Singapore Noodles. I just say those words in my house and there are smiles all around. Maybe because I am not a huge fan of Chinese take-out and it is, dare I say, banned from my house. Well, when I'm around at least. Yes, anytime I am away, strictly defined in this case as not sleeping at home, the phone call will be made. Soon after, a line of greasy white cartons will litter the counters. There will be dancing and singing and eventually everyone will be slumped in a food-induced coma on the couch. There will be regrets, bloating and, ultimately, confessions.
Enough of that. This recipe is not even remotely related to anything bad with cornstarch slurries or MSG. This is all good and can very much satisfy the craving for things in white cartons. It's a big, tasty noodle dish that's even more delicious eaten right out of the fridge the morning after. My first encounter with Singapore noodles was from a food cart off of Canal Street many years ago. There were lush noodles, tons of fresh vegetables, broken bits of noodles swollen with curry powder and whatever slightly burnt yumminess had formed in the wok. They were earthy, spicy, complicated and deeply satisfying.
Over the years, I have had many many versions from high and low places. This is my rendition with some help from Padma Lakshmi's great cookbook Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet. It's the perfect dish for a cold night and a clear departure from all of the traditional fall flavors most of us will be ingesting these upcoming weeks. It also pairs quite nicely with a cocktail I've got in the works for this Friday.**
So a word or two about ingredients and equipment. If you don't have access to a great Asian market, no problem at all. Sub out the rice noodles for easily found brown rice spaghetti. I especially love the Tinkyada brand (in the pick and purple packaging) because it keeps it's texture nicely. You can leave out the fish sauce and either add more soy or salt as you see fit. Thai basil is pretty special but you could easily use just mint.
My cooking is all about layering flavors and I have a small army of building blocks in my pantry and fridge. One staple happens to be prik nam pla, which is simply fish sauce with bird chillies. Not complicated to make but so delicious to have on hand. A wok would be great for this recipe because you will need room to move things around. An extra large skillet will work well, too. Just don't crowd things too much or you won't get the depth of flavor that you are after.
6-8 T olive oil
1/4 C sliced scallions
1/2 C each of shredded red and napa cabbages
1 C of shredded carrots
1 1/2 C of sliced mushrooms (I like to use a mix of interesting mushrooms, such as straw and baby portabellas, for added texture and flavors)
1 C sliced onions
1 T sliced garlic
2 T minced ginger (peel your ginger with a spoon and use a ceramic grater)
2 T madras curry powder
2-3 T prik nam pla* or 2 bird chilies diced and fish sauce to taste
1 1/2 LB of shrimp (or thinly sliced chicken breast or tofu)
10-12 oz of cellophane rice noodles, cooked and drained
1 T or more sesame oil to season the dish
1/2 C each of chopped thai basil and mint
lime wedges for serving
* to make prik nam pla, whiz 1/2 cup of bird chills (mix of red and green, stems removed) with 1 cup fish sauce in a food processor for about 30 seconds. Store it in a small glass jar in your fridge and it will keep for a very long time. Use it in curries, stir fries, over rice, etc etc.
Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok. Add the garlic, onions and ginger first. Sauté until there is some color on the onions and begin to add the other vegetables. Cook for a few minutes until the vegetables begin to soften. Add some curry powder now to begin the seasoning of the dish along with some soy and prik nam pal. (Make sure things aren't too wet because you want to be able to get a good sear on whatever protein you are adding) Add your protein and cook until there is some color. Add your cooked and drained noodles at this point and finish with some additional curry powder, fish sauce, soy and touch of sesame oil until you have the level of heat and salt you prefer. Finish the noodles with the chopped herbs and serve.
The whole process of preparing your ingredients takes longer, generally, than the actual cooking. Just get organized, line up your little bowlsand way you go. All in all, this is a quick dish to get on the table. This should serve more than 5 people but it never does.
** As for that cocktail I mentioned, all I can say is that it would be great to "start" it now. Not the drinking, the infusing. When I was at the Asian market this week, they happened to have the most gorgeous fresh lychees (well, fresh from Mexico) and I had to have them. First off, they are so kooky to look at who could resist?
I love their strange flesh and slightly nutty, slightly vanilla flavor. I also love really good tequila. If I just lost you to some horrible college memory, can I lure you back with vodka? Either is fine. What we are going for here is an interesting infusion of the nuances of the lychees. I happen to prefer tequila because of the vanilla and oak notes. Doesn't really matter all that much.
The other key ingredient is Thai Basil simple syrup. More on that on Friday. For now, please just take about a cup of fresh, peeled lychees (nut removed) and cover them in a glass jar with your poison of choice. If you can't get your hands on fresh, use the canned version but drain and rinse them really well of all sugary grossness. To be continued...