I’ve been away, so I haven’t had as much Thai food as I’d like. Although the world is full of what I’m sure are great Thai restaurants that venture beyond the sour-sweet stir-fries and chicken with cashew nuts that we all know and will perversely miss some day, I have a general rule about not eating Thai food when I’m out of the country. It is usually — not always, but a lot of the time — a pale shadow of what I’d get at home. Since I live at home, why don’t I just get it there?
But I find that the thing I miss most when I’m away is the spicy-sour-sweet melange of what-have-you called, fittingly, “yum”. It’s room temperature and chopped, perfectly made to eat in greedy mouthfuls with a spoon — the bigger, the better, hopefully alone so that you don’t have to share. It’s made up of things that might not tantalize on their own, like tiny dried fish or julienned banana blossoms or blanched Chinese kale stems or even chopped lemongrass bulbs. Its variations are infinite, but the overall effect of the dish is the same: a bit of spice, a lot of tart, some fish sauce, some sugar. Some heft in the form of a smoky grilled eggplant, or lightly cooked shrimp. Something light and refreshing, like lettuce. And always some texture, some crunch. It’s the very definition of something that is better than the sum of its parts.
The sky is the limit when it comes to thinking up yum salads of your own, so it’s probably not surprising that many families have their own favorite yum recipes. My husband’s family is no different. When they get together, you can be sure to find a big vat of beef green curry (gaeng kiew waan nuea), some fermented rice noodles (kanom keen), a bit of roti, and, in a nod to the Japanophile tendencies of modern-day Bangkok, some pickled ginger. Also on the table is a big brimming bowl of yum soon sen, a “salad” of glass vermicelli that is a far cry from the anemic glass vermicelli salads I have had anywhere else. With its mix of palm sugar and coconut milk and tamarind juice, this salad recalls more of the luxurious sweetness of a good mee Siam you’d find on the southern Thai border, and less of the cartoonish “hot ‘n spicy” of a package of Mama tom yum noodles. It’s sort of like eating garlic bread for the first time again.
Obviously, I lack the self-discipline to stop and take a photo of this dish, so you will have to be content with a photo from Karen, taken at the beginning of a family banquet when everyone was being too polite to be the first to tuck in:
(Photo by Karen Blumberg)
I have to admit, I had a bit of trouble securing this recipe from my husband’s aunt. These things aren’t easy to come by. So if there’s something that might be missing, or some cooking step that someone may have forgotten to mention, well … don’t look at me. I’m just the messenger.
Yum Woon Sen
– 500 g woon sen (glass vermicelli)
– 1 kg shrimp, cleaned
– shredded kaffir lime leaves (for garnish)
– 1 L coconut milk
– 1 kg shallots
– 25 g dried chilies
– 150 g tamarind juice
– 5 Tbs fish sauce
– 150 g palm sugar
– unscented cooking oil (for stir-frying)
- Soak glass vermicelli in water for half an hour.
- Mince and then stir-fry shrimp until pink, let rest.
- Slice and fry shallots until opaque.
- Split coconut milk into two portions, the add palm sugar, fish sauce, and tamarind juice (juice only). Mix, and heat until boiling, stirring occasionally. Set aside.
- With the remaining coconut milk, “stir-fry” glass vermicelli that has been drained. Add other coconut milk. Add shallots, leaving some for garnish. Add chilies, sliced roughly. Stir-fry until dry. Scatter julienned kaffir lime leaves and remaining shallots over the top as garnish.