Recipes

Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao)

Noodles, particularly rice udon and egg, have taken over my kitchen, and my diet, as of late. It began with an attempt to re-create some of the dishes from our favourite Thai place, mainly Pad Thai and these Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao); then I moved on to cold sesame Sichuan skinny egg noodles inspired by the memory of a fantastic trip to an authentic Sichuan restaurant in Montreal over a decade ago, at least, it seemed authentic to me at the time, given that, up until that point in my life, my frame of reference for Chinese food was a chicken ball combo plate; and finally, for times when I was not in the mood for spicy, Japanese inspired miso udon noodle dishes. The evenings that I have found myself lying on the couch watching a good show with a bowl of saucy noodles perched on my chest have been many.

Just as a side note, there is something about mentioning TV watching in the context of food writing that strikes me as amusingly, if not somewhat embarrassingly, unsophisticated. If the daily activities described in much popular food writing were any indication, I should be spending my afternoons stepping outside onto cobblestone streets to explore some medieval European city, or driving a pastel bicycle along a dirt road flanked by fields of wildflowers with a basket of fresh produce flung over the handlebars, or reminiscing about that summer I spent in some seaside town in the mediterranean, soaking in the foodways of the locals. But no, in my real-life downtime I am lying on the couch slurping noodles while watching prison break on Netflix. I'm just going to own it. It is the “golden age” of television, as they say, and saucy spicy noodles are everything.

At the risk of putting a damper on the excitement that should surround these drunken noodles (Pad Kee Mao), I want to segue into a few thoughts related to their sodium content*. On the one hand, this is a relatively healthy dish. Thai food, like many Asian cuisines, is primarily plant-based. The ingredients are whole-foods or minimally processed and contain none of the "bad fats". On the other hand, anything that contains even the smallest amount of soy sauce and/or fish sauce is relatively high in sodium. 

As a general rule, I try not to focus too much on individual nutrients, or "good" and "bad" foods (you know, like I am doing right now). However, a recent post from Marion Nestle's blog about the sodium content of restaurant food has stuck with me and left me more vigilant about my sodium intake than I otherwise am. The infographic she references from a VOX article really needs to be seen to be believed. It features a number of commonly ordered selections from popular (American) restaurant chains, and measures their sodium content against a McDonalds small fry. For instance, they claim that TGI Friday's pecan-crusted chicken salad contains an amount of sodium equivalent to 12 1/2 orders of small McDonalds fries. Twelve and a half! 

This must be a deliberately deceptive move on the part of the restaurant industry. That sodium is in there because it is an easy, and cheap, way to make food taste better so that people will buy more of it. But surely those in the restaurant industry, and those who regulate it, know that the average customer probably has no idea that it is even possible for a salad to contain so much salt; that if they are choosing to eat at a restaurant, and not a fast food joint, they expect the food to be relatively healthier; that if they are choosing a salad, they believe they are making a healthy choice. This hidden salt (to say nothing of added sugars) is just one of many examples of how our food environment works against people's best efforts to make good food choices - a topic I intend to write about at length elsewhere.

In any case, the takeaway here should be to proceed with caution when eating at restaurants, not to cut salt out of your diet entirely - especially if that would mean missing out on these drunken noodles. Most of the salt that we consume comes from processed and ultra-processed foods, fast food, and restaurant meals, not our salt shakers. Brazil's recent groundbreaking food guide contains some of the best advice, in my opinion, for eating a healthy diet. Among other things it suggests that we cook as much as we can, from scratch, at home. If we do that, sodium intake should take care of itself.

*Although nutritional science is relevant to my work on the cultural politics of food, I am not a nutritionist. My knowledge of what is healthy, nutritionally, is partial and approached and interpreted through a social science perspective and skill set.

Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao)

Serves: 3-4

Two bowls of drunken noodles (pad kee mao) with a small bowl of peanuts and two water glasses

Ingredients:
    Sauce
  • ¼ cup low sodium soy sauce
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil

  • Noodles
  • 225 grams Thai rice noodles,
  • 4 birds-eye chilies, very finely chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely diced
  • ½ red bell pepper, cut into strips
  • ¼ large eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 baby bok choy, sliced into strips, washed and dried
  • 1 small roma tomato, chopped
  • ½ cup holy or Thai basil*, roughly chopped

  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup peanuts, roughly chopped

Instructions:
  1. PREPARE NOODLES: Fill a large bowl with very hot water, soak the noodles until they begin to soften, but are still too hard to eat, they will continue to cook in the wok or skillet.**
  2. In a large skillet or cast iron, heat a thin layer of oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and thai chilies and sauté until they begin to brown, 1-2 minutes.
  3. Add tomato, bell pepper and eggplant and sauté, stirring frequently, until the eggplant softens and browns, about 5 minutes (add a bit of the sauce if the vegetables begin to burn before they cook).
  4. PREPARE SAUCE: Meanwhile, wisk together soy sauce, fish sauce, white sugar, and sesmae oil in a small bowl. Set aside.
  5. Add the noodles. Pour enough sauce over the noodles to coat. Cook until noodles are just about at your desired texture, stirring constantly
  6. Add the bok choy and basil, stirring for another minute, until they begin to wilt
  7. Remove skillet from the heat, transfer the noodles into bowls, and top with chopped peanuts and scallions. Serve immediately.

* Italian Basil will work too, but won't taste the same. Holy basil is worth tracking down, if at all possible. 

** This may be obvious to some, but for the uninitiated (as I was a few months ago) cooking rice noodles can be tricky, and I have found that the best technique for getting the right texture -soft but not mushy- tends to vary by the size and brand of the noodle, and the package instructions don't always seem to produce the right consistency. I've found trial and error to be the best way to figure it out.

