Mei fun is a type of noodle made from rice that originates from China and is used throughout Asia. It also refers to dishes made with the noodles, whether stir-fried or in soup or bundled into spring rolls. This extremely versatile noodle is also known as rice vermicelli and rice sticks, and it's frequently confused with other noodles.
· Place of Origin: China, but usage has spread to many Asian cuisines across the Southern regions
· Also Called: rice vermicelli, rice noodles, and rice sticks
· Preparation: Soaked in hot-not-boiling water to soften
· Uses: Singapore Chow Mei Fun, Vietnamese bun or pho, and in spring rolls
What Is Mei Fun?
Before we break down mei fun, let’s first ask, what is fun? By "fun" we mean in the context of Chinese cuisines, of course, not the English meaning of the word. Fun is an umbrella term that—in Chinese characters across the myriad languages—can refer to any rice noodle in any shape or configuration: Fresh in a sheet, rolled and then cut, broad, wide, medium, or thin, all of these are fun.
Mei fun in particular is light and airy, thinner than angel hair and closer to vermicelli in diameter and fragility. It’s this trait that lends the ingredient its most common English name: rice vermicelli. However, some brands will label their mei fun as "rice sticks" or "rice noodles."
However they label it, mei fun is traditionally made with ground rice and water, only. Therefore, it’s naturally gluten-free (so long as it's processed in a gluten-free facility). Most manufacturers use that simple, traditional recipe; however, a few may add egg, wheat, tapioca, beans, or other starches.
The noodles are dried in long, loosely-gathered bundles as opposed to nests or straight-cut strands, like pasta. Uncooked, they are semi-translucent, with an opaque center and a plasticine sheen to the outer layers. Sealed, dry, and stored in a dark and cool corner of your pantry, they’ll stay fresh indefinitely until you’re ready to reconstitute them. Rehydrated, they’ll be bright white and pliable, with a tendency to stick together.
Mei fun is a type of noodle; when you see it on a menu, it refers to an entrée, chow mei fun (with "chow" frequently omitted). Chow mei fun is typically a stir-fried dish whose number-one star ingredient are these ultra-thin noodles and whatever else earns the title billing.
Different Kinds of Mei Fun
Because chow mei fun is considered a country dish composed of a hodgepodge of odds and ends found in the kitchen, variations abound.
The best-known type is Singapore mei fun, which is actually a Cantonese dish (no one knows how it got it's name, but it does not originate from Singapore). It's distinctive in its bright yellow hue and flavor, both of which come from curry powder.
This dish typically includes multiple proteins. You can usually count on shrimp, pork, and egg, and cabbage in some form. Crunchy thin-sliced bell peppers, onions, carrots, bean sprouts, and scallions are not uncommon additions.
Then there are also many different permutations of sauced and unsauced chow mei fun dishes.
Dark-colored sauced versions are tossed in a combination of different soy sauces, and/or oyster sauce, and/or Shaoxing wine before being stir-fried with protein and vegetables. Light-colored unsauced chow mei fun are flavored with salt, white pepper, monosodium glutamate, and sauces like fish sauce, plus plenty of oil.
Mei Fun vs. Glass/Cellophane Noodles, Chow Fun, and Lo Mein
The Chinese are noodle masters, and the variety of noodles in Chinese cuisine is a testament to that. So if you’re confused, know that you’re in good company. Even those raised in the culture sometimes miss all of the nuances of translation and differences among noodles.
The most common error is that dry rice vermicelli can often be confused for glass or cellophane noodles. They’re packaged the same way and look very similar, from width to varying levels of opacity. However, while mei fun is made from whole rice grains, cellophane noodles are made with starches—typically mung bean or sweet potato but sometimes rice starch. When cooked, they take on a gelatinous texture and appearance. Its color—or lack thereof—can range from nearly translucent to light gray or glassine amber while rice vermicelli becomes a very bright white.
The differences between ho fun, lo mein, chow mein, and mei fun are much more apparent, but no less confusing due to translation errors—even across different Chinese languages, not just dialects—and different geographical interpretations.
