On warm summer days, I find myself daydreaming about the beautiful city of Kunming in southwestern China, and the bright, cool noodles that I ate often when I lived there.
This popular noodle salad mixes slick, bouncy rice noodles with long strips of vegetables, a vinegary dressing, and spicy chili oil. While most restaurants in Kunming serve this salad as part of a larger meal, I think it is a perfect summer lunch or light dinner all on its own. To the bemusement of my Chinese neighbors, I often enjoyed it that way.
When I make this dish in the U.S., I tweak it a little by adding extra vegetables. The result is both lighter and heartier, something I serve my family for dinner or take to picnics for sharing. I toss the salad into a big, colorful jumble and let everyone serve themselves with tongs.
The Best Rice Noodle: Fresh vs. Dried
This salad is traditionally made with fresh, round Chinese-style rice noodles called “mixian.” If you have access to a Chinatown or a Vietnamese market, look for these noodles.
They are sometimes labeled with their Vietnamese name, bun. These fresh noodles don’t need to be cooked. Just dump the noodles into a serving bowl. If you need to store them in the refrigerator for a day or two, refresh them under hot running water for a few seconds.
How to Cook Dried Rice Noodles
Dried rice noodle brands each have their own cooking time, but some packages don’t specify it. Use chopsticks or tongs to test them as they cook for toothsome, springy noodles that mimic the texture of fresh noodles:
- Test the noodles occasionally as they cook. Turn off the heat when the noodles are still pretty tough in the center—firmer than an al dente pasta.
- Leave the noodles in the hot water for another minute or two. They will continue to soften inside without getting too soft on the outside. The noodles are done when they are reasonably soft in the center, but firm enough to have a nice chew.
- Drain the noodles and immediately rinse them under cold running water. This rinse is critical: it stops the cooking and removes any excess starch, ensuring the noodles aren’t sticky and don’t clump.
How to Cut Vegetables Into Chinese-Style Strips
In this dish, the bulk of the cooking is done during prep: cutting the vegetables into long thin strips. These strips, called “si” in Mandarin, are long and very thin. They resemble the shape of the mixian and are easy to grab with chopsticks. Once the vegetables are prepared, simply cook the noodles, make the dressing, and toss them together.
Since cutting each vegetable into si can be time-consuming, many Chinese home cooks and chefs turn to mandolines to speed up the process.
If you don’t have a mandoline, a sharp knife is all you need. If you have a mandoline, cut the carrots, cucumber, and the bell pepper lengthwise into thin slices using the mandoline. Then, use a sharp knife to cut them into thin strips. If your mandoline has a fine-tooth slicing blade, use it to speed up prep time even more!
The scallions and snow peas can be cut into thin strips lengthwise using a sharp knife.
Chinese Vinegar and Soy Sauce
The dressing for this salad is a simple mix of soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. It is very similar to a traditional dumpling dipping sauce.
You can also add some chili oil for heat and extra flavor. Chinese soy sauce traditionally comes in light and dark varieties that differ in saltiness and intensity.
This recipe calls for Chinese light soy sauce. As an alternative, use Japanese soy sauce or tamari, but dilute it with a bit of water: use 3 tablespoons of tamari and 1 tablespoon of water instead of 1/4 cup of Chinese soy sauce.
China, like Italy or any vinegar-loving country, uses a variety of vinegar. This dish is traditionally made with Shanxi vinegar, but any dark Chinese vinegar will work well. You may also find a lighter, clear or yellow Chinese rice vinegar; it will not work well in this dish.
In U.S.-based Asian markets, you’ll usually find three kinds of dark Chinese vinegars:
- Chinkiang vinegar, which is relatively tart.
- Shanxi vinegar, which is richer.
- Black vinegar, which is from Taiwan.
Add a Protein to this Cold Rice Noodle Salad
This recipe calls for rice noodles and vegetables, but you can easily add some protein to the mix.
In Yunnan, a province of China, this dish is often made with shredded chicken, similar to the poached chicken used for chicken salad, or eggs cooked into a very thin omelet and cut into long, thin strips that match the shape of the noodles and vegetables.
Both are excellent and can be added after the salad is dressed, so they don’t soak up too much dressing.
How to Serve
Once in a while, I take the extra effort to arrange the colorful vegetables in a sunburst pattern on top of the noodles with cilantro and chili oil in the center. I toss it with the dressing only after everyone has had a chance to admire the gorgeous dish.
Make This Noodle Salad Ahead
Each component (the vegetables, the noodles, and the dressing) of this salad can be prepared a couple hours or even a full day ahead, but it is best to combine and dress it just before serving.
You can re-soften pre-cooked, refrigerated noodles by running them under hot water for a few seconds. Drain them well before you dress them.
Already-dressed leftovers are still tasty if you refrigerate them for a day or two. Keep in mind that refrigerating the dressed noodles will affect the texture.
More Noodle Salad Recipes:
- Thai Noodle Salad with Peanut Sauce
- Sesame Noodle Salad
- Soda Noodle Salad
- Steak Noodle Bowls with Miso-Lime Dressing
- Korean Spicy Cold Noodles
Cold Rice Noodle Salad
If you can’t find Dragonfly brand rice noodles, look for a thick rice noodle. Some alternative brands are Three Ladies Brand, Bún Laí-Thieû, Asian Best Brand, and Viet Way. Rice vermicelli is too thin for this salad.
- For the salad
- 14 ounces dried Dragonfly brand “rice sticks” or similar rice noodles
- 3 scallions, white and light green parts only
- 2 medium carrots
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1/2 English cucumber
- 2 cups (6 ounces) snow peas
- 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
- Chinese chili oil or chili crisp, for drizzling
- For the dressing
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup light soy sauce
- 2 1/2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
Cook the noodles:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook them until they are pliable but still fairly firm inside, about 6 minutes.
Turn off the heat, and let the noodles sit in the water until they are cooked through but still chewy, about 2 minutes. If you pull on a noodle, it should stretch quite a bit before it breaks.
Drain the noodles, and immediately rinse them in cold running water, massaging them gently to stop the cooking and to remove excess starch, until they are cool to the touch.
Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables:
Trim the roots off the scallions and cut them into 2- to 3-inch-long pieces. Cut them in half lengthwise, then slice them into very thin strips. Put them into a small bowl and cover them with cool water to let their flavor mellow a bit.
Peel the carrots and trim off the ends. Cut them into 2- to 3-inch-long pieces, then cut them into thin slices lengthwise, about 1/8-inch thick. This can be done with a mandoline. Cut the slices into thin strips.
Remove the stem and seeds from the bell pepper and slice it into long thin strips to match the carrots.
Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out the soft, seed-filled center and discard. Keep the skin on. Slice the cucumber lengthwise into thin strips matching the other vegetables.
Pinch off both ends of the snow peas and remove the string that runs along one side. Slice them lengthwise into thin strips.
Make the dressing:
In a small bowl, mix the garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil until the sugar dissolves.
Assemble and serve the salad:
Drain the scallions. In a large bowl, add the drained noodles, scallions, carrot, bell pepper, cucumber, and snow peas. Add the dressing and toss well to evenly coat. Top with the cilantro. Drizzle with the chili oil or serve it on the side.