This is a meatless version (sprinkling 1/4 cup of peanuts over each bowl gives them one serving of protein), but the noodles taste great with chicken, beef, or shrimp. Add and stir-fry any meat or fish before adding the noodles.

Cucumber Salad with Spicy Thai Dressing

It’s been a running joke that it feels like we’ve been living on a commune around here lately - at least when it comes to sharing the kitchen responsibilities. M and my sister, who lives just around the corner, have been working together on a project, and thus often spend afternoons working from home around our dining room table. One evening, since she was already here, we decided to invite her partner over and have a barbecue. The boys went out for the meat and, with an excitement arguably disproportionate to the discovery of sale meat, returned with two enormous packs of chicken drumsticks. One pack went into the freezer, one pack went onto the BBQ, and they since went back to get a few more packs before the sale ended. And so began our quest to use up all that chicken. We have had barbecue chicken probably six or seven times in the last few weeks, each time dividing the cooking and cleaning between the four of us. My sister’s partner has cooked the chicken, and I have made the sides. I’m thinking of it as the summer of chicken, or, from my perspective, the summer of sides, something I can’t say without thinking of George Costanza, in this scene, triumphantly declaring that this summer, will be his.

Coming up with a succession of sides to accompany the chicken was fun. It was an opportunity for me to improvise and experiment without having to produce an entire meal every night. And, it gave me practice cooking for other people, which is something I’m always nervous to do in fear that something might go wrong. To go with the chicken I’ve made eggplant caponata with focaccia bread, this amazing Mexican street corn salad that everyone loved, mixed roasted vegetables with feta and basil oil, and a grapefruit kale salad. Out of all of the chicken sides I’ve made, this cucumber salad was both one of my favourites, and most definitely the easiest. It's crunchy, fresh, spicy, and quick to make, especially if you have a mandolin.

The idea that I would make and recommend a salad consisting almost entirely of cucumbers is surprising. Cucumbers are one of those ingredients that I used to dislike, but eventually came around to after forcing myself to continue to try them in new ways. Foods like feta and sushi, now two of my favourite things to eat, also fall into this category of foods I've learned to love.

That there is a cultural or learned component to taste preferences [1] is something that, I think, North American food culture rarely acknowledges. Perhaps this is just one of the many outgrowths of the neoliberal need to attribute anything and everything to individual rational choice - and this choice alone. We don’t like to think that our thoughts, behaviours, or preferences could possibly be influenced by anything outside of our own conscious deliberation. Or, perhaps, more concretely, it is a function of the narrow range of flavours and textures that characterize mainstream North American cuisine. 

The belief that food preferences aren't learned seems to also characterize discussions of the related issue of “children’s food” and kids’ natural propensities towards picky and/or bland eating. While there is evidence that children have some biological preference for sweeter foods [2], this preference can be short lived [3], and the notion that children will only eat bland foods becomes difficult to sustain when it is put into cross-cultural context. Most of the world’s cuisines are far less bland, and often far spicier than the standard North American fare, and are, presumably, consumed by adults and children alike. It seems that, in many cases, we need to become familiar with a food, flavour, or texture before we can determine whether or not we like it. For instance, there is evidence that children are more likely to accept foods if they have been exposed to those flavours while in the womb, or through breast milk [4]. 

My distaste for the crunchy green cucumber, however, was perhaps not the result of a lack of exposure. Both my Grandpas proudly grew cucumbers every year in their gardens, and, to them, salted cucumber and mayo sandwiches were a big treat, but I just couldn’t get on board. No, I think that it was a textural thing. I have trouble with produce that tastes as though it consists mostly of water. Too bland? Too grainy? Too much like slushy ice? I don’t know. There is no logic to this. These are all good things, especially when you add spicy Thai flavours. Though I love cucumbers now, I still have not come around to the similarly textured melon. I’ll have to work on that

 

[1] Birch, L. L. (1999). Development of Food Preferences. Annual Review of Nutrition, 19(1), 41–62. 

[2] Mennella, J. A., Pepino, M. Y., & Reed, D. R. (2005). Genetic and Environmental Determinants of Bitter Perception and Sweet Preferences. Pediatrics, 115(2), e216–e222. 

[3] Beauchamp, G. K., & Moran, M. (1982). Dietary experience and sweet taste preference in human infants. Appetite, 3(2), 139–152. 

[4] Mennella JA, Jagnow CJ, Beauchamp GK. Prenatal and post-natal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics 107: e88, 2001. 


Ingredients

2 large cucumbers, very thinly sliced
½ orange bell pepper, finely diced
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1 teaspoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
2 tablespoons scallions, finely chopped
2 red Thai chilies*, finely chopped
2 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ginger, grated
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Salt & pepper, to taste

 

Instructions

In a small bowl, whisk together rice vinegar, maple syrup, and sesame oil. Add chopped cilantro, scallions, chilies, garlic, and grated ginger. Set aside.

Slice the cucumbers using a mandolin** on the 1/16th of an inch setting. In a large bowl, toss the cucumber slices and the diced bell pepper. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss to coat. Sprinkle the salad with sesame seeds, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.***

*This gives the salad a fair bit of heat. If you want it less spicy, use only one pepper and/or remove the seeds. 

**A mandolin is not absolutely necessary, but the thin slices create a nice texture. If you do not have a mandolin, slice with a knife as thinly as possible.  

*** This salad is best eaten right away. It will keep fine for a few days in the fridge, but it will quickly become watery.