Thai Fast Food - The Wonderful World of Noodles
Welcome to Chiangmai and Chiangrai Magazine
By far some of the most popular dishes in Thailand are noodle based...and these dishes are probably the most popular among Westerners. This article from Welcome to Chiangmai and Chiangrai Magazine helps demystify the wide range of different noodle dishes and helps you choose between all the different varieties available.
Thai Fast Food - The Wonderful World of Noodles
The discerning first-time traveler to Thailand might have noticed that, if not officially stated, the Thai national sport is eating well. As well as being bewildered by the variety of food which greets one on Thai luncheon and dinner menus, the traveler might overlook or not partake of a tasty and budget-wise category of food that provides delicious lunches, in-between meal snacks, or tasty tidbits at any time of the day or night--Thai fast food. The reason the traveler might only minimally partake of this is simply not knowing the range of things available, or how to order it. The Thais had fast food hundreds of years before Kentucky Fried or McDonalds hit the Siamese shores and the Thai term can be literally and amusingly translated as 'the urgent plate'.
Ubiquitous to Thai fast food are noodles, the Thai-Chinese term for which is 'guay tiew' which offer diners a subtle range of tastes to suit every palate. In any large Thai city, noodle shops can be found open at virtually any time of night or day, ranging from fairly opulent permanent fixtures to portable establishments which appear on the curb side of the street at any time of night. Noodle shops are most often categorized by the sort of protein they offer with their noodles, beef, pork, chicken, duck, or fish, and some offer sorts of exotic noodle dishes which may seem strange to the Western palate.
Noodle shops most often lack menus, and the diner usually orders verbally, telling the cook what sort of noodles are desired, how to fix them, and what of the choice of side dishes to include in the bowl.
When approaching the vendor standing near an ever-bubbling cauldron of broth, you will see a glass case that contains the noodles and side dishes. It's time to decide what kind of noodles to eat. These are fairly standard to every sort of noodle shop, and the names are provided in Thai so the reader may point to these when ordering noodles if the proprietor of the noodles shop does not speak English.
'Zen Mee Khao' are very fine white noodles made of rice flour, about the size of Italian 'angel hair pasta'. They are very fine textured and tasty when eaten with broth. 'Zen Lek' are medium-sized rice-flour noodles and are chewier than the smaller sort. They are equally tasty eaten with broth, or without. 'Zen Yai' are the broadest rice flour noodles to be found in the case. They have a nice chewy texture and it is up to the diner to choose to eat them with broth or plain. 'Bah Mee' are Chinese style egg noodles. They are usually yellow and about the same size as 'zen lek' rice flour noodles. They are especially tasty when eaten with pork or duck noodle side dishes. Some shops may offer another choice of Bah Mee 'Bah Mee Yok' which are also egg noodles, but are green from the ingredient of pandanus leaf. 'Gao Lao'. Perhaps you'd like to try the meat and all the side dishes, but you don't care for noodles. It is common for the Thais to order this way also. Just order 'Gao Lao' and 'Khao Plao' or a dish of plain rice. You'll be served a bowl of everything in the broth except the noodles. This is most commonly ordered in beef noodle shops.
Once the choice of noodles has been made, the next major decision is whether to have your noodles with broth or without. The broth bubbling away in the cauldron is usually bone stock made from the animal in which the noodle shop specializes; pork, beef, chicken, duck, or fish. If the choice is to eat the noodles with broth, indicate 'naam' and if the reader wants the noodles dry, indicate 'haeng'. The only fluid in the bowl of noodles ordered 'haeng', or dry, will come from the broth adhering to the noodles when they are quick- boiled and the various flavoring sauces.
Once these two choices have been made, the decision of side dishes to add to the noodles will depend upon what kind of noodle shop the diner has patronized.
Pork noodle shops can usually be identified from the slabs of red pork hanging from hooks in the glass case above the broth cauldron. Once the diner has chosen the preferred kind of noodles and whether to have them with broth or not, any or all of the following can be included:
'Moo Sup' is raw, chopped pork which is placed in a strainer, quick boiled in the broth cauldron, and added to the bowl of noodles. 'Moo Daeng', is red cooked pork which is roasted with a flavoring sauce that gives the meat its characteristic red outer coating. It is very tasty with noodles or in other dishes. 'Loog Chin Moo' are Thai pork meat balls which are different in taste and texture from what foreign visitors might expect. They are usually chewy and highly recommended. 'Giaw Moo', are Chinese style noodle dumplings. In a pork noodle shop they may be stuffed with chopped pork, chopped shrimp, or crab meat. The cook will quick boil some in a strainer immersed in the broth if the diner wishes them fresh, or already deep-fat fried dumplings are displayed.
Once the diner has completed the order, the cook will quick boil the noodles in a strainer immersed in the broth and also boil or heat whatever side dishes have been ordered in the same way. While the diner watches the cook will toss the noodles in a bowl with a bit of vegetable oil in which garlic has been fried crisp, small bits of pickled lettuce which impart a nice flavor but are very sour if eaten, add chopped scallions and coriander greens, and MSG. If the diner does not want MSG in the noodles, indicate 'yaa sai 'Phong Shu Ros'. Already cooked pieces of water morning glory, Chinese broccoli, or fresh lettuce may be added according to the practice of the individual noodle shop.
