There are a few dishes that my mom made growing up that I should have questioned before now. I just assumed that everything in her repertoire, aside from the spaghetti or hamburgers…and then pho and souffles that I asked her to make, was a fairly traditional Sri Lankan dish that her mother made and maybe her mother and her mother before. It occurred to me, decades after her making “rice sticks”–her name for the dish overall, not just the noodles–for me as a child that this doesn’t resemble many Sri Lankan recipes, that none of my relatives here serve this and that I didn’t see it on the tables in the homes I visited in Sri Lanka. I just called my mom to ask her about this. “Yes, we make them in Sri Lanka.” “Right but like, how far back? Did Nana teach you how to make this?” “Oh. No. They’re Singapore noodles. You get them in the Chinese restaurants in Sri Lanka.” Did she think many Sri Lankans made this? Like for dinner on a regular night or just for entertaining? “Oh we make them all the time, just whenever.” She was Skyping with her cousin in Sri Lanka when she took my call. I asked her to ask Aunty if she made these noodles too. She asked in Sinhalese and still, audible confusion in Aunty’s reply. Mom clarified about the type of noodle, “to eat with pork curry…” etc. Still, no acknowledgment. She tried a third time saying to my aunt: “The Singapore noodles!” My aunt: “OH! Yes! No.” Yes, she knew them, ate them, enjoyed them. No, she never made them, they ordered them from Chinese caterers.
We’ve learned two things, friends. My mom went to restaurants and liked what she ordered and then tried to make stuff at home and assumed everyone did that. We are the same person. And this is possibly maybe a style of Singapore dish that Sri Lankans eat (and maybe sometimes make) by way of Chinese restaurants and cooks in the south of Sri Lanka. More relevant to you, they’re tasty, they look nice on the table, they’re “different, a break from rice” which my mom notes as a key benefit before she says “they are very nice with pork curry or just a very spicy hot sauce.”
Mom’s Rice Sticks
1 250 g package thin rice sticks (rice vermicelli)
1 medium carrot, peeled
1 leek, trimmed
Small handful green beans, trimmed
1 celery stalk, trimmed and peeled lightly
Peanut or vegetable oil
10 curry leaves
2-3 shallots, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 tsp crushed chili flakes
1 c finely shredded cabbage
1 tsp ground cumin powder, divided
Add rice sticks to a large bowl or pot, cover with very hot water (not boiling), add some salt, stir and let sit for 3-5 minutes until they have softened to al dante. Drain well and let dry.
Meanwhile, cut carrots into 1 1/2 inch lengths, then cut each piece lengthwise into fine matchsticks. Cut the leek and beans to match and slice the celery thinly. Keep the vegetables separate but set aside.
Heat a wok or very large, high-sided skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of oil, then add the curry leaves and let it flavour the oil a few seconds. Add the shallots and stir-fry until translucent, add the garlic and chilies and stir-fry for 15 seconds. Add the cabbage and beans, stir to mix well, lower heat to medium and stir-fry until the beans are mostly cooked. Add the carrots, leeks and celery, season everything with salt and cook until the leeks are wilted and the carrots are cooked but still retain some crunch. Transfer to a bowl and wipe out the wok.
It is best to fry the rice sticks in two batches rather than overcrowd the pan. Unless you have a very large wok and can fry everything at once, proceed as follows. Reheat the wok over medium high heat and then add 2 tablespoons of oil, swirling to coat. When the oil is hot, add half of the rice sticks, stir-fry vigorously for a minute, season well with salt and half of the cumin, add half of the fried vegetables and mix very well to disperse throughout the dense pile of noodles. Stir-fry for another 2 minutes and transfer this batch to a serving plate. Wipe the wok clean and repeat with the remaining ingredients. Mom’s note: Enjoy with a pork or chicken dish or simply with hot sauce on the side.