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'No Wheat' Doesn't Mean 'No Noodles'

To be completely honest, I would find it hard to do without noodles. If I had to go gluten-free, noodles would almost certainly be the deal breaker. Giving up bread would be hard, and beer, even harder. But going without noodles? That would really sink my battleship. So, out of fellow-feeling for my gluten-free friends, who endure what I sometimes think of as a permanent Lent, I have been giving some thought to a life without wheat that is still not a life without noodles.

If your experience of noodles has been limited to Aisle 7 of the supermarket, with its neatly marshaled brigades of blue boxes standing at attention near the canned tomatoes, you might think that wheat and noodles are inseparable. Those boxes of pasta might be made from durum wheat, or semolina wheat or even whole wheat (if the manufacturer's feeling particularly puritanical). Nevertheless, from wheat they come and to wheat they invariably return.

But if you take a drive (a short one, I hope) to the nearest Asian grocery, there you will find enough wheat-free noodles to feed a gluten-intolerant army. There are mung bean noodles. There are rice noodles. There are sweet potato starch noodles. There are even strips of jellyfish that look like noodles and strips of frozen beef tripe that look like noodles, but we don't have to go there if you don't want to.

/ T. Susan Chang for NPR
T. Susan Chang for NPR

When it comes to wheat-free noodles, rice noodles are the crossover stars. They're easy to cook. They come in a vast assortment of sizes and lengths. My local Asian grocery has a whole wall of them. I typically go cross-eyed trying to choose the right noodle, but really, it's hard to go wrong. They all cook similarly — you soak them in warm water for 15 minutes and they're ready for their close-up, in a stir-fry or whatever you like. It's possible to boil them, but you have to be careful and quick about it, because they turn to mush if they're in too long. That's a crime, because properly cooked rice noodles have a silken surface and a chewy finish that laps up sauce rather than slip-sliding away from it. Have you had pad Thai? Chow fun? Pho, the noodle soup of Vietnam? Then you've had rice noodles — and probably loved them.

Mung bean noodles go by many names — cellophane noodles, si fun, vermicelli, bean thread, glass noodles. If you have kids, though, they have only one name: "see-through noodles." You may not have thought about this, but most of the solids we eat are opaque (Jello, jelly and jellyfish being exceptions). So these fine, transparent, slightly amber-tinted noodles have a gee-whiz factor that makes them hard not to stare at, twirl around or suck down with a loud slurping sound. They soak up soy sauce like nobody's business, too. Because of their fine consistency, you have to soak them in cool water; then it's only 20 minutes or so until you're in business.

Sweet potato noodles are mysterious. Their strange translucent elephant-gray coloring, their length (2 feet long) and their spaghetti-like diameter set them apart from bean threads, their nearest counterpart. You soak them in hot water or boil them briefly before frying them. In the pan they turn from gray to gold as you add seasonings, and they develop an elastic yet substantial texture. It's also traditional to chop them into bite-size lengths, right there as they cook (although it feels distinctly strange to advance upon your wok with a pair of scissors and is probably 14 kinds of wrong in wok orthodoxy). I know of only one dish to make with sweet potato noodles — the Korean dish known as chap chae, an amalgam of spinach, sirloin, black mushrooms and sesame. But it is so good I could happily eat it for a week without tiring of it.

It's not that there aren't Asian noodles that contain wheat. Without wheat, there would be no udon or ramen. There would be no lo mein or Singapore noodles or even wonton, if you want to call that a noodle. But my point is that even from a gluten-free perspective, noodles give you countless squiggly, slurpy reasons to celebrate. And in a food climate where "free" so often is simply a euphemism for "doing without," finding something to savor without restraint is the best kind of good news. That's what I call freedom.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, NPR.org and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.