As I’ve mentioned before, my dad is awesome at tasting new foods at restaurants and then coming home and replicating (often improving) on those dishes. Nam ya (known by its full Thai name as kanom jeen nam ya or ขนมจีนน้ำยา) is one of those dishes. We had tried it at a family friend’s house years ago and every once in a while, especially when the weather turns chilly, I’ll request my dad to whip up a batch. He used to purchase whole catfish from the Vietnamese grocery stores, but then the work to flake the fish off the bones was time-consuming. He found catfish fillets, vacuum-sealed and frozen, at Costco and the final product was still pretty darn good (and less time in the kitchen means more time with family!). I found some recipes online for a traditional version that resembles noodles coated with curry sauce, but ours is a noodle soup version sure to warm your soul on a cold night.
1 10.5-ounce package of rice vermicelli
3 catfish fillets
2 14-ounce cans of chicken broth (súp gà) * keep one can for the 2nd step
3-4 kaffir lime leaves, whole
1 stalk of fresh lemongrass, cut into 2-inch chunks
3-4 slices of galangal
1 4-oz can nam ya curry paste (yellow or red – you won’t need the whole can)
1 6.8 fluid ounce (200 mL) carton of coconut milk (I use kara brand coconut cream – it comes in a convenient Tetra-Pak box)
1-2 tablespoons fish sauce, more or less to taste
1 bunch of long green beans (đậu đũa in Vietnamese), cut into 1/4-inch pieces
Sprigs of Thai basil
A few handfuls of bean sprouts (be sure to remove the roots and rinse the sprouts in cold water)
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook the vermicelli according to package instructions (probably 2-4 minutes). Tip: unlike pasta, the noodles will not feel al dente until they’ve been drained, rinsed, and set aside for a few minutes. You’ll want to take the noodles off the heat once the timer goes off, even though the noodles will seem too firm. If you wait until the noodles have the right texture straight from the pot, they will overcook and become mushy after you rinse and drain.
In a large pot (at least 5 quarts), add the chicken broth. Keep one of the cans and fill it with water; add to the pot. Repeat once more. Bring to a boil this 28 ounces of broth + 28 ounces of water solution. Add the lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal. Cook the fish fillets in this fragrant broth. It should only take a few minutes, longer if the fillets were frozen.
When the fillets are cooked through, transfer the fillets to a bowl. Using a fork or the back of a spoon, flake the fish into a fine mash. Mix in about 2/3 of the can of curry paste.
Add the fish back to the pot. Pour in the coconut milk and season with fish sauce. Simmer for a few minutes.
Prepare for serving: in each bowl, add the vermicelli. Top with a handful of bean sprouts and a scant handful of chopped long beans. Ladle in the broth, being sure to get plenty of fishy bits. Garnish with Thai basil and chili salt (see below). This recipe will yield about 4-5 servings.
If you have it on hand, you could whip up a quick batch of chili salt by grinding 1 Thai chili with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Chili salt is pretty shelf-stable and tastes great with fruit.
Thanks, Dad, for figuring out the recipe and for teaching me how to make it myself!