kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
Kake ([personal profile] kake) wrote2012-01-27 04:30 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Ingredients: 粉絲 — fěn sī — glass noodles

Description follows.

[Image: A large dark plate with two piles of thin, translucent noodles, one on each side. The pile on the left is somewhat larger and has fewer straggly ends.]

It's still ingredient month! Each week in January I'm covering a different ingredient commonly used in Chinese cuisines, giving the different names you might find it under, suggesting some dishes that include the ingredient, and explaining any other background information that might be of interest.

This week's ingredient is perhaps my favourite type of noodle: 粉絲 (fěn sī). These thin, translucent noodles are made from various starches[1]; the ones I'm most familiar with are pictured above and are made from mung bean starch, but I've also come across versions made from sweet potato starch.

粉絲 have several names in English: glass noodles, cellophane noodles, bean thread noodles, bean threads, glass vermicelli, mung bean vermicelli. They are also sometimes referred to simply as "vermicelli", but I find this name rather too general, as it can also be used for noodles made from rice or wheat[2]. [blogspot.com profile] sunflower-recipes points out in comments that in Chinese you may also see them listed as 冬粉 (dōng fěn), 粉條 (fěn tiáo), 紅薯粉條 (hóng shǔ fěn tiáo), or 紅薯粉絲 (hóng shǔ fěn sī), with the 紅薯 in the last two of these indicating sweet potato.

Glass noodles are soaked in warm or hot water before use, for varying lengths of time from 15 minutes up to two hours. One thing to note about them is that they're very hard to break apart when dry. For this reason, they're sold in bunches of several different sizes; I prefer to buy the ones sold in multipacks of 50g bags, despite the extra packaging involved, since this gives the most flexibility (50g is around the right amount for a single serving).

When purchasing 粉絲, it's important to check the ingredients. My favourite brand, originally recommended to me by [blogspot.com profile] sunflower-recipes, is Longkou (龍口); the ingredients in these are listed as "peas, green bean, water" in English and "豌豆,綠豆,水" in Chinese. They're pictured after soaking on the left in the photo above, and I also have photos of the packaging and the unsoaked noodles.

One to avoid is Tiantan (天壇) brand, which are shown on the right in the photo above (and before soaking in this photo). They include cornstarch (玉米澱粉); this weakens the noodles, making them much more likely to break. You need to be careful here, since the Tiantan packaging is deliberately designed to mimic the Longkou packaging, right down to using the same photos for the serving suggestions.

Here are some dishes made with 粉絲:

螞蟻上樹mǎ yǐ shàng shùants climbing a tree
This poetically-named dish consists of glass noodles (the tree) cooked with pork mince (the ants), chilli bean sauce, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and a pinch of sugar.
羅漢齋luó hàn zhāiBuddha's delight/monk's vegetables
The proper Chinese version of this dish bears no resemblance to the limp collection of tinned vegetables that often turns up in Anglicised Chinese takeaway food. Glass noodles are a must-have ingredient, particularly when served at Chinese New Year, as their long lengths symbolise long life.
涼拌三絲liáng bàn sān sīthree-sliver salad
The name of this dish literally means "cold mixed three threads"; one of the threads is usually 粉絲, while the others might be finely-julienned kelp, carrot, wood ear fungus, or lightly blanched spinach.
越式炸春卷yuè shì zhà chūn juǎnVietnamese-style spring rolls
A popular dim sum dish, these deep-fried rice-paper-wrapped rolls include glass noodles in the filling along with minced pork and prawns and various finely-chopped or shredded vegetables.
酸菜魚suān cài yúfish soup with pickled greens
This sour and savoury fish soup sometimes includes glass noodles along with the fish and pickled greens.

And here are some links to other people's posts about them:

1 I've previously posted about another type of noodle made from mung bean starch, 拉皮 (lā pí); these are much thicker and sturdier, and are used in dishes such as 東北拉皮 (Dōngběi lā pí).

2 In Chinese, rice vermicelli are 米粉 (mǐ fěn). I'm not entirely sure of the general Chinese name for wheat vermicelli, but I do know of one type called 麵線 (miàn xiàn), which are popular in Taiwan; see Wikipedia for a little more info on these.

Characters mentioned in this post:
Other related posts:
If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

[identity profile] sunflower-recipes.blogspot.com 2012-01-27 07:20 pm (UTC)(link)
Glass noodles will puff up a lot and crunchy if deep fried. Lovely to add bulk and crunch to a salad.

I like glass noodles in soup especially with homemade Chinese fish balls, 冬菜 Dōngcài (Tianjin salty mustard) and spring onion. Yum!

There are other names for the same glass noodles depending on which country you are in. 冬粉 dōng fěn is very common in South East Asia and Taiwan. In Mainland China they like to call it 粉條 fěntiáo.

粉條 fěntiáo in China is also the thicker glass noodles made with sweet potato or it's proper name is 紅薯粉條 Hóngshǔ fěntiáo or 紅薯粉絲. See this post for picture of these noodles http://sunflower-recipes.blogspot.com/2010/08/chongquing-hot-sour-noodles.html. Similar noodles in Korea for Japchae. See this post for picture of these Korean noodles. http://sunflower-recipes.blogspot.com/2009/06/japche.html

Do try the thicker sweet potato noodles (Chinese or Korean), per recipes above they are very nice.

The word 粉絲 (fěn sī) is also commonly used for fans (fan club), which is phonetically translated from English.

Wheat vermicelli is mien sien 麵線, these noodles are salty and very soft, easily overcooked, see this post http://sunflower-recipes.blogspot.com/2010/02/kidney-and-liver-rice-wine-vermicelli.html

豌豆 if you don't already know it, it is our yellow split peas.
nanila: the gracious multiracial nellie kim salutes you (nellie salutes you)

[personal profile] nanila 2012-01-27 08:09 pm (UTC)(link)
I love glass noodles. They please me visually as well texturally.
surexit: A brightly smiling girl in a spotted headscarf. (:D)

[personal profile] surexit 2012-01-28 01:02 pm (UTC)(link)
I love them. ♥

[identity profile] eatlovenoodles.blogspot.com 2012-01-28 11:01 pm (UTC)(link)
There is no all-encompassing term for vermicelli-gauge noodles, other than the terms for mung-bean vermicelli and rice vermicelli. As you point out, the term nian xian is used for wheat vermicelli. And from a Cantonese perspective, the term you mian 幼麵 is used for thin-egg noodles, of a similar style to vermicelli.