I try to post something every two weeks or so, but with the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej last week, it seemed silly to natter on about noodles while the country was still newly mourning. Don’t get me wrong, it is always silly to natter about noodles, but sometimes that is all that we (I) have.
One of the great silver linings about taking taxis in Bangkok is the opportunity to listen to whatever the taxi driver is listening to during a traffic jam. What we were listening to was a very long, involved radio interview with a royal palace cook hailing from Suphanburi, because Thais are fascinated by what royalty like to eat. What I learned was that the King was partial to a nice piece of steamed fish paired with Hollandaise or a lemon sauce, simple Thai culinary standbys like gang som (Southern-style sour curry), and childhood favorites from his time in Switzerland, taught to the cook personally by Princess Srinagarindra, the King’s mother. It was nice to know that the King was fond of dishes from his childhood, too.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you will probably know that I like to wax poetic on my own childhood favorite, kanom jeen nam ngiew, a Northern Thai noodle dish that my father used to call “Thai spaghetti”. In the North, it is typically made with the fermented Mon-style rice noodles found all over the South called kanom jeen, but you can also find it served with rice noodles, just like they appear to do in Laos (where, to make things more interesting, they call it “kao soi”): a stew of minced pork with tomatoes, chilies, shallots, and garlic over a base of fermented soy beans and topped with bean sprouts and coriander leaves. In the North, they add well-stewed pork ribs, cubes of congealed pork blood and the requisite dok ngiew, witchy-looking blossoms that resemble broomstick ends and bring a chewy texture and floral taste to the brew. If one is lucky, the ribs have been cooked until the bones have nearly disintegrated into the sauce, the blossoms are thick and plentiful, and the dish comes to you with a generous dusting of deep-fried garlic. And if you are really lucky, the chef has been liberal with the tua nao, the fermented soybean discs that form the basis for flavor in Northern Thai cooking, much like gapi (shrimp paste) in the Central region and pla rah (fermented Thai anchovy) in the Northeast.
One reason I find a lot of the Northern Thai food lacking in Bangkok (especially with this dish) is that no one wants to bother using tua nao, thinking the Chinese yellow bean sauce (thao jiew) is good enough. I am here to tell you that is not true. And at Raan Nam Ngiew Nua Sud Sud (meaning “Northernmost Nam Ngiew”, Soi On Nut 12, 081-741-8917) … they also do not use tua nao, rendering the sauce just-ok-but-good-enough-because-there-is-nothing-better-in-Bangkok. But their larb kua (a minced beef dish cooked Northern-style with plenty of liver and a heavy chili paste base) is off the hook, the best I’ve had outside of the North: properly ponderous, slightly bitter from the deep-fried garlic, thick with the deep dark flavor you would expect to find in a place like Chiang Rai.
Of course, they also offer khao soy, because what is a nam ngiew stand in Bangkok without the ubiquitous curried noodle dish? Through my Wikipedia research, I have just learned that Northern Thai khao soy most corresponds to the Burmese dish ohh no kao swe.
And, in a shoutout to my brother Sutree, the all-important Northern Thai accompaniment of nam prik ong, a chili relish most like Bolognese sauce in the Thai culinary lexicon, except with a fermented soybean base:
Is this stuff going to change the life of a Northern Thai food lover whose best memories center around eating these dishes? No, of course not. It’s hard to compete with one’s childhood, and to prepare for the change that inevitably lies ahead. It’s good enough for now, though.