To start with fun, ho fun refers to white rice noodles that are made in long, flat, steamed sheets. When made fresh for quick consumption Chinese-style, these are cut up into squares for stir-frying into chow fun or just smaller sheets for rice rolls. However, other countries, like Thailand, have adapted methods of drying them as flat, ribboned noodles that can be the width of linguine to fettucine to pappardelle, categorizing them just as thin (slightly thicker than mei fun), medium (common to pad thai), broad, or XL, both of which are common for pad see ew.
Then there’s lo mein, which is made with wheat and eggs. They tend to be a buttery yellow, thickly barreled, chewy, and supple. On the East Coast, this stir-fried noodle dish is what you can expect when asking for lo mein, while on the West Coast of the U.S., you have to order chow mein to get lo mein. Confused? That’s because on the Atlantic side, chow mein refers to a stir-fried, saucy vegetable-dominant dish meant to be mixed with the deep-fried, wide, flat noodles you get with soup.
Finally, there’s Cantonese chow mein, which both coasts can agree on. This is a nest made from fresh, thin egg noodles (also called wonton noodles) cut to the same dimensions and shape as mei fun. They are pan-fried crisp and topped with a heavy sauce that soaks into the brittle nest, softening and flavoring the noodles simultaneously.
Mei Fun Uses
Though Chinese in origin, mei fun noodles have migrated across Asian cultures to find places in Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, South Indian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Burmese, Filipino and—in full circle—Singaporean cuisines. They’re used in soups, stir-fries, sautés, cold noodle salads, and even sweet desserts in India.
How to Cook With Mei Fun
To prepare packaged mei fun for use, all you need is a big bowl and hot (not boiling) water. Take out as much as you need and immerse it in the water, allowing it to slowly reconstitute to the chewiness you prefer. You can test this by eating a strand, as temperature causes variations in time. You want to leave them a little firm if you’re planning on stir-frying them, since they will continue to soften when exposed to the steam and heat of your pan.
Once it reaches the texture you want, drain them well and then shake them loose so they don’t stick. They are now ready to use.
You can serve mei fun cold or add them to soup. For sauced chow mei fun, some cooks choose to toss it in the sauce and oil first before throwing them in the pan. This can help the noodles absorb the flavors and keep them from sticking and breaking. For unsauced or Singapore chow mei fun, you can season it in your searing-hot wok.
In any preparation, these noodles should go in last to avoid overcooking and breakage.
What Does Mei Fun Taste Like?
Mei fun has a neutral taste—a subtle sweetness, same as white rice, that retracts into the background to allow the flavors of its seasonings or sauces to really shine. Its texture is al dente if reconstituted properly, with a snappy, thread-like bite. However, cook it in boiling water like pasta and it can become overcooked and mushy.
Mei Fun Recipes
Rice vermicelli is an incredibly flexible ingredient, and the recipes that use them are just as by-the-seat-of-a-cook’s-pants. The noodles themselves are gluten-free, too, which makes them even more appealing. However, any dish that uses soy sauce, oyster sauce, or Shaoxing wine is not, so keep an eye out.
Here are some of the best interpretations of mei fun:
· Pho Bo Soup (Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup)
· Bun Bo Xao (Vietnamese Noodle Salad with Lemongrass Beef)
Is Mei Fun Good for You?
With such a wide range of uses, it’s impossible to say whether or not eating mei fun contributes to your overall health. It all depends on preparation. The noodles alone have little nutritional value, but also have almost no fat or sodium. Stir frying with sauces or other flavorings adds sodium. Adding vegetables to chow mei fun will make your dish more nutritious. In Vietnamese bun, pho, or other soups, mei fun is a lovely, light blank canvas for fresh ingredients to shine against.
Were to Buy Mei Fun
Many conventional grocery stores will offer at least one brand of rice noodles in their Asian/International aisle, but your best bet for sourcing vermicelli-thin noodles will be your local Asian market, where it will also cost a fraction of the price. You can also buy it online.
Sealed in its original packaging and stored in a cool, dark spot, dry mei fun noodles will keep indefinitely. They are best when used within three years, though. Once opened, put them in an airtight storage bag or airtight container in your pantry.
Once cooked, it can be refrigerated under plastic wrap, where it will stay fresh for three to five days. Do not store it hot or steaming, or the condensation will water the noodles down and turning your leftovers soggy.