The first time I made Thai glass noodle salad, I thought it was pretty good. There was heat from the chilies, sweetness from the sugar, tang from the lime juice and saltiness from the fish sauce. I made it based on a recipe from a cookbook written by an American. Little did I realize how watered down the flavors were to appeal to the white man’s palate.
It took a trip to Chiang Mai to realize how bland — how utterly lacking — my old glass noodle salad was. It’s not that I didn’t get the balance of flavors right the first time. I did. The problem was the lack of depth.
In Thailand, glass noodle salad is a really hot dish. And I don’t mean it’s served at a high temperature. No, it’s served at room temperature as most salads are. By “hot”, I mean spicy hot. I could manage only a few mouthfuls but that was enough to get a whiff of what seemed to be so many spices and herbs in the dressing.
In time, I learned to make better glass noodle salad. Good enough to decide to update the old recipe. There are a lot of photos in this post so that you can see the ingredients individually and how they are used.
Thai glass noodle salad dressing
The dressing is salty, sweet and spicy. You can make a mixture that tastes like that by simply mixing fish sauce, lime juice and sugar. BUT you won’t get the depth of flavor that this salad requires. To get that, you need to pound and grind a few things.
Lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and zest, galangal, cilantro roots and stems, chili and palm sugar. Pound and grind to squeeze out the juices and until the palm sugar liquefies.
Squeeze in lime juice and pour in fish sauce, and mix. That’s your dressing. To get the best flavor, allow everything to steep while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. The longer the dressing sits, the better the flavor.
If you’re thinking how in the world the fibrous lemongrass and galangal in the dressing could be palatable, don’t worry. You’re going to strain the dressing before it is drizzled on the salad.
Glass noodles are sold dried. They need to be rehydrated before they can be eaten. Dump the noodles in a bowl and cover with tap water. Leave to soak until soft.
Drain the noodles then dump in pot of boiling water. You’ll get the best texture if you cook them for a few minutes. Strain the cooked noodles and set aside until it’s time to assemble the salad.
The default meat is simply ground pork. But we prefer fatty sausage meat which we just spread in a hot pan and leave to brown in its own rendered fat. When the sausage meat is almost cooked through, shrimps are added and they cook together so that the shrimps soak up the flavors of the sausage meat.
Peeled and sliced shallots, tomatoes, cilantro, chilies and Thai basil. More cilantro? Yes. The roots go into the spice base of the dressing; the stems and leaves are used as salad greens. As for the basil, make sure you use Thai basil and not sweet basil.
Assembling Thai glass noodle salad
Place the noodles, sausage meat and shrimps in a mixing bowl, and drizzle in the strained dressing. Just half of the dressing first because you don’t want the noodles to soak all of it.
Toss the noodles, sausage meat and shrimps with the dressing. Add the shallots and tomatoes, drizzle in the rest of the dressing and toss thoroughly.
Add the Thai basil and cilantro, and toss to distribute the greens evenly. The Thai glass noodle salad is ready to be served at this point but there is one other ingredient you can add that will give the salad even more flavor, textural contrast and better visual appeal.
Roughly chopped roasted salted peanuts. Skip if you’re allergic. Add as much as you like if you’re not.
Thai glass noodle salad (yum woon sen)
- 120 grams glass noodles
- 1 large stalk lemongrass - (or two small stalks) white part only with the fibrous outer layers peeled off and discarded
- 2 Thai chilies - (we used one red and one green)
- 2 half-inch pieces kaffir lime zest
- 1 pair kaffir lime leaves - ribs removed and discarded
- 3 slices galangal - if using dried, pre-soak in hot water until softened
- 2 bunches cilantro roots
- 2 tablespoons palm sugar
- ¼ cup lime juice - (kaffir limes were used here)
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 150 grams sausages
- 200 grams shelled and deveined shrimps
- 2 shallots - peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 tomatoes - halved and cut into thin wedges
- 1 generous handful Thai basil
- 1 handful cilantro - stems and leaves, torn into smaller pieces
- ¼ cup salted peanuts - (optional) roughly chopped
- Place the glass noodles in a bowl and pour in room temperature water to cover the noodles completely. Leave to soak for about 20 minutes.
Make the dressing
- While the noodles soak, place the lemongrass, chilies, kaffir lime zest and leaves, galangal, cilantro roots and palm sugar in a mortar.
- Use a pestle to grind them as finely as you can.
- Pour in the lime juice and fish sauce, and mix thoroughly.
- Leave the dressing to steep.
Cook the sausage meat and shrimps
- Discard the casings of the sausages and crumble the meat into a frying pan.
- Cook the sausage meat until lightly browned.
- Add the shrimps and cook, tossing often, until both sausage meat and shrimps are cooked through.
Cook the glass noodles
- In a pot boil about four cups of water.
- Drain the noodles and dump into the boiling water. Cook for two minutes.
- Drain the noodles and dump into a mixing bowl.
Toss the salad
- Strain the dressing.
- Add the sausage meat and shrimps to the noodles.
- Pour in half of the dressing and toss thoroughly.
- Add the sliced shallots and tomatoes.
- Pour in the rest of the dressing and toss.
- Add the Thai basil and cilantro, and toss again.
- Transfer the salad into a serving bowl.
- Sprinkle with more chili slices, if you want added heat.
- Ladle into bowls and, optionally, sprinkle in salted peanuts before serving.