Maifun, pancit luglug and meehoon may sound like characters in "The Mikado." But they're really names for dried Asian rice noodles -- Japanese, Filipino and Malaysian, respectively.

Rice noodles can stand in for wheat vermicelli, angel hair and linguine and, because they lack wheat gluten, they won't become mushy in pasta salads, even when paired with watery vegetables like cucumber and tomato. Even better, unlike wheat pasta, rice noodles can be microwaved and will emerge evenly cooked and silky -- no soaking or boiling required.

Rice noodles can be found at Asian markets, specialty food stores and many supermarkets. A single type of noodle can have as many as six Asian names, depending on whether it was made in China, Singapore, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand or the Philippines, but luckily most rice noodles are packed in see-through cellophane so you can see what you're buying. If you're in the mood for linguine, pick up the pack that contains linguine-shaped rice noodles.

To be sure you're buying rice noodles, check the ingredients. Even if the entire package seems to be written in Chinese, the ingredients will be somewhere in English. Most will read "rice flour, water." Some packs will also identify the product as "rice sticks," which presumably is because that's how they look and feel before cooking turns them into soft noodles.

To open a pack of rice noodles, hold it over the kitchen sink while you cut it open with a pair of kitchen shears. Upon cutting them free, the rice noodles tend to fly around a lot, so the sink acts as an automatic cleanup bin.

To serve four, from four to eight ounces of rice noodles are necessary, depending on how much else will be added to them. Remove the noodles from the wrapper and cut off the amount needed. For instance, if the pack contains eight ounces and you need four, just cut the pack in half. Set the rice noodles in a glass pie dish with water to cover, then cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until al dente. For angel hair-type rice noodles that's about 3 minutes. Linguine-type rice noodles will take 5 1/2 to 6 minutes and should be flipped midway. Be sure to drain the rice noodles before saucing.

Just because rice noodles are Asian in origin doesn't mean you need to flavor them exclusively with Asian spices. They're also tasty with pesto, tossed with strips of grilled chicken or saute'ed vegetables. One recent combination that I admired was from Afghanistan. Linguine-type rice noodles were tossed with plain yogurt, lots of saute'ed garlic, olive oil and saffron.

These recipes were created in a 700-watt microwave. If yours has less wattage, increase the timing. For instance, if your microwave has 600 watts, the sesame noodles will take about 4 minutes.

FIVE-MINUTE SESAME NOODLES

(4 servings)

4 ounces angel hair-type rice noodles (pancit bihon)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste) or creamy peanut butter

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1/4 cup minced fresh chives

2 cups thinly sliced purple and/or green cabbage

1 carrot, julienned

Set the noodles in a 9-inch glass pie dish and pour on water to cover. Cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until al dente, about 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl whisk together the soy sauce, tahini, vinegar and oil.

Toss the chives, cabbage and carrots into a large bowl. When the noodles are done, drain and pat them dry. Add them to the cabbage mixture, then pour on the sauce and toss well to combine. To keep the noodles from tangling, toss upward, don't stir in a circle. Serve warm or slightly chilled.

Per serving: 155 calories, 4 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 374 mg sodium.

BANH PHO WITH GARLIC AND GREEN BEANS

(4 servings)

8 ounces linguine-type rice noodles (banh pho)

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, mashed through a press

1 small dried hot pepper

8 ounces blanched green beans

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Set the noodles in a 9-inch glass pie dish and pour on water to cover. Push the noodles around a bit so they touch the sides of the dish. Cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until al dente, about 6 minutes, stopping midway to flip the noodles over (use tongs).

Meanwhile, heat a large saute' pan on medium high. Pour in the oil and when it's warm toss in the garlic, pepper and beans. Saute' until the beans are bright green and the garlic is fragrant, about 2 1/2 minutes.

When the noodles are ready, drain and pat dry. Toss into the pan with the Parmesan and combine well using upward strokes. Serve warm.

Per serving: 164 calories, 3 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 209 mg sodium.

ANGEL HAIR WITH MUSHROOMS

(4 servings)

4 ounces angel hair-type rice noodles (pancit bihon)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup chopped fresh button mushrooms

1/2 cup chopped fresh shiitake mushrooms (stems removed)

2 cloves garlic, mashed through a press

Splash hot pepper sauce, or to taste

2/3 cup defatted chicken stock

2 tablespoons dry white wine

1 tablespoon minced fresh basil

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme

Set the noodles in a 9-inch glass pie dish and pour on water to cover. Cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until al dente, about 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a large saute' pan on medium, then pour in the olive oil. When it's warm toss in the mushrooms and garlic and saute' until the mushrooms have darkened a bit and all is fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Add hot pepper sauce, stock and wine to mushrooms and increase heat to high. Let sauce bubble, uncovered, until liquid has reduced about a third. Just before it's ready, toss in basil and thyme. Drain noodles and pat dry, then toss with mushroom sauce, using upward strokes, and serve warm.

Per serving: 75 calories, 2 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, .1 mg cholesterol, 237 mg sodium.

Judith Benn Hurley is a Pennsylvania freelance writer and the author of "Healthy Microwave Cooking" (Rodale Press).