A Thai Twist on Pasta Salad

It’s September. Summer is flaming out in Seattle, and to celebrate its last few days, all I want is pasta salad.
Thai noodle salad

Not American pasta salad, but the Thai version. Yam woon sen, it’s called, and it’s one of the most chameleonic of Thai dishes. It always contains cellophane noodles and the classic Thai dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic, and chiles. But that base can be extended with anything from squid to lettuce to pork to shallots. In short, take any Thai salad, add cooked cellophane noodles, and it becomes yam woon sen. (Unless you begin with the chopped-meat salad called larb, in which case it becomes larb woon sen.) This is good news. It means you can have a different yam woon sen on each of the remaining days of summer.

Why, though? Does adding noodles to a perfectly good squid salad represent an improvement? It does. Cellophane noodles are the perfect medium for transporting the delicious hot-and-sour dressing to your mouth. Like any Thai salad, this one is best with a generous amount of dressing (most Thai dressing contains no oil, so it doesn’t carry flavor quite as effectively as a Western vinaigrette does). Slightly soupy, overdressed salad, a sin in European cuisines, is a virtue here.

The only trick to making yam woon sen is cooking the noodles properly. If you drop a bundle of cellophane noodles into boiling water, you’ll end up with a sticky mess. The key is to soak the noodles in warm water until they soften and separate (about 20 minutes), give them a quick boil (30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the noodles), then drain them in a colander and run cold water over them. At this point, add some of the dressing to prevent the noodles from sticking.

A good starter yam woon sen recipe can be found in Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet. Theirs has mushrooms and ground pork. The one I made this week featured shrimp, lettuce, and red onion. You win either way.

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