Samui Wining & Dining
Oodles of Noodles

Some call it Thai spaghetti. Others call it an economic index. I call it delicious.


5What’s the most important Japanese invention of the 20th century? Go on – have a guess. All right then, let me help you. Could it be the compact disk? Ok then, what about karaoke? Give up? Well, according to a national survey carried out in Japan in the year 2000, the answer is – instant noodles. Every day, 135 million cups or packets of instant noodles are consumed worldwide – that’s 85 billion a year! And China accounts for a little over half of all these, but with, oddly, Indonesia coming in second place. However, if we work it out per head, then it’s South Korea that’s in the lead with 69 packs being eaten by each person, each year. But the figure for Thailand may surprise you. Because each Thai person eats an average of only 6 instant cup-a-noodles a year. And why is this? The answer is because the real thing is on every street corner. It’s not only far more nourishing, but it’s really cheap.


Noodles were a creation of the ancient Chinese, who first began making them from wheat flour at around the time of Christ (although the remains of some earlier noodles, estimated to be 4,000 years old, have been found preserved in the Yellow River region of the same country). You’ll find a lot of Chinese influences in Thai cuisine, and for two very distinct reasons. Firstly, the people originally known as the ‘Tai’ steadily migrated for hundreds of years from South West China into Laos, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand. This was around the 10th century; and what was later to develop into Thai cuisine had many similarities to Szechwan Chinese dishes. And, secondly, there was a steady sea-trade between China and Thailand, dating from the latter half of the 17th century.


Although noodles can be made out of wheat, eggs, mung beans, potatoes or even grass seeds, the vast majority of Thai noodles are made from rice flour. The passing exceptions here are the popular ‘cellophane’ noodles (made from mung beans) that often find their way into Thai soups, and the yellow-egg noodles that are sometimes favoured on roadside noodle stalls. Oh – and just by way of a small test for you – what’s the difference between noodles and pasta? Answer: not much at all. ‘Pasta’ is what you call it when you make noodles from semolina flour.


And, speaking of noodle stalls, this is by far the best way to experience and enjoy the real Thai ‘noodle soup’. In the Thai language, this dish is called kwai-teeow, with the stress on the last syllable. And the other word that you’ll need to know is sen; the word for noodle. And these come in lots of styles: thin, thick, round, flat, etc. But if you’re not happy with your command of Thai, then the easiest thing is to just point at what you want and smile!


A typical noodle stall is a glass-sided box, next to a stainless-steel surface on which stands the soup pot. The different sorts of noodles are on view, as are the other ingredients. Although it’s possible to ask for your noodles ‘dry’, this is unusual as it’s the broth that’s the best part. It’s rich and it’s delicious and it’s full of vegetables and nourishment – and in case you’re wondering, not at all spicy. That’s your choice, later. Just about every stall will offer chicken or pork to go with this, but look out for beef, crab or duck, too. And then you sit and wait for a few minutes, and, when it comes, add spices and condiments to taste. Easy! Well – maybe not entirely so, unless you can handle chopsticks. In keeping with the Chinese-noodle-connection, this is just about the only Thai dish that’s eaten with chopsticks – although you’ll get a spoon, too. And kwai-teeow will cost you between 25 and 35 baht, depending upon where you are.


Now, Thailand’s got a lot of rice, and rice makes rice flour. And rice flour makes Thai noodles. And, although Thailand is a major exporter of ‘cooking’ noodles, the sales of the previously mentioned instant noodles are expanding rapidly to countries all over the world, second largest exporter, after China. The USA is a major target market, but there is stiff competition from the long-established Chinese Ramen brand. And so the leading Thai manufacturer, Mama, has adapted its product-line, accordingly. Whereas the majority of the USA’s pot-noodle consumption favours middle-of-the-road flavours such as ‘wild duck’ or crispy pork’, Mama is going for the trendier section of the market, with the more costly ‘egg prawn curry’, ‘pad Thai’ or ‘tom yam gung’.


Mama, it seems, has turned out to be something of a major player, not only in these circles, but in those of international economics, too. In the mid-1980s, one of Mama’s executives noticed that in times of economic recession, the sales of Mama’s instant noodles rose accordingly. Indeed, during the East Asian financial crisis following the collapse of the Thai baht in 1997, so much Mama was being consumed in Thailand that the government stepped in to sponsor the addition of vitamins and minerals to the packs, and subsidised the selling price.


But, since this time, the ‘Mama Index’(as it has since become known) has become an internationally adopted economic yardstick. Quite simply, when times are hard, people turn to cheaper alternatives. And so – the favourite of impoverished students the world over – that humble pot-noodle has now become a significant factor in the measurement of economic recession, worldwide!


The Japanese have invented some curious things. There’s the umbrella with a clear plastic tube that reaches to the ground. There’s the long stick with a padded top to rest your chin on when having to stand up on trains. There’s even a battery charger that’s powered by a hamster inside a wheel. But the best one of all was in 1958 when Nissin Foods came up with the ‘instant noodle’. It’s not a patch on what you’ll get in the little Thai noodle stalls, but it took the world by storm! 


Rob De Wet


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