice.) I’ll add a few slices of cucumber. The effect is a deconstructed summer roll, of sorts. I’d happily add shrimp, ground pork, or ground chicken.
Most recently, I spun three tablespoons of homemade peanut butter and about a third of a cup of leftover coconut milk together to make a very basic sauce. After draining and briefly rinsing the noodles, I used tongs to toss them with my sauce. Those still-warm noodles went into a bowl and got a splash of the hot-spicy-acidic dressing I had left over. There was tofu. There were cukes. There was seltzer. Sitting in my apartment with the A/C barely cranking, leaning into the summer heat, there was nothing like it: cooling, fiery, slippery, satisfying. Somehow rice noodles feel lighter than pasta, although they’re an exact match, calorie-wise, with the organic spaghetti noodles in my pantry.
For me, though, knowing that I can crack the code of basic Vietnamese flavors without ordering takeout is satisfying enough to help me weather pretty much anything.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.