It is now up to the diner to flavor the bowl of noodles according to taste. Condiments available in almost every sort of noodle shop are placed in small covered dishes on each table and include granulated sugar, dried red chili powder (hot!), sour vinegar in which mild green chilies have been soaked, vinegar in which hotter chopped chillies have been soaked, and salty fish sauce. Sweet black soy sauce and a slightly sweet chilli sauce may be available in some shops. The four cardinal tastes in Thai cuisine are chili hot, sour, sweet, and salty. Thai culinary esthetics suggest that at least three of the four tastes should be present in the assembled dishes of a Thai meal, or in a one dish meal like noodles. However, readers must experiment and decide what suits their individual taste. Once the pork noodles are ready, dig in with chop sticks and bon appetite!
Beef noodle shops will not have anything easily identifiable hanging in the glass case, like red pork, but may have a green crescent on the shop sign indicating to Moslem diners that the food served is appropriate according to Islamic dietary laws. Once the choice of noodles and whether to be eaten with broth or dry have been made, the possible side dishes to order include:
'neua sod' which are small bits of raw beef which will be quick boiled until done in the broth cauldron and added to the noodles.
'neua peuay'' or stewed beef. These are pieces of meat which have been stewed with condiments until very soft and have a flavor something like corned beef.
'Loog Chin Neua', or beef meat balls. A mainstay of beef noodles, these are usually the same size and texture as pork meat balls but made with beef.
'Khreuang Nai' or Innards. Beef noodle shops which offer an especially spicy kind of beef noodles called 'Naam Tok' may offer a selection of beef innards including intestines, tripe, liver, lungs, heart, and spleen, which are chopped, quick boiled and added to the noodles at the diner's discretion.
Once the order has been placed, the cook will prepare the noodles in much the same way as described for pork noodles, although a savory flavoring sauce akin to soy sauce may be added. Again, once the reader has flavored the bowl of noodles to taste with condiments, enjoy!
If the reader wishes to enjoy duck meat with noodles, Thailand is a duck lover's paradise as the meat prepared three different ways is available. A shop offering duck is easy to distinguish by the whole cooked duck carcasses hung with their necks looped over a bar in the glass case. The type of duck offered can be noted from the color of the skin on the duck carcasses.
'Ped Yaang' is barbecued duck, usually basted with honey. The meat is tender, slightly sweet, and almost always delicious. The reader can tell barbecued duck by its bright red skin. Barbecued duck meat in such shops is often served separate on a plate with pickled ginger as an appetizer or over rice, as well as with noodles.
'Ped Phalow'. Phalow duck has been stewed until tender in water flavored with a bundle of Chinese herbs and condiments which gives the duck its characteristic dark brown colored skin and slightly pungent, unique flavor. Phalow duck is one of the necessary offering foods for the ancestors on Chinese New Year. The meat is slightly sweet with a characteristic fragrance from the condiments. Whole duck eggs and chunks of the slightly coarse Thai tofu are also stewed in the mixture and served over rice.
'Ped Toon' is free range duck from the farm rather than ranch raised duck. It is boiled until the meat is tender and served in a thick broth flavored with another set of characteristic Chinese herbs and condiments. The stock is fragrant and slightly medicinal tasting--but delicious albeit an acquired taste, and thought to be good for the health.
Barbecued duck and Phalow Duck are far more often found for sale than farm duck. Duck meat prepared all three ways is served both over rice and with the usual range of noodles.
Shops offering fish noodles are not as common as the other sorts referred to here, but offer a tasty alternative in noodles to the adventuresome diner. Noodles with broth might be recommended here as the broth stock at fish noodle shops is often more flavorsome than the more bland broth stocks at other sorts of noodle shops. Many fish noodle shops sell their broth and fish meat balls in bulk as well as serving them to customers. Unlike pork or beef noodle shops, fish noodle shops will not have fresh fish meat to be quick boiled and added to the noodles. The usual side dishes include:
'Loog Chin Plaa', or fish meat balls. These come in two forms. There are round ones about the same size and shape as beef or pork meat balls but of a slightly softer texture, and another sort which come in the form of a long roll. The cook will slice a few slices from the roll and add them to the noodle bowl. Although both sorts of meat balls are made from fish, they are not alike in terms of flavor or texture and both are highly recommended.
'Giaw Plaa', or dumplings stuffed with chopped fish. These dumplings have a more finished appearance than the sort sold in pork noodle shops and look more like ravioli. Some fish noodle shops may offer these alternatively stuffed with chopped shrimp.
Chicken noodles shops are less common to find. The format is largely the same as the other types of noodle shops described here. The side dishes available are:
'Neua Gai' or simply chicken meat. Chicken served at such establishments has already been steamed and will simply be sliced and added to the bowl of noodles.
'Nawng Gai'or chicken leg. If our readers prefer dark chicken meat order this. Chicken meat will be boneless, but a whole chicken leg with bone intact will be served if this is ordered.
'Loog chin gai' or chicken meat balls. Again the ubiquitous meat ball, here made with chicken meat is available. Some shops may offer chicken meat balls which have dark specks in the meat. These meat balls are made with sea weed and quite tasty.
Again, once you have you selected and have been served, flavor to your taste any of these noodle selection from the wonderful world of Thai noodles and Enjoy!
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