Cellophane noodles are extremely thin translucent noodles used extensively in Asian cuisine. China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand all have traditional dishes which utilize these noodles, and all of these countries also make the noodles for domestic use and export.
An Asian grocery store or a large market will usually carry cellophane noodles, which may be labeled as bean threads, glass noodles, or mung bean noodles. Store the noodles in a cool dry place for up to one year before use, and in an airtight container after the package has been opened.
The name for the noodles is a reference to their resemblance to cellophane, a crinkly transparent plastic. When other ingredients are used, the noodles may turn white or cloudy, which is not necessarily an indicator of poor quality. When cooked, the noodles generally turn entirely transparent, and they will acquire the color of any sauce added to them.
The base of cellophane noodles is mung bean starch and water, rather than rice or wheat, two common ingredients in noodle making. The noodles are made extremely thin, and usually dried in coils for easy packaging. When a cook wants to use the noodles, he or she typically removes a coil of noodles and either presoaks them or throws them directly into a dish. The noodles have a resilient texture, and they pick up flavorings very well. Their absorbent quality can also cause them to soak up oil, so the noodles should be used with care in oily pans.
Pre-soaked cellophane noodles may be used as fillers in things like spring rolls, or they made be added to stir fries, in which case they often turn crispy. In some cases, a stir fry is simply served over soaked cellophane noodles, allowing them to absorb the sauces from the stir fry without being fried. Soups are also made with this ingredient, which adds texture and a feeling of fullness to the soup. If the noodles are cooked on the stovetop, they take only a moment to cook, which is why most cooks prefer to soak them in boiling water, so that they do not become too soft.
Dried cellophane noodles are very brittle, and they tend to crack and shatter if roughly handled. For this reason, most cooks try to avoid breaking up coils noodles. If this becomes necessary, cracking the coil open over the compost or garbage is advised, so that the small shards of noodle will not be scattered all over the kitchen.