A Thai salad is remembered for its complex blend of flavors and textures. It's that delicate balance of tart, sweet, salty, and spicy that my Southeast Asian tongue craves often. This glass noodle salad delivers in punches, featuring crunchy toasted peanuts against a springy backdrop of mung bean threads soaked in a zesty lime sauce with a big umami kick. Oh yeah!
I am, of course, talking about fish sauce. It's nearly impossible to talk about Thai food without talking about fish sauce. So, what is fish sauce? And why does the mere mention of it sometimes trigger funny faces in people?
Fish sauce, or "nam pla" in Thai, is made with anchovies fermented in salt. Hence the face. But give it a chance and that face might turn into a smile. Yes, it's salty and pungent, and it adds that savory depth of unique flavor some of us have come to love as umami. You know, that taste that just tips a dish over to magnificence? Alright, alright, pardon my bias. I'm happy to tell you that in this recipe, the pungency is mellowed out by fresh lime juice and sugar, producing something quite delectable.
I liken the use of fish sauce in Thai cooking, and also other parts of Southeast Asia including Vietnam and Cambodia, to the way salt and pepper are commonly added to a meal. It's such an important seasoning to the food in that region that you will often find bottles of fish sauce sitting alongside other condiments on restaurant tables.
I've been told vegan fish sauce exists but I can't vouch for its taste in this recipe until I've tried it. My friend Omar has a recipe for vegan fish sauce using some of my favorite umami ingredients including soy sauce, dried shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, and tomato paste. I also found a simple no-cook vegan fish sauce recipe that uses pineapple juice. Based on the ingredient list, they both sound delicious. I'll make it a point to give these recipes a go and report back here.
What I'd also like to talk about is glass noodles. It is after all the main ingredient in this salad. Also known as cellophane noodles or "tang hoon" where I come from, glass or clear noodles are made of mung beans and have a transparent appearance when cooked. Like any other Asian noodles, they can be stir-fried and added to soups. Best of all, they are light in texture, springy to the bite, and incredibly slurp-friendly!
Sometimes labeled as mung bean vermicelli (yet another name, I know!), they can be found at Asian grocery stores, usually portioned into convenient bundles as pictured here. You don't necessarily have to release the bundles as they soften quite quickly when soaked in water. In fact they cook so fast this recipe does not require any action on the stovetop. Just soak them in some boiling water and they are ready to go.
No cooking, just mixing. That's how easy this recipe is. And that unmistakable union of tart, sweet, salty, and spicy that is the hallmark of a good Thai salad is all there in the mix! How can you not love a salad that has the word "Yum" in its name, right? I love it so much I made a video to show you just how easy it is to make at home. Aroy!
Thai Glass Noodle Salad (Yum Woon Sen) Video
Thai Glass Noodle Salad (Yum Woon Sen)
Spicy and zesty, this popular Thai street food is easy and fast to make with only a few ingredients! Serves 2.
2 bundles (4oz) glass noodles
Juice of 3 limes (about 3 tablespoons)
1/4 cup fish sauce*
2 tablespoons cane sugar
1/2 cup white or yellow onion, finely sliced
2 Thai red chilis, finely chopped
1 cup tomatoes, cut into wedges
1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
1/2 cup peanuts, lightly toasted and pounded
Lettuce leaves, for garnish (optional)
Bring some water to a boil. In a large bowl, place the glass noodles and pour boiling water over them until they are completely submerged. Let the noodles soak in the hot water until they become soft and translucent, about 6 to 8 minutes. Drain and rinse the noodles under running cold water and set aside to cool.
In a large salad bowl, mix together the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Add the noodles. Using a pair of tongs, toss the noodles well with the sauce until they are coated.
Add onions, chilis, tomatoes, and cilantro, and toss to mix all the ingredients. Top with peanuts and give everything one final toss.
Garnish serving plates with lettuce leaves and top glass noodle salad with more peanuts if desired. Serve immediately at room temperature or chill in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes before serving.