My best friend in college--blonde, blue-eyed Becky, grew up in Thailand, and didn’t even visit the States until well into her teens. We met after class on a hot summer afternoon. I was photographing the shadow-play of bamboo trees on the street behind my dorm, and Becky agreed to step in to a few of the frames. Not long after that, she cooked my first Thai meal, explaining in her lilting, song-like Thai, the names of the ingredients and dishes. It was a fantastic introduction.
Becky told me there is no actual word for “salad” in Thailand, but tossing fresh vegetables, proteins, and noodles together with a dressing is the commonplace equivalent, called “yam.” (I quickly learned to say, “Yum!” to yam.) This dish—glass noodles with shrimp, cilantro, Thai chilies, a bit of ground pork, fresh matchstick vegetables and sugared chili-lime-garlic-fishsauce dressing, is the classic Yam Woon Sen. I’ve posted the recipe at my food blog, Lost Recipes Found.
It is very customize-able: You can leave out the shrimp and pork if you like, or add in some fried tofu and more (or less) veggies, and, eat it warm or cool. For the dressing, I like to add some tamarind for extra pucker, and you can add a bit more sugar and less fish sauce if you like but be sure not to skip any of the dressing’s basic ingredients! The spicy sweet/sour/salty flavor profile of the dressing is what makes this “salad” sing. For service, I usually have extra cilantro, chopped peanuts and lime wedges on the table.
Also, for those of you who are unfamiliar: Glass noodles are made with mung bean starch and are readily available at Southeast Asian + world-culture-leaning grocery stores. (They may be labeled as vermicelli, bean threads, or cellophane noodles—just check the ingredient listing on the package to make sure the noodles are made with mung beans, not rice flour.) The bags come with the noodles tied in cute little single-serve bundles, each weighing just under 2 ounces. For this recipe, I use two of the bundles to serve 2 to 3 people. Double the dressing recipe and add more bundles for a larger meal.
To prepare this yummy yam, I put the glass noodles in warm water to soak while I do the vegetable prep and measurements-- peeling and trimming red bell pepper, carrot and cucumber into matchsticks. I slice green onion into 1-inch lengths and then sliver those, mince the cilantro stems, garlic, and chilies for the dressing, and finely chop the peanuts. I then prep the fresh shrimp, cutting off the heads and tails, and peel and clean each shrimp well. Then, I make the dressing, using a mortar and pestle to pound the Thai chili with the garlic, snipped cilantro stems, palm sugar and salt, adding in the tamarind and lime juice last.
With everything prepped and measured, all that’s left is to poach the shrimp, pork and noodles and stir everything together. The noodles will be a bit sticky, so pull them apart as you stir. This dish is a great use for the garden vegetables you’re growing--or those you find at the farmer’s market.