Rice vermicelli, referred to as sen mee (เส้นหมี) in Thai, are delicate noodles made from rice flour. The noodles are a prized ingredient due to their textural versatility; they can range from soft and chewy when boiled, to crunchy and brittle when deep-fried. Furthermore, the noodles display diverse characteristics influenced by other ingredients used in the dish. As such, it is unsurprising that crispy rice vermicelli dishes, called mee graawp (หมี่กรอบ) in Thai, come in an array of complexities, from the simple, flat-sweet treats sold in gift stores and Thai dessert shops, to the elegant Central Plains-style crispy-noodle dish that features a refined three-flavor profile and the aroma of bitter orange.
The latter, known as mee graawp sohng khreuuang (หมี่กรอบทรงเครื่อง), is an exquisitely regal dish of crispy rice vermicelli. The delicate noodles strands are washed and dried, then fried to a crisp light-golden hue. They retain their brittle crunch and airy texture even after being stir-fried with a clinging sticky sauce that encases the noodles in a thin layer of sheen. This sauce, mixed into the noodles together with other ingredients such as thin slices of pickled garlic and bitter orange peel, impart the dish with a light, fresh sweet and sour, and slightly salty and citrusy glaze.
Crispy noodles are a traditional Thai dish that once were considered a delicacy reserved for the upper class. In the context of the Siamese samrub, the noodles were a popular dish that could be enjoyed on its own, as a light, one-plate meal; as an afternoon snack (อาหารว่างบ่าย); or as part of a larger meal served alongside a clear soup or spicy curry.Sai Yaowapa Daily menu consisting of แกงจืดเกาเหลา, ผัดหมี่กรอบ และขนมต้มขาว.
The importance of process
The aristocratic form of mee graawp is crafted with a rigorous protocol, which dictates its aesthetics, flavors and textures. The presentation of the dish is intended to impress and delight – a visually stunning appearance that possesses the subtle refinements associated with elegance and grace. The color must be natural, and the ingredients should be complementary while sidestepping visual detraction. Furthermore, the dish’s flavors should be pleasing and playful yet gentle, with a distinct, three-flavor profile of sour-sweet and salty with equal measures of savory, nutty and citrus notes. The aroma should be fresh, light and citrusy, free of undesirable odors, e.g., rancid or musty smells from the frying. The seasoning must be mixed evenly with the crispy rice vermicelli while the other added ingredients must be mixed evenly throughout. Finally, the dish’s texture should be firm and crunchy without being too brittle; tender, but not excessively soft or chewy. This texture enhances the overall sensory experience of the dish – it satisfies the palate and is a true delight for the senses.
The aristocratic form of mee graawp is not just a dish, but also a symbol of cultural heritage and social status. Its meticulous preparation and presentation has been passed down through generations of prominent Siamese families. This type of mee graawp is often served at elaborate banquets, formal gatherings, and high tea parties, where it is considered a mark of elegance and refinement.
The attention to detail in the mee graawp presentation can be truly stunning, showcasing a wide range of styles depending on the occasion and the individual family. It can be served in sculptural forms – lofty cones served on golden plates and surrounded with elaborately crafted side dishes. Crispy deep-fried tofu, fried dried shrimp, and thin, fluffy lace-like egg threads are frequently added to complement the crispiness of the noodles, as are fresh bean sprouts and garlic chives. The cone is further bejeweled with moonstone-like slices of pickled garlic and paper-thin slices of bitter orange zest.
Conversely, the same elements can be presented in a sleek, sophisticated arrangement, presented gracefully on a single plate for individual dining. In addition to showcasing each family’s creativity and style, these presentation modes add an extra layer of elegance and refinement to the overall dining experience of the dish.
Preparing the rice noodles
For the best results, rice vermicelli should be deep-fried and dried to create crispy noodles. In the past, when fresh noodles were commonly used, recipes for crispy rice vermicelli usually began by cooking the noodles, then drying them before frying; commercial dried noodles can be fried without any prior cooking.
