People first turned grains of rice into noodles in China, during the country’s Qin Dynasty. Now, more than 2,000 years later, rice noodles enrich dishes throughout Asia, and abound across the United States. They anchor the Vietnamese phở that warms us during cold afternoons in Portland, Kansas City, Boston and all points in between. They are central to Thailand’s famous Pad Thai dish, found in nearly every hamlet and city in America.
Without rice noodles, we wouldn’t enjoy spring rolls. A rice-noodle-free United States would miss dishes like China’s beef chow fun and the spectacular, spicy bowl of Malaysian noodles called Asam laksa.
Simply Food celebrates these dishes. But too often people take for granted the ingredient that serves as the foundation for them all: the rice noodles.
Best rice noodles are artisan products
Just as quality varies between different brands and styles of Italian wheat pasta, so does the character of rice noodles swing between pedestrian and artisan. Some poorly made noodles turn gummy. Others remain tough, and never become pleasingly supple. Ill-conceived sheets of rice paper tear too easily when used for spring rolls. Inferior rice noodles often taste stale.
Noodles crafted with care, tradition and respect for ingredients, on the other hand, are revelations.
Premium flat bánh phở noodles used in the aromatic, spicy Vietnamese soup pho simultaneously capture silky and firm textures with each slurp and bite. Sheets of rice paper used for spring rolls, called Bánh tráng in Vietnamese, offer slight resistance at first, and then permit teeth to meet cilantro, steamed shrimp and shredded carrot. Thin rice vermicelli noodles, called bún in Vietnamese, maintain a bouncy stretchiness without sticking together. When topped with grilled meats or tofu, vegetables and herbs and slicked with dipping sauces, they add complexity and backbone to the spectacular Vietnamese noodle salad dish called bún bo xao.
The best rice noodles deliver more than ideal texture, however. The world’s greatest bring flavor and aroma to dishes, profound tastes of fresh rice as well as beautiful rice perfume.
Superb rice noodles stand on foundations of two key elements: rice quality and craft. At Simply Food, the elements are the backbone of our entire company.
Dizzying array of rice strains adds complexity to best rice noodles
Rice, which is seeds from a grass, is not a uniform agricultural product. Most common rice varieties are members of the Oryza sativa subspecies, which was first cultivated in China between 8,200 and 13,500 years ago. But differences between Oryza sativa varieties are profound. Well-known sativa varieties, all of which have relatively long grains, include jasmine rice (primarily grown in Southeast Asia), basmati rice (grown largely in India and Pakistan) and bomba (cultivated in Spain, and used for the dish paella).
The other popular rice subspecies is Oryza japonica, which includes short- and medium-grain varieties: “sushi” rice (grown in Japan and California), arborio rice (farmed in Italy and used in the dish risotto) and “sticky” rice, primarily used in sweet dishes like mango with sweetened coconut milk and mochi.
Rice’s complexity moves far beyond these broad categories. Varieties within each style, such as jasmine, are myriad, and always changing as rice farmers and companies develop new strains.
The wealth of rice strains offers immense choice for companies crafting rice noodles, which simultaneously helps and challenges. On the one hand, since all rice noodles require the use of blends of different rice, the bounty of choice gives artisans much room to experiment. On the other hand, with so many choices, crafting a stand-out noodle demands a lot of trial-and-error.
Simply Food rice noodles include world’s best rice
Simply Food artisans have decades of experience behind them building ideal rice blends for noodles. While we cannot disclose our proprietary blend — we devoted years to crafting our blend, and hold the recipe close — we are willing to mention one strain, ST24.
The name doesn’t exactly tantalize the senses. But this variety, a specialty of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta province, won the title of World’s Best Rice in 2019 by industry analysts The Rice Trader. Agricultural companies from around the world compete for the title every year. This stunning strain was the product of years of work by Vietnamese agricultural specialists. Prior to taking home world title trophy, ST24 won contests across Vietnam.
For the best rice noodles, craft matters
While rice blend-building is a key part of noodle-making, it’s just one important component. In addition, there is the craft of transforming so many grains of rice into long flat noodles, skinny vermicelli, flat discs of paper and much more.
The process is different from that for Italian pasta. While grains of both rice and wheat are seeds from grasses, turning them into noodles requires different steps. For Italian pasta, those grains of wheat first must be milled into flour. Pasta makers then add at least water to the flour (some pastas involve eggs, as well as herbs), turn the mixture into dough, and then make the noodles.
In short, rice grains first cleaned and rinsed several times. Then they get soaked for seven hours or more. Following the soak, the wet grains get crushed in a mill and mixed with water, normally in a 1:1 ratio. The blend then sits for up to three days, turning into a loose paste.
Next steps include: letting water drain away from the mixture, giving the sticky paste a texture like firm caulk; mixing the paste with water again in different ratios, depending on the style of noodle; and finally turning the dough into noodles using different methods.
Some approaches push dough through metal plates with holes, which creates long noodles. Other procedures spread rice mixtures over cotton sheets that are suspended above vats of boiling water, which quickly steams the dough. These thin sheets are then dried before being turned into flat noodles.
Making best rice noodles a rich (and complicated) tradition
People around the world today turn to rice noodles for a wide variety of preparations, from traditional Asian dishes like pho and Thai curries to gluten-free renditions of things like noodles with tomato sauce and meat balls.
While rice noodles are ancient, techniques for crafting them continue to evolve. Noodle artisans must choose blends of rice strains that offer desirable characteristics in noodles, such as suppleness, strength and flavor. They then rely upon combinations of tradition, technique and innovation to transform bespoke blends of rice grains into noodles.
Many common rice noodle brands fail to pay close attention to craft, turning out products that fail to please. They are too dry and brittle, or prone to turning gummy after cooking. Rice paper sheets tear. Flavor is either absent or stale.
The best rice noodle artisans dedicate themselves to every aspect of craft, from finding ideal rice blends to the many steps involved in making gorgeous rice noodles.
Crafting the best rice noodles dwells at the center of Simply Food. Our commitment shows. In Vietnam, where rice noodles are a way of life and people understand the difference between pedestrian and artisan rice noodles, media named our noodles the best in the nation.
But that doesn’t mean we cease working on our blends, recipes and techniques. Our goal, always, is to continue to make better rice noodles.