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Vermicelli is a type of fine pasta that is similar to spaghetti. The pasta features long rounded pasta strands that tend to be slightly thinner than spaghetti and somewhat thicker than angel hair pasta. In Italian, vermicelli literally means "little worms" and reflects the pastas distinctive worm-like shape.
Dried vermicelli is usually made from semolina flour, a coarsely ground flour originating from durum wheat. Durum is a hard wheat grown specifically for pasta manufacturing and features high levels of gluten and protein. The density of the flour yields a stiff but pliable dough that holds its shape well and is ideal for the al dente texture often preferred in pasta. The wheat also gives the pasta a creamy yellow color.
Making vermicelli starts by moistening the flour with water and sometimes salt then kneading the mixture until a smooth dough is formed. This dough is then rolled out and pressed through small cylinders to form long thin strands resembling slender worms before being dried and packaged. Although straight strands tend to be better known coiled strands are also available. The process for making the pasta fresh is similar but whole wheat flour, bread flour or other grains are more likely to be used. Eggs are also commonly included in fresh pasta to add richness and hold the dough together. The finished product is regularly tossed with butter, cream or tomato based sauces.
Different regions of the world consume variations of vermicelli-like noodles. In Southeast Asia and China, rice vermicelli is very common and refers to noodles usually made from a paste of rice flour and water. The thin rice noodles are generally cooked by soaking in warm water and are typically added to soups, stir-frys, spring rolls and noodle salads.
Mung bean starch is regularly used to create the variety known as Chinese vermicelli or cellophane noodles. The gelatinous noodles are clear when cooked and feature a delicate and chewy tender texture. The very thin noodles feature a neutral taste capable of absorbing the flavors of whatever dish they are combined with. To cook, these noodles are first soaked in hot water, then briefly boiled and rinsed in cold water before being drained. They can also be rehydrated directly in soups. If fried, they are frequently used as a crunchy garnish for salads.
In Japanese cuisine, these cellophane noodles may be made from potato starch, while the Korean version is often made from sweet potato starch. Vermicelli cut into small pieces is frequently fried along with rice in many Middle Eastern side dishes to compliment savory soups and stews. A vermicelli-like pastry is also used in the region to make sweets and drinks.
Dried vermicelli is readily available in most supermarkets and gourmet shops. Fresh versions may be found in the refrigerated or frozen sections of some stores. Rice and other Asian style varieties can usually be found in oriental sections of grocery stores or in Asian markets. Catalogs and online stores also tend to offer a wide variety of the pasta for purchasing.
Little worms? Ugh. It's a good thing that's called vermicelli in the United States or sales would be down considerably. How many people know at least someone who "visualized" bloody worms when they see spaghetti, anyway? Don't laugh -- that is a common condition that drives people away from pasta dishes.
At any rate, calling vermicelli "little worms" in the United States could only increase the number of people who associate disturbing images with pasta.