Umami bombs in the form of dried fish curl in this tangle of fried noodles.
Long before I heard the word “umami” I was addicted to the savory fifth flavor. I blame pouring Accent directly on my tongue as a young boy. Accent has precisely one ingredient: monosodium glutamate. In terms of umami overload, it was the equivalent of Peter Parker’s radioactive spider bite. I’ve had superpowers ever since, OK not really. I did develop a keen palate for umami though, which brings me to the subject of today’s post: the use of umami bombs—little bursts of flavor in two Southeast Asian noodle dishes I ate recently.
The first comes from Thailand via Laos and Woodside, Queens. “Spicy noodle with Lao sausage real Thai,” read the menu at Thailand’s Center Point. (For the record, everything at this place that I’ve been reacquainting myself with of late is real Thai.) The tangle of noodles ($11.50) is riddled with generous chunks of chewy sour sausage and fried dry chilies, a nice touch which enables one to adjust the heat in the dish. There was another component: little almost imperceptible nuggets of fishy flavor.
“Is there pickled fish in this?” I asked the waitress, who looked surprised by my question. Thanks to Instagrammer @gustasian, I now know that the little umami bombs were dried fish. (more…)
Som tum, the Thai papaya salad, really a slaw of sorts is a favorite of mine, crunchy spicy, and often possessed of formidable level of spice. As with most Thai food I prefer to eat it where Thai folks gather, specifically Zabb Elee. I like Zabb because it’s open late and because they have seven types of som tum. These range from a pretty standard Thai version with dried shrimp and peanuts ($8) to the Lao style som tum poo plara ($8). The latter is notable not only because Lao grub is as rare in this town as a humble Yankee fan, but because it does not hold back on the fishy, funky, fiery flavors of Southeast Asia.
Half of a preserved blue crab—salty and funky yet still sweet and juicy—sits atop a tangle of crunchy papaya, long beans, hemispheres of Thai eggplant, and, for added crunch, Thai chicharron. The whole affair sits in a shallow pool of liquid that’s a study in fishy, spicy, and citrusy flavors. It’s best ordered spicy with a side of kao neaw, Thai sticky rice ($2). I like to roll the sticky rice into balls and use it to sop up the liquid. Don’t be surprised if your waitress asks if you’ve been to Thailand when she sees you eating like a local.
Zabb Elee, 71-28 Roosevelt Ave, Jackson Heights, 718-426-7992