In the dog days of August, this transparent glass noodle and shrimp salad creates the illusion of coolness. But, spiked with hot green bird's eye chilies and savory with a mixture of salty fish sauce and lime juice, there's more to the dish than meets the eye.
My latest adventure in deliciousness occurred on an impossibly humid afternoon. As I mixed fish sauce, lime juice and sugar on the tropical deck, a swarm of mosquitoes arose from the water pots and headed right for my exposed ankles.
Even the funky fish sauce didn’t deter them.
Serves me right for chopping chilies outside, but then it was only 81 degrees, even if the air was thick and the sun murky behind heavy clouds.
I was half-dreaming that I was along the Chao Phraya in Bangkok, making this savory glass noodle salad for supper. I’ve thrown the dish together on dozens of occasions, ever since K. Karuna, a 5th generation Singaporean and cooking teacher, showed me how one steamy afternoon in her indoor kitchen. (She had two kitchens, one inside and the other right out the back door for “smelly” cooking.)
Yesterday, I was focused on the fish sauce, and the way its salty, savory flavors were so nicely balanced by the addition of lime juice and sugar. Lots of chopped garlic and a judicious number of the hot green Thai chilies with pointed tails or prik kii nuu suan—also known as bird’s eye chilies—helped too.
Kasma Loha-Unchit, author of It Rains Fishes, my favorite Thai cookbook, calls fish sauce “the magic elixir of Thai cuisine.” “Not only is it an essential ingredient in finished dishes,” she writes, “it appears as a condiment on the dining room table at nearly every meal, by itself or mixed with chillies and sometimes lime juice. A prime source of salt in the Thai diet and rich in protein, B vitamins and minerals, this clear brown liquid is to Thai cooking what soy sauce is to Chinese and Japanese cooking.”
Fish sauce is also rich in natural glutamates and is thus a delicious source of the meaty, brothy flavor known as umami. In a cuisine that is substantially vegetarian, fish sauce is way of transforming simple tastes into rich, nuanced flavors.
Once you’ve got the fish sauce—you might like to try organic Red Boat, a clear reddish brown sauce made in Vietnam from fermented black anchovies—the rest of the ingredients are easy to find. (You can substitute serrano peppers for the bird’s eye chilies if need be.) But there’s one outlier: dried black fungus, also known as cloud ear fungus or mushrooms, usually sold in clear cellophane packages at Asian markets.
Ruffled cloud ears are nearly weightless when dry, but soaked in hot water, the texture undergoes a dramatic transformation, becoming heavier and strangely rubbery. The fungus has little flavor, but is well-worth using for two reasons: first its crunchy but chewable texture offers a nice contrast to the soft noodles, and second, it reputedly has many health benefits, including boosting the circulation and acting as an anti-coagulant.
Delicious, easy to make and healthy too. What more could you want on a dog day afternoon?
Incidentally, the bean threads are called “glass” or “cellophane” noodles because they become transparent when briefly cooked in hot water. On a hot day, they create the illusion of coolness.
Glass Noodles with Shrimp, Lime Juice and Fish Sauce
This recipe is adapted from K. Karuna’s recipe for Bean Thread Vermicelli Salad.
Serves 3 to 4 people
1.5 ounces dried black fungus, about half a 3.3-ounce package
3 to 4 ounces dried bean thread noodles (available from Asian markets)
7 tablespoons fresh lime juice
7 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 small red onion
1 small bunch cilantro
3 to 5 fresh green Thai chilies or small serrano peppers
5 large cloves garlic
12 medium-large shrimp
1 tablespoon canola oil
1. Put the dried black fungus in a heatproof bowl. Heat a large pot of water over a medium high flame. When very hot, ladle some of the water over the black fungus, covering it to a depth of one inch. Set aside to soak.
2. Turn the heat off and put the dried bean thread noodles in the pot of hot water. Let them sit for 5 minutes, then strain and flip them into a bowl of cold water with a few ice cubes. When the noodles are cool, strain again and set aside.
3. Combine the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar in a large serving bowl. Taste the mixture and adjust if necessary: the sweet, sour and salty flavors should be evenly balanced. Add the noodles to the dressing and set aside.
4. Peel the red onion, cut it in half and slice thinly.
5. Slice the green scallion leaves on the diagonal into ½ inch pieces; slice the white bulbs on the diagonal as well, about ¼ inch thick.
6. Coarsely chop the cilantro leaves, then mince the stems. There should be about 1 to 1-1/4 cup altogether.
7. Thinly slice two of the garlic cloves; finely chop the other three.
8. Cut the green chilies in half and remove the seeds, if desired. Finely chop the chilies.
9. Peel and devein the shrimp.
10. Drain the black fungus and pat dry. Cut the fungus into ½ inch ribbons, discarding any hard or tough bits.
11. In a wok or large skillet, heat the canola oil over a medium high flame. When the oil shimmers, add the sliced garlic cloves and half the sliced red onion. Stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and the black fungus. Continue to stir-fry until the shrimp are just cooked through. Remove from the skillet and let the mixture cool slightly.
12. Add the shrimp and fungus to the glass noodles. Mix them well with your hands so that all the ingredients are combined.
13. Add the cilantro, scallions, chilies and the remaining garlic and red onion to the salad, and again mix well.
14. You can serve the salad at once, or let it sit at cool room temperature up to an hour before bringing it to the table, in which case the flavors will have more time to meld.