Ask Peter: Noodles v pasta
Myth says that Marco Polo brought noodles from Chinato Italy, so you’d think they were the same thing. But can I substitute noodles from the Asian supermarket (either fresh or dried) in a Mediterranean pasta recipe? Or vice versa, using spaghetti in an Asian noodle recipe? A friend tells me you can do the same with wonton wrappers, using them to make ravioli. Can you explain the difference and whether they are interchangeable? Anna.
Noodles and pasta have as much, or as little, in common as one noodle to another. Some people think that pasta is always made with egg in the mixture – but most commercial pasta is made without it – just like a lot of the Asian noodles you’ll find. I’ve just gone through all the pasta and noodles in my pantry and freezer and the only thing they all have in common is a form of starch – it’s not even always flour.
I have some delicious organic Sardinian gnocchi (more like small orecchiette than the potato dumplings you might be familiar with) that is made only from 100 per cent Sardinian durum wheat, semolina and water. There’s also a box of delicate and chewy tagliolini all’uovo from Florence that has 23 percent eggs mixed into its Durum wheat semolina. I have some colourful Greek pasta, all in the shape of a capitol S, made from Greek semolina mixed into nettle, carrot and beetroot juices. I have a variety of Japanese and Chinese noodles made from sweet potato starch and water, mung bean starch and water, and wheat (no mention of durum semolina) mixed with water and dried eggs. There are rice flour noodles in my freezer along with half a packet of wanton wrappers and some Japanese gyoza wrappers, plus some 100 percent buckwheat flour noodles next to some that are only 30 percent buckwheat with some matcha tea powder added. Until now I didn’t realise just how many types I have at home – it was quite a shock.
What is more important a concept than simply wondering whether one can be swapped for another, is an understanding of which noodle works best in a recipe. At The Sugar Club we have a signature dish (a variation of one that was cooked on Masterchef New Zealand) that combines freshly made saffron linguine (eggs, strong flour, saffron infused in water) with a dashi, miso and butter sauce, crayfish, toasted pinenuts, parmesan and crayfish tapioca. The dish is one of those ones where I feel, honestly, that we have created a completely perfect dish. However, the texture of the pasta is integral to the success of the dish. The pasta can’t be overly flavoursome (that excludes something like soba noodles as buckwheat has too much flavour), it needs to be firm, separate and not soft in anyway (that excludes rice vermicelli), it needs to have a saffron hint (which is why we make it ourselves) and it needs to be thin and fine (so no freshly made fat white rice laksa noodles from Penang, or wide Italian pappardelle). You could make the dish using regular commercial linguine (generally eggless) or thin Chinese style egg noodles, but neither will give you the same overall effect.
Here is a case in point where you could of course substitute our freshly made saffron linguine with some other pasta or noodle, and you’d still have a good dish, but you wouldn’t have the best version of the dish. As you’ve alluded to, you can make ravioli using either wanton or gyoza wrappers instead of home-made pasta but there will be a change in the finished dish. However, that change could be positive just as it might be negative. If you’re time short, if you don’t have a pasta maker, if you’re unfamiliar in making pasta in the first place, then absolutely use the Asian varieties. Maybe just don’t tell your Italian nona. And definitely don’t tell your Hong Kong grandmother.
Depending on what you’re planning to make, the quality and choice of pasta may have little or huge impact. As with all cooking, you need to have an understanding of what the final result should be. Just as you may decide to reduce the amount of chilli in a sauce and add extra Sichuan pepper, or reduce thyme and add extra dill, you need to have a feeling for what that will give you on the plate. If a soft noodle can be used instead of a firm one – then go for it. It’ll only be one meal that may go wrong, and there are plenty more ahead of you.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.