Fresh noodles are cooked in boiling water until they are tender but not overcooked. Once cooked, the noodles are immediately drained in a strainer and rinsed under cold running water to stop the cooking process and remove any excess starch.
Next, the noodles are spread out in a single layer on a drying rack or hung on a stick as in the traditional Chinese way – where it is common to see long bamboo poles draped with rows of freshly made rice noodles drying in the sun and air.
When deep-frying rice vermicelli noodles in pork lard or vegetable oil, it is important to fry them only up until they become crisp, but remain very light golden in color. This helps to preserve the freshness element of the dish and minimize any greasy odors. Dry rice vermicelli noodles cook extremely quickly and puff up almost instantly when placed into hot oil, so it’s crucial to maintain a relatively low oil temperature and to turn them over and remove them from the oil rapidly. A slotted spoon or spider can be used to remove the noodles from the oil and allow the excess oil to drain off quickly.
To create the sauce, start by frying the flavor base of saam gluuhr paste (made from coriander roots, garlic and white peppercorns) with some pork lard until it becomes fragrant. Once the paste is aromatic, add shallots to the mix and allow them to sweat before adding the rest of the sauce ingredients. Be sure to let the ingredients fully dissolve, and allow the sauce to cook down and thicken slightly before adding the crispy noodles.
I often mention that, in Siamese cuisine, the use of multiple sour ingredients is a technique deployed to create more complex and vibrant salads and relishes. Similarly, in the past, cooks incorporated several types of sour notes into the sauce for mee graawp (หมี่กรอบ), including tamarind paste, lime juice, distilled vinegar and bitter orange.
These sour ingredients were cooked together with palm sugar, granulated sugar and salty ingredients like fermented soybean paste (tao chiao)(เต้าเจี้ยว) and fish sauce to create a multi-sour sauce that is fresh and light, sweetly nutty and savory.
Palm sugar, with its honey-like hugging properties, can mask some of the other flavors in a dish, while granulated sugar has a more transparent quality that can highlight fruity and nutty notes that would be obscured with palm sugar. Utilizing a combination of these sugars in the sauce sets its opacity and allows the fresh and zesty citrusy notes along with the noodles’ nuttiness to come through.
My preferred ratio for mee graawp sauce is 1.25 parts by volume of sour ingredients, and 2 parts of sweet ingredients to every part of the salty ingredient. To break it down further, the ratio is
2 1/2 parts sour:
- 1 part tamarind paste (น้ำมะขามเปียก)
- 1/2 part lime juice (น้ำมะนาว)
- 1/2 part 5% white vinegar (น้ําส้มสายชู)
- 1/2 part bitter orange juice (som.saa) (น้ำส้มซ่า)
2 parts salty:
- 1 part fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1 part fermented soybean paste (tao chiao) (เต้าเจี้ยว)
4 parts sweet:
- 2 parts palm sugar (น้ำตาลมะพร้าว)
- 2 parts granulated sugar (น้ำตาลทราย)
Some recipe variations of this dish suggest thickening the sauce by incorporating eggs; as the eggs cook, white and golden threads are produced. However, I opt to omit the eggs and keep the sauce shiny and transparent.
In recipes that include shrimp or river prawn meat, it is a good practice to add shrimp tomalley to the sauce as an additional thickener; it is rich in flavor and brings a pleasant orange hue to the sauce.
Exploring additional protein options for mee graawp (หมี่กรอบ)
I urge you to prepare and present mee graawp with consideration for its historical context as a dish enjoyed by the high society of old Bangkok; to be mindful regarding the cultural and culinary roots of the dish, and thus strive for the utmost standards of culinary art, paying attention to both the flavor and presentation of the dish. At the same time, it is also important to allow space for personal preferences and individual tastes.
For example, my personal preference is to stick to crispy noodles, and use no proteins other than the tofu and dried shrimp. While modern presentations of the dish often include whole giant river prawns on the plate to emphasize luxury, this approach does not necessarily align with the Siamese higher cuisine standards and dining habits, which dictate serving prawns headless, peeled and deveined, and cut into bite-sized pieces. Similarly, if pork or chicken are used in the dish, these meats should be sliced into small, uniform pieces; even dried shrimp should be sliced half-lengthwise.
