Among the other flamboyantly garnished and highly aromatic plates being handed around the table at a Thai dinner a few weeks ago, this one seemed rather Plain Jane. An unassuming bowl of slippery noodles sprinkled with what looked like crispy pork and crushed peanuts? But one bite was all it took — it was love at first spicy-tangy-sweet forkful.
Since that fateful dinner, I've become rather obsessed with this Thai noodle dish. Its official name is yum woon sen and it encapsulates much of what I love about Thai cuisine. The fresh flavor of just-squeezed limes, a balance of crunchy and chewy, the pungency of the fish sauce, and just enough heat to set your tongue tingling.
This dish is actually quite elegant in its simplicity. The seasoned noodles are the real star, with the crispy pork and other ingredients just there to play back up. It's usually served cold or room temperature, and many versions include either dried or whole cooked shrimp to make it a more substantial meal. I chose to leave the shrimp out of my dish, but please feel free to add them if you like shrimp.
If you've never worked with them before, glass noodles require a little explanation. You'll find them in Asian supermarkets labeled as glass noodles, mung bean noodles, bean threads, saifun, or any combination of those names. They are made from mung bean starch and become transparent when cooked. They're not hard to work with — just soak in hot water then cook in boiling water for a few minutes — but I always find their stretchiness right out of the pot to be a bit surprising. Once cool, they become much more tender. I also usually cut them a few times with kitchen shears to make the long noodles easier to eat.
Love is a beautiful thing, and I truly love this dish. It just goes to show that sometimes the simplest dishes make the biggest statement.
Spicy Glass Noodles with Crispy Pork (Yum Woon Sen)
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
1/2 pound ground pork
1 6-ounce package glass noodles (also called bean threads or saifun)
3 green onions, sliced into thin rounds
2 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro
1 bird's eye chili, ribs and seeds removed, minced (substitute 1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes)
2 tablespoons peanuts, roughly chopped
2 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons lime juice (from 1 lime)
Extra chopped peanuts for garnishing
Warm a teaspoon of canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently to break the pork into tiny crumbles. Cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, stirring less frequently, until the pork turns deeply golden and crispy. Set aside.
While the pork is cooking, set the noodles in a bowl and cover them with hot water to soak. Let them sit until softened, about 10 minutes or until the pork has finished cooking.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop in the noodles and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the noodles are stretchy and tender. Drain and rinse under cool water. Use a pair of kitchen shears to cut the mass of noodles 3 or 4 times — this makes the long noodles easier to eat.
Combine the noodles, pork, green onions, cilantro, chili, and peanuts in a large bowl. Whisk together the soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice in a small bowl. Taste and add more of any of the ingredients to suit your tastes, then pour the sauce over the noodles. Use tongs or clean hands to lift the noodles, fold them over, and gradually work the ingredients into the noodles. Let stand at least 15 minutes before serving or refrigerate until serving. Garnish each dish with extra peanuts.
This dish is best on the day that it's made. For serving leftovers, make an extra batch of the sauce and add it to the noodles a few teaspoons a time, stirring the noodles until they loosen and become slippery again.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)