I sometimes forget that not everyone grew up eating this kind of yummy food. For the record, “Lung Kow” is not a brand name. This term, like “vermicelli,” describes this type of fine, yet resilient, noodle. Bean thread noodles, lung kow noodles, cellophane noodles, glass noodles, and vermicelli are often used interchangeably when describing this kind of food product. It’s primarily made of starch.
The package of Pagoda brand bean thread noodles pictured above has the following ingredients listed on the package: pea(mung bean) starch, corn starch, water. As far as allergens go, my son has eaten these noodles many times for more than a year, and he has never had a reaction to them. He is extremely allergic to wheat and all forms of gluten (wheat, rye, barley, oats), dairy, egg, tree nuts (except for coconut), peanuts, and sesame. (YMMV.)
Bean thread noodles are wonderful in stir fries. They’re also nice in soupy/stewy dishes, and they make a great filler ingredient for dumplings and fried rolls. Bean thread noodles, which can soak up a lot of liquid (commonly vegetable or chicken stock when added to stir fries), adopt and intensify the flavors of the dish easily, making the bean thread noodles quite tasty.
Made correctly, these fine noodles can be addictive. They have a wonderful mouth feel: chewy, bouncy, happy-go-lucky. They soak up flavorful broth like mad and add substance to a dish without weighing down the dish. Even though they’re made primarily of starch, they don’t feel starchy at all, and you’re definitely not feeling weighed down by carb overload after a meal of these noodles. Go figure, eh?
Bean thread noodles are extremely fragile and easily break when dry. After being soaked for 30 minutes in water, however, they become resilient and are able to soak even more loads of liquid. For that reason, many recipes calling for large amounts of bean thread noodles quite often will also require chicken broth, which become absorbed by the bean thread noodles, causing the bean thread noodles to become extremely tasty.
As a dry and uncooked ingredient, bean thread noodles last a long, long time if stored in an airtight container away from light and extreme temperatures of heat or cold.
As a cooked component of a dish, keep in mind bean thread, if kept warm or lukewarm for too long, spoils extremely quickly. (Unfortunately, my stomach speaks from experience here.) Make it piping hot or keep it cold.
Later this week, I’ll be posting a recipe for cha gio, or southern fried Vietnamese rolls, that incorporates bean thread noodles.
As of this writing, Pagoda Bean Thread Noodles do contain corn starch according to their ingredients list, so folks with corn allergies should take heed. I haven’t had time to locate corn-free bean thread noodles, though it is very possible they exist. I think it’s safe to say bean thread noodle production existed in China well before corn, a native of the Americas, was exported there. I’m pretty unhappy about corn’s inclusion, since corn starch is not a necessary ingredient and is not friendly to folks with corn allergies.
If you have corn allergies or have some other reason for not using bean thread noodles, consider using the strands found in the center of spaghetti squash (or a similar squash known in Chinese as — what else? — “bean thread squash”).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a while back, there was some scandal involving the alleged use of lead and/or other bad-for-you substances to whiten the bean thread noodles sold by certain brands. It seems unreputable producers were using bad chemical substances to whiten the noodles; personally, I’d skip buying any package of bean thread noodles if the noodles appeared too white.
So far, I have not found any news articles that talk about the possible contamination of Pagoda brand.
A Bean Thread by Any Other Name
I would advise against substituting bean thread noodles with other starch-based noodles and expecting exact, same results. Yes, there are a gazillion other versions of very similar looking starch based noodles intended for different Asian Pacific Islander cuisines. No, they are not the same and cannot be substituted willy nilly. Sad, but true. (For example, the Excellent brand of pancit noodles from the Philippines, while probably excellent for pancit, cooks up too mushy for Chinese-style, bean thread noodle stir fries — even though pancit is originally a Chinese-style stir fry.
Yes, the circuitous evolution of food can be dizzying. No, I don’t make these things up.
Finding a Bean Thread in a Haystack
Before I end this post, I want to talk about the process of finding a particular brand of bean thread noodles. We here at Giant Hippo are conservative when it comes to trying new brands and products. The last thing we want is for our food to be the cause of an allergic, life-threatening reaction that requires us to stab our toddler with a big Epipen needle and rush him off to E.R. Therefore, when we find something that tastes great, cooks up beautifully, and is allergen-free, we are much more apt to remain loyal to that brand.
In the case of bean thread noodles, I am partial to Pagoda brand bean thread noodles.
But this brand can be tricky to find. Pagoda bean thread noodles are everywhere yet nowhere. How can this be?
To find out, go to your neighborhood Chinese supermarket (if your neighborhood lacks such a business, well, there is always the option of moving to one that does). 😉 Head to the “all-things noodle” aisle. Most likely, you will find one, if not multiple bags of bean thread noodles that look suspiciously a lot like the package pictured above. Some of them will be smaller packages bundled inside a bright pink mesh bag, while others will be sold as small, stand-alone units.
But rest assured, probability has it the package you’re staring at in your local market is not, in fact, Pagoda brand. Markets, both online and offline, are filled with packages that look just like this one, which can mean only one thing: that the leader in the bean thread industry must be one of these look-alike packages while the rest are all wannabes, imitators, and knock-offs.
How do you figure out which one of these look-alikes is the leader of the pack? For one thing, if you happen to notice the majority of Chinese po po (a.k.a. grandma/nana/abuelita/babci/etc.) types all putting the same brand in their shopping cart, that’s probably a good sign you’ve found a winner.
Another clue? Price. Generally speaking, pick a look-alike that is in the mid- to high-price range relative to all the competitors; don’t pick the cheapest brand unless you’re familiar with it and know you like it. The leader in any space must remain competitive price-wise, but because of its prized brand name, does not have to lower its price more than others in this space, whereas lesser-known brands might have to do just that to gain more market share.
Cookbook author and food authority Andrea Nguyen suggests knock-offs are rather comparable and of decent quality. While this may very well be the case, I am my mother’s daughter when I say I must have my Pagoda brand and that nothing else will do. In the past, I’ve bought other brands, only to be disappointed. (Internal note to self: “Dude! What were you thinking?!”)
My Choice: Pagoda Brand
No doubt there is some debate about this, but for me, the leader in the bean thread noodle space is Pagoda brand. Pagoda bean thread noodles remain compliant yet resilient and do not turn into a mushy mess like some other brands do, even if you happen to overcook them slightly. (But don’t push your luck, ya know? Be meticulous about the timing. Keep an eye on the noodles and another eye on your watch. Yeah, you can get kind of cross-eyed cooking this stuff!)
How do you know for sure if it’s Pagoda? Look at the top of the package. Look for a small red circle with a white background. In the center of that red circle, look for a red pagoda sandwiched between the words “Pagoda” and “Brand.” This may sound like a no-brainer, but trust me, when you go down that aisle and your eyes start to glaze over from trying to make sense of the shelves and shelves of look-alikes, you’ll understand why I’m being painfully detailed about my description here.
Bean thread noodles are widely available at Asian markets catering to Chinese and Vietnamese audiences.
Where to Buy
In Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, Pagoda brand bean thread noodles are available at Hawaii Supermarket in San Gabriel (overwhelmingly big selection), Shun Fat Supermarket, and probably most Chinese-oriented supermarkets in the region.
On the island of Saipan, Pagoda brand is available from several markets. Right now I can’t remember where I bought my Pagoda brand bean thread noodles, though I’m guessing I bought Pagoda brand bean thread noodles at X.O., 99, and San Jose markets.
If you’re not particular about the brand, chances are you’ll easily find bean thread noodles at most well-stocked Asian markets in the mainland United States and on Saipan.