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- 100 g dried rice vermicelli noodles (เส้นหมี่) เส้นหมี่, deep-fried
- 2 tablespoons bitter orange peel (som.saa)(ผิวนส้มซ่า) thinly sliced
For the sauce base:
- 1 tablespoon coriander roots (รากผักชี) scraped, washed and chopped
- 1 teaspoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
- 1/2 teaspoon white peppercorns (พริกไทย) (S1)
- 2 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง) thinly slices
- 1 tablespoon pork lard (น้ำมันหมู)
For the sauce Sauce
- pinch ground dried chili (พริกป่น) freshly roasted and ground
Sours: 2 1/2 parts
- 1 tablespoon tamarind paste (น้ำมะขามเปียก)
- 1/2 tablespoon lime juice (น้ำมะนาว)
- 1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar (น้ำส้มสายชูหมักจากข้าว)
- 1/2 tablespoon bitter orange juice (som.saa)(น้ำส้มซ่า)
Sweets: 4 parts
- 2 tablespoons palm sugar (น้ำตาลมะพร้าว)
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar (น้ำตาลทราย)
Salty/Umami: 2+ parts
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1 tablespoon fermented soybean paste (tao chiao)(เต้าเจี้ยว)
- pinch sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
Serve with (any)
- coriander leaves (ใบผักชี)
- grlic chives (ใบกุยช้าย)
- fresh red long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าแดง)
- bean sprouts (ถั่วงอก)
- deep-fried crispy dried shrimp (กุ้งแห้งทอด) halved if large
- fried raw unsalted peanuts (ถั่วลิสงทอดกรอบ) deep-fried ; can also be mixed with the noodles
- yellow firm soybean tofu (เต้าหู้เหลือง) deep-fried ; can also be mixed with the noodles
- pickled garlic (กระเทียมดอง) peeled and thinly sliced ; can also mixed with the noodles
Preparing the crispy noodles:
- Take the dried noodles and separate them into small, thin batches before frying: the noodles expand as they cook, so frying a large amount at once may cause them to stick together and not cook evenly.
- Heat the oil in a wok; place a small piece of noodle in the wok and wait for it to crisp up. This is the oil temperature that you should maintain while frying the rest of the noodles.
- One batch at a time, carefully place the small batches of noodles into the hot oil. Fry the noodles until they are crispy and light golden in color. Be careful not to overcook them, as they will become too dark and burnt.
- Use a slotted spoon or spider to remove the noodles from the hot oil, allowing any excess oil to drain off quickly. Be careful not to break the noodles as you remove them from the wok.
- After removing the noodles from the hot oil, transfer them to a large container that can hold them. The crispy noodles will expand greatly in size, so it is important to have enough room in the container to accommodate this.
Making the sauce
- In a small bowl, mix all the sauce ingredients together and set aside.
- Using a mortar and pestle, pound together the saam gluuhr paste, coriander roots, garlic and white peppercorns. Set aside.
- In a wok over medium heat, fry the saam gluuhr paste in pork lard until fragrant.
- Add the shallots and continue frying until they become transparent, deglazing the wok as needed.
- Add ground chili.
- Once the shallots are cooked, add the sauce ingredients to the wok and allow the sauce to thicken.
Stir-frying the noodles
- Adjust the heat of the sauce wok to low-very low.
- Add the crispy noodles to the wok in small batches, and fold them into the thickened sauce using two ladles.
- Gently fold the noodles into the sauce to ensure even coverage, being careful not to break the noodles. The noodles will remain crunchy, so it’s important to be gentle.
- Once the noodles are well mixed with the sauce, add the bitter orange peels and thin slices of pickled garlic.
- Serve the dish with chives, bean sprouts, deep-fried tofu, deep-fried dried shrimp, and an egg nest.
|↑1||Sai Yaowapa Daily menu consisting of แกงจืดเกาเหลา, ผัดหมี่กรอบ และขนมต้มขาว.|