Samui Wining & Dining
Oodles of Noodles

How to navigate your way around one of Thailand’s most popular dishes – noodle soup!

 

4Name one Thai dish. Quick! Go on – don’t think about it! It’s a certain bet that you either said tom yam or pad Thai. And this is rather odd, in a way. Last year a Reader’s Digest poll of its members placed pad Thai at the top of the list. But what’s odd is that the Thai people themselves don’t actually eat it that often, it’s more popular with tourists.

      But the one thing that the Thai people do go for in a big way is noodle soup. You’ll see these little street stalls all over the place, particularly at night. One of the most startling things about Thailand (for the newcomer, anyway) is the way the street landscape suddenly changes after dark. Suddenly, on more or less any broad strip of pavement, outside banks or shops, a mobile kitchen arrives complete with plastic chairs and tables. It used to be a common sight to see whole families turn up on one motorbike to eat – freshly scrubbed and ready for bed in their nightclothes, adults included!

      Of course, it’s not only at night that you’re able to tuck into noodle soup – there are many permanent stalls, too. Guay tiao, as it’s called in the Thai language (say it ‘kway-tee-ow’, with the stress on the last syllable), is quite possibly one of the most healthy and nourishing meals you can fit in one

bowl. And, with its meat stock and range of fresh vegetables, contains just about all the protein and vitamins (and many of the minerals, too) that the body needs.

      Now and then, I come across visitors to Thailand who seem worried about the cleanliness or health aspects of eating street food. My reply is simple, particularly when it comes to noodle soup. Look for a stall that’s full of Thai people. Firstly, if it wasn’t impeccably clean, none of the Thai customers would want to eat there. And, second, if it’s busy it’s popular, and that means this place is particularly good value for money.

       I have to confess that I went for years without realising just how many soup variations are available. Yes, the different types of noodles are obvious, as they are all on display. But not the actual soupy stuff, which I’ll get to in a minute. There’s basically a choice of five types of noodle here. The yellow stringy ones that look a bit like spaghetti are popular. These are known as ba mee leuang, with the yellow colour coming from the use of egg. The broad, flat ones are sen yai and the smaller version, sen lek. The ones that are actually the very thin rice vermicelli are sen mee. Then there are the glass noodles made from mung beans, wun sen.

       Most noodle stalls have a choice of meats, including pork, red pork, beef, chicken, chopped liver, and sometimes duck, fish or prawns. The soup stock is usually pork or chicken-based and flavoured with salt, pepper, garlic and coriander. The mix is enhanced by the addition of plentiful green vegetables, bean sprouts, morning glory, often meatballs or meat-stuffed wantons, and occasionally tofu. The basic, clear-coloured soup is known as nam sai, but this is only the start of the fun!

      Take the basic guay tiao (noodle soup) nam sai (clear stock) and add chilli paste, chilli powder, crushed peanuts, lime juice, sugar and fish sauce, and you’ve got what amounts to tom yam noodle soup! And that’s exactly what this is called – guay tiao tom yam. It’s sweeter (and spicier!) than the basic soup, and comes in pork, fish and seafood varieties, although not all stalls keep the last two sorts.

       Another very popular variation is still known as guay tiao ruea. The word ruea means ‘boat’, and this is the same recipe that used to be sold by the floating soup sellers who toured around the canals of Bangkok. The special ingredient is the blood from pigs or cows, which is poured into the soup right before serving, giving the mix its distinctive taste. Available with pork, beef, meatballs or liver, it’s full of bean sprouts, morning glory and parsley, and quite delicious.

      You’ll find that there are other varieties, particularly in Bangkok and in the north and northeast of Thailand. But these are the three most-common basic options. Although we’re not done yet! Sold separately and in bags you’ll see pork crackling (cap moo). Adding a handful varies the flavour and texture tremendously. Plus, on every table, you’ll have a little set of jars with seasonings (known as puang krueang prung) – fish sauce, chilli powder, sugar, vinegar with sliced chillies. (Plus the chopsticks: this is one of the very few Thai dishes they are used with.) Finally, vegetarians can opt for any of the above minus the meat/fish, although the stock might still pose a problem.

      Is it any wonder that this genre is so popular? It’s a simple enough thing, noodle soup. But with several variations plus a wide range of meat, fish and seafood, and also the facility to fine-tune the seasonings to your taste, it’s rare to see any two bowls the same at a busy soup stall – there’s just oodles of different noodles!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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