Chinese people have been eating noodles for millennia. The earliest evidence of noodles were found in 2002, perfectly preserved from 4,000 years ago and made of two kinds of indigenous millet in northwestern China’s Lajia archaeological site (Qinghai province, bordering Sichuan).

Millet noodles are still eaten in the same northwest regions, but nowadays China is known even more for its varieties of wheat noodles, especially hand-pulled noodles (拉面, lāmiàn). Perfecting stretchy and chewy lamian is a traditional craft that requires decades of experience to master. Skilled artisans can deftly knead and stretch dough to create one never-ending strand so fine it can thread a needle. Other kinds are shaped, slapped, pulled, shaved and eaten for yet more occasions and dishes. In the North, where wheat is a main crop, wheat-based noodles, buns and dumplings abound.

Sweet potato noodles are another popular regional noodle, particularly in Southwest China where sweet potatoes are an important crop. Chewy sweet potato noodles are categorized with other translucent vegetable starch noodles like mung bean thread noodles as “glass noodles” in English. They feature prominently in noodle soup dishes as well as drier stir-fries, making them versatile for home use and health-conscious for gluten avoiders.

As a counterpart to the North’s wheat production, the southern regions of China produce the majority of the world’s rice supply and consume just as much rice noodles and rice-flour staples as rice itself. Rice originated in the southern Yangzi River Valley regions and was cultivated as far back as 6000 B.C.E, but rice noodles were a relatively recent invention from the Qin dynasty (3rd century B.C.E.). History suggests that rice noodles were an invention of Northern invaders upon their arrival in the South. Unaccustomed to rice, the Northerners turned the unfamiliar grain into noodles, and rice noodles were born. In the 2200+ years since then, Chinese people have created no shortage of diverse ways to make and eat rice noodles.

Although fresh noodles are preferred locally—especially in the case of fresh rice noodles, which are made and consumed within 24 hours of production—dried noodles are popular when fresh is not an option.

Alkaline Wheat Noodles (碱水面, jiǎnshuǐmiàn)

Like many fresh Sichuan noodles—and unlike most Chinese dried wheat noodles—alkaline wheat noodles include 碱水 (jiǎnshuǐ, Japanese: kansui), an alkaline lye water, which lends them body and bounce (as well as a yellow color). In pre-refrigeration times, it also helped prevent fresh noodles from spoiling as quickly.

Alkaline noodles originated in Wenzhou, in the province of Zhejiang, as a product of lake water that had naturally occurring jianshui. But they have become popular in Sichuan and several other regions of China (not to mention Japan, where they are the star of ramen).

Alkaline Wheat Noodles

We wanted a dried noodle that more closely matches the fresh ones, that has some Q, as the Taiwanese describe it—some springiness and chewiness—something that has presence and holds up better to sauce and broth. 

These noodles are mid-weight and round, as preferred in Sichuan, and the alkaline in these, as in ramen, is sodium carbonate. The packaging uses European standards and calls it E500i, which is merely water-soluble sodium salt of carbonic acid.

Non-GMO, Vegan

alkaline wheat noodles

Alkaline Wheat Noodle Dishes

Knife-Cut Noodles (刀削面, dāoxiāomiàn)

刀削面 (dāoxiāomiàn), which means knife-cut or knife-shaved noodles, is a specialty of Shanxi Province, but these ruffled wheat noodles are popular throughout north and west China.

In Shanxi restaurants, daoxiao noodle masters hold a large chunk of dough and slice or shave strips directly into a pot of boiling water at a crazy fast pace. You find knife-cut and the similarly rustic hand-ripped noodles all across northwest China, particularly in the provinces/regions of Xinjiang, Gansu (capital Lanzhou), Shaanxi (capital Xi’an) and stretching east to Shanxi. The noodles, whether narrow or wide, have a chewy bite and uneven, ragged edges that hold into sauce.

Try wide daoxiaomian in soups, as “dry” sauced noodles or stir-fried chaomian. Chinese noodle shops often let you pick your noodle type, toppings and cooking style, mixing and matching as you please, so feel free to use them anywhere you’d like a more substantial wheat noodle. 

Knife-Cut Noodles

Our knife-cut noodles are made in two widths (wide and narrow) by Sichuan Huiji Food Co., a specialty company in Chengdu that obsesses over the details: They use only wheat, water and salt (no dyes or preservatives), with a premium, super-high-gluten flour (15.6%) that guarantees body and chew. The dough undergoes a six-step process that simulates manual kneading and is naturally proofed three times to ensure a fine gluten structure. Finally, the fresh noodles are sun-dried for eight hours vs. fried or baked.

Unlike most “wavy” noodles, the ruffled, irregular edges of these noodles actually affect the texture: the outer-edge ruffles go soft while the thicker inner section retains more chew, for an intriguing dual-texture mouth-feel—the signature of a proper daoxiaomian. 

Non-GMO, Vegan

wide knife-cut noodles

Knife-Cut Noodle Dishes

Sweet Potato Noodles (红薯粉, hóngshǔfěn)

Sweet potato noodles are made from sweet potato starch and water. Their springy, chewy texture stands up to liquid, which makes them quite distinct from rice or wheat noodles. Categorized under “glass noodles” in English (along with other translucent vegetable starch noodles like mung bean thread noodles), they don’t get sticky or gooey or fall apart but retain their bite and heft, while also being a slippery challenge for chopsticks. 

