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Redeeming Rice Noodles

Submitted by on May 15, 2011 – 5:06 pmNo Comment

Alex's Drunken Veggies with Noodles

Even the most righteous eaters have a few guilty pleasures, and one of mine is rice noodles.  While I like the linguine-esque thinner ‘rice sticks’ sold dry just fine, my real passion is the wide, flat kind sold fresh and known as “Chow Fun” in Chinese restaurant menu parlance (fun, indeed!) or used in Thai stir-fry dishes like Pad See Ew.

Why so guilty, you may ask?  After all, rice noodles are a standby in the diets of many Asian cultures, and for gluten-free eaters they make eating out at Asian restaurants (particularly Thai and Vietnamese) a much easier affair.

Indeed, fresh, boiled rice noodles have a lower glycemic index (~40, which is considered “low”) than dried boiled rice noodles (~61, which is considered “intermediate”), according to the International Glycemic Index database hosted by the University of Sydney.  Surprised?  Yes, I was too!  As the keepers of the database explain, despite their high starch content, many pastas and noodles are low-to-intermediate on the glycemic scale due to the fact that some starch granules get tangled up in a web of protein and remain “ungelatinized” when the pasta dough is boiled.  Since ungelatinized starch is very difficult for our digestive enzymes to break down into usable sugar (glucose), high-carb foods with significant amounts of ungelatinized starch may actually have a more modest effect on blood sugars than an equivalent portion of other high-carb foods, like, say, plain old white rice (GI=72-89, depending on the variety).

The only catch, then, is portion size.  While they may not be a high-GI food, rice noodles are almost pure carbohydrate, and when they form the basis of a meal, portions can add up to lots of calories quite quickly.  (That’s the guilty part.)

Cooking with Dry Rice Noodles

A recent feature on rice noodles by Martha Rose Schulman in the New York Times “Recipes for Health” column highlighted a week’s worth of rice noodle-based dishes.  Her recipes for Rice noodles with Zucchini, Tomatoes and Fresh Mint and Rice Sticks with Walnut and Basil Pesto and Green Beans are both particularly tempting as we head into spring and summer.

Another favorite dish of mine is David Lebovitz’s Cold Noodles with Peanut Sauce; hands-down, it’s the best peanut sauce I’ve ever tasted.  Use rice noodles (fat or thin) instead of the wheat-based noodles he calls for, and substitute wheat-free Tamari sauce for the soy sauce.  I use Lite Coconut Milk instead of the peanut oil or regular coconut milk  he calls for to keep the calories in check.  Don’t be intimidated by the long ingredient list; it all just gets tossed into a blender for the peanut sauce.  To make it vegetarian, substitute baked tofu cubes for the chicken.  This recipe is *bound* to be hit with kids as well as adults… it’s terribly delicious.

Cooking with Fresh Rice Noodles

Oh… but if you can get your hands on fresh rice noodles, do it.  We recently discovered that the small Vietnamese grocery** in our neighborhood gets deliveries of fresh, wide rice noodles on the weekends.   We started swinging by the place on weekend mornings while the babies napped in their strollers, and before we knew it, a new Saturday night tradition of Alex’s Drunken Vegetables with Noodles was born.  (Drunken because they’re so darn spicy and cause you to drink a lot of water, not because two overtired teetotalers like us are actually consuming any alcohol with them.)

We started with a basic Drunken Noodle recipe from Sripraphai, the best Thai restaurant in New York, and then started riffing on it until it morphed into a gluten-free Drunken Vegetables with Noodles recipe.  In fact, we loaded it up with so many veggies that we now cook the dish in a huge stockpot to accommodate the sheer volume.  Feel free to take significant liberties with the veggies: swapping in and out as you please, adding others that appeal to you.  Leave out the chicken if you want to keep it vegetarian, or use tofu instead.


Thai basil and chilis

Recipe: Alex’s Drunken Vegetables with Noodles (gluten-free)

Serves 6 generously

  • 1 lb fresh flat rice noodles (or 1 lb cooked rice noodles as per package instructions)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil (preferably peanut or canola)
  • VEGGIES: your favorite combination of at least three–and ideally all — of the following vegetables:
  • 1 red pepper, thinly sliced
  • Florets from one full head of broccoli, cut thinly for quicker sauteing
  • 3/4 lb green beans, ends trimmed (use a kitchen scissor to speed the process) and cut into 1-2 inch segments
  • 1 lb spinach, chopped
  • 1/2 lb fresh shiitake mushroom caps, thinly sliced
  • 2-3 cups fresh mung bean sprouts
  • 12 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh Thai chiles, seeded
  • 1 lb ground chicken OR chicken breast, sliced thinly into 1-inch pieces (optional; substitute tofu if you wish)
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc nam)
  • 2 TBSP molasses
  • 1/2 cup wheat-free Tamari (preferably reduced-sodium)
  • 3 large eggs, scrambled, fried, and set aside
  • 1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup fresh Thai basil leaves or regular basil leaves, chopped


  1. Heat 2 TBSP oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat.
  2. When oil is heated, add the longest-cooking veggies (will depend on what you’re using… if following recipe above, start with green beans, broccoli, mushrooms and red pepper) and cook, stir frying frequently, until veggies soften but are still firm.
  3. Add shorter-cooking veggies to the pot (sprouts, spinach) and continue stirring until well-mixed and the new veggies start to wilt.
  4. Set vegetables aside. Cover with a towel to keep warm.
  5. Add remaining 2 TBSP oil to the pot.
  6. Add garlic and Thai chiles; sauté 30 seconds.
  7. Add chicken (or tofu), fish sauce, Tamari and molasses, and sauté until cooked through, about 4 minutes.
  8. Add noodles, tomatoes, half the basil, and eggs, and toss to coat.  Continue stirring until mixture is well-heated throughout.
  9. Add back the vegetables to the pot and stir to combine.
  10. Transfer to large platter, sprinkle with basil leaves, and serve.  (If need be, dig down to the bottom of the pot to spoon up some of the sauce for serving).

**It’s Nha Trang market on Newark Avenue in Jersey City, in case you’re passing through my ‘hood.  Dare to do as I do and ignore the ripe smell of the place and the fact that these moist, starchy noodles are not stored under refrigeration.  While this would appear to be a food safety hazard, since we’ve never gotten sick from eating them, I’m assuming that in heating the noodles, any unsavory freeloaders are killed in the process.  Besides, we erroneously tried refrigerating the fresh noodles once, and when we tried to use them, they were a solid block of crumbly messiness.  (Thankfully, were able to salvage them by microwaving, but it taught us a lesson: buy fresh noodles on the same day you plan to use them!)

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