Sweet potato noodles are eaten in dozens of shapes and sizes. The thick, round kind are most popular, called 粉条 (fěntiáo). Wide sweet potato noodles are known simply as 宽粉 (kuānfěn), wide starch noodle. They are ubiquitous in Sichuan hotpot, beloved for their slurpability and ability to absorb broth without contaminating it, since they release much less starch than other noodles. Use sweet potato noodles in place of wheat or rice noodles in all kinds of soups.

Chongqing Sweet Potato Noodles

According to local lore, sweet potatoes have been grown in the Wulong district of greater Chongqing since their arrival from the New World in 1593. The area has long been known for its starch noodles made from ruby potatoes and spring water, and they have even been designated Chongqing Intangible Cultural Heritage.

As tradition dictates, the Wulong Shaofen company still uses stone mills to grind the starch for its noodles at the beginning of a 16-step process. This large package of sweet potato noodles includes both medium-weight, round noodles and wide flat noodles. This the perfect duo for Sichuan natives, true noodle connoisseurs, and those looking for interesting gluten-free noodles.

Non-GMO, Vegan, Gluten-Free

sweet potato noodles

Sweet Potato Noodle Recipes

Rice Noodles (米粉, mǐfěn/mai5 fan2; 米线, mǐxiàn)

The process of making rice noodles involves soaking, grinding and mixing rice grains into a smooth batter with water. To make round noodles like 米粉 (mǐfěn) and 米线 (mǐxiàn), the batter is extruded directly through a sieve into boiling water to yield long strands. For flat rice noodles like 河粉 (héfěn), the resulting batter is then steamed into a thin, translucent sheet, which is subsequently cut into noodle strips of varying widths.

The freshly made noodles are typically separated to prevent sticking and set aside to further dehydrate for packaging.

Wide Rice Noodles (河粉, héfěn/ho4-2 fan2, ho fun)

Cantonese chow fun—fresh wide rice noodles stir-fried over high heat with little more than soy sauce, bean sprouts and, usually, beef—is one of the world’s great noodle dishes. But it is hard for most of us to replicate at home because it requires just-made noodles.

Freshly steamed rice noodles must be eaten the day they’re made, as refrigeration turns them into stale bricks that are nearly impossible to use. So if you don’t live near a source of freshly made rice noodles, you can use dried wide rice noodles.

Yunnan Rice Noodles

Yunnan province is renowned for its rice noodles, so we have gone straight to the source for these medium-thick, round noodles made simply of rice flour and water. As a general rule, Yunnan and the rest of southern China opt for fresh rice noodles when they can, with the caveat that they must be made by the factory and consumed by the eater within the same 24 hours. Otherwise, diners opt for dried noodles like these.

The Nanhuyuan brand is located in the town of Mengzi, where Crossing the Bridge Noodles were created, and the company makes nothing but fresh and dried rice noodles, honing its expertise over the decades. Its noodles are additive- and pollution-free.

Non-GMO, Vegan, Gluten-Free, Halal

Yunnan rice noodles

Chinese Rice Noodle Recipes

Guangdong Wide Rice Noodles

We asked our Sichuan team to try out various brands of dried wide rice noodles sourced directly from Guangdong to find one that could stand in for fresh noodles.

These semi-wide, flat noodles, called ho fun (or hefen in Mandarin), are made in Shaoguan, a city in northern Guangdong, bordering Hunan. Shiny and semi-transparent, they are made only of rice flour and water according to local traditions and methods then formed by hand into bundles weighing 65-75 grams.

Non-GMO, Vegan, Gluten-Free

Cooking and Storage Tips

Dried noodles should be stored in a cool and dry place.

  • Alkaline wheat noodles: Boil 5 minutes.
  • Dried knife-cut noodles: Boil 7-9 minutes for the perfect chew.
  • Sweet potato noodles: Soak in warm water for at least 15 minutes, or until softened. For hot pot, cook soaked noodles directly in the pot. For other uses, boil soaked noodles until soft, around 8 to 10 minutes. Rinse under cold water until cooled and add to soups or stir-fries. 
  • Round rice noodles: One method for producing a nice, springy noodle that resembles the fresh version: Boil noodles just until soft, 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat, cover pot and let sit in the hot water for 10 minutes. Rinse under cold water until completely cooled. 
  • Wide rice noodles:  Soak in warm water until pliable. A brief 15-second boil will further hydrate them in preparation for stir-frying. 

Buy the Regional Chinese Noodle Collection

Chinese noodle collection

We tasked our Chengdu team with finding the best of the best of each of our favorite noodle styles, representing Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan and Guangdong. They made bowl after bowl and wok after wok of noodles, testing and tasting before settling on these brands of wheat, rice and sweet potato noodles direct from the regions that made them famous and renowned factories that focus solely on noodle-making. 

As of late 2022, this new lineup includes two noodle sizes each—a small/medium and a large/wide—of wheat, rice and sweet potato noodles. 

All How to Cook With Chinese Noodles