Category Archives: noodles

In praise of the porky

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

Rice vermicelli in pork broth with meatballs at Wor Rasamee

No one wants to be a pig. The very worst thing one can do is to eat like one, squeal like one, or sweat like one. Don’t even think about looking like one. That is the worst that bad can get.

But when cooked over a grill, crisped and sliced over a mound of fluffy white rice or minced and folded into an omelet, the pig becomes something that every Thai food lover wants a part of. Few dishes demonstrate this more than guaythiew moo, or pork noodles: a mix of pork meatballs, minced pork, stewed fatty pork and pork liver, simmered gently in a pork broth before a quick dunk in a plastic bowl with a handful of rice noodles, some blanched bitter greens, and a sprinkling of bean sprouts and deep-fried garlic bits.

Because many Thais refrain from eating beef for religious reasons — as followers of “Mae Kwan Im” (a Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Compassion now popular among many Thai-Chinese Theravada Buddhists), they are encouraged to cut out beef in view of eventually going vegetarian — pork noodle joints are probably the most numerous of all the noodle vendor varieties scattered throughout the city. This means there is tons of competition, and more pressure to set oneself apart from the rest of the noodling fray (I’m not counting bamee, or egg noodles, with the rest of the pork noodle crowd because the emphasis there tends to be on the noodles and the toppings are different — that said, there’s lots of competition there too).

Some vendors bomb the crap out of your tastebuds with a plethora of chilis, and some are nam tok specialists who add a touch a pork blood to their broth. It’s the rare vendor who lets the pig stand on its own porky merits. That is Wor Rasamee (corner of Silom and Saladaeng roads), a longtime pork noodle shop run by a deeply efficient elderly man who is the Thai street food equivalent of Rene Lasserre. Every need is fulfilled quickly and with as little drama as possible, sometimes before you have even thought of it. And the time it takes for a bowl to get to your table? 10-15 seconds, tops. Really.

Not to say there’s no little gimmick to set this little stall apart. Here, it’s the unique sauce, set atop every table and served alongside the four-pronged usual condiment selection of sugar, chili flakes, chili-studded white vinegar and fish sauce. It has no name, but it does have ingredients: vinegar, garlic, chilies, palm sugar, and an irresistible hit of fermented tofu, my culinary Achilles heel, a quicksilver sweetness in a pork broth smelling faintly of Chinese 5-spice powder.

sauce

How can I say no? It is food crack. There are surely more ingredients in this sauce than were relayed to me, and I will try to spend the next few weeks ferreting them out. Until then, I will have to risk heading back to this crowded, busy neighborhood in the heart of the central business district in the hopes of snagging a seat in the midst of all the Japanese tart cafes and fast food chains.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, pork, Thailand

Yen ta fo for h8ers

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta fo Rot Ded

Yen ta fo with rice vermicelli at Thi Yen Ta Fo Rot Ded

I write a lot about yen ta fo. It is my absolute favorite Thai noodle dish. What’s not to love? An unlikely but irresistible melange of textures and flavors, from squidgy blanched morning glory stems, rubbery squid, soft fish balls, crackly bitter deep-fried garlic and the crunch of a deep-fried wonton — and that’s before you even get to the sauce. Because it’s the sauce that makes or breaks it all: tart with distilled vinegar and pickled garlic, resonating from the heady boom of fish sauce, underneath which the slightest whiff of sweet fermented red tofu emerges like the flash of a red sole on an expensive shoe … that is what yen ta fo is to me. A very delicate balance that, at its best, is the stereotypical juggling act illustrative of the best of Thai cuisine.

At its worst, yen ta fo is something different. It’s all sweet, all pink, all sickly and flat, like Hello Kitty. So it gives people the wrong idea, that these noodles are something for people with a sweet tooth, that there is no complexity to it at all, that it’s Britney Spears when you want to be rocking the egg noodle-PJ Harvey special. I always put this down to people going to the wrong places for yen ta fo. There is such a thing as the wrong place for a certain dish. In fact, that is the whole point of this blog.

I’ve been to Thi Yen Ta Fo (084-550-2880, open 11-22 except Mondays) more times than I can count. I mean, it was always closed those other times, but it feels like second nature to me now to just head automatically to that street corner on Mahachai Road, just down the street from Thipsamai and next to Jay Fai. Usually, I just find a shuttered cart with a sign bearing the vendor’s name. But just a few days ago, it was all systems go: an entire corner and then some, littered with packed tables and the sort of flustered, harried waiters you would see at your nearest Fuji or Crystal Jade restaurant.

For a soup noodle dish that is so often dismissed as “those terrible pink noodles”, yen ta fo sure seems popular here. But there is a very good reason for this. When our bowls come to the table, it’s less about the pink sauce and fermented tofu and more about the veritable blanket of chopped chilies that coats our food like a suit of armor. If there was ever any doubt in my mind that a typical Thai fix-it involves just throwing a bunch of chilies on something to make it taste better, that doubt has long since been blasted from my head by the smoke coming out of my ears after a bite of these noodles. This stuff is SPICY. It changes the whole flavor profile of the dish. Here, it’s all tart and fiery, even slightly metallic. It’s yen ta fo for people who don’t like yen ta fo very much.

There’s other stuff too. The immense popularity of this place has necessitated the incorporation of a second cart, this one offering fried noodle dishes like guaythiew kua gai (pan-fried rice noodles with chicken and egg). That’s not to mention the pork satay place that also serves the customers here, and the other soup noodles offered by Thi, like the just-as-spicy tom yum egg noodles with fresh basil and minced pork:

Bring your tissues

Bring your tissues

I can’t say I don’t like these noodles, because that wouldn’t be true. Would they be my favorite yen ta fo? No, because they are barely yen ta fo at all. Would I go back? Absolutely. With a pack of tissues. And some Tums.

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, food, food stalls, noodles, Thailand, yen ta fo

Glutton Abroad: Taipei Bang-bang

Clear and standard versions of the namesake dish at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

Clear and standard versions of the namesake dish at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

On the way over to Taipei, I saw an episode of the TV show “Louie”, which features American comedian Louis CK. In this episode, Louie and his friend brother engage in a practice they refer to as “bang-bang”: having a full meal at one venue before going to a completely different type of place and getting a second full meal there. There are different combinations they play with before deciding on “Indian-diner”, which, to me, is just an OK combination since you can cheat on the “diner” side of the quotation with just a Greek salad or something, whereas something like “Italian-barbecue” is a real, full-on, genuine pig-out. (This, from the person with $^%&ing GERD.)

Anyway, when they are talking to the waitress at the diner later, Louie treats his “bang-bang” mission as something to be hidden and ashamed of. This marks my first disconnect of the day: that this is something to hide away. Because I do this shit all the time. It is called “lunch” and “second lunch”. Sometimes it is “second breakfast”. I am too old to have “second dinners” anymore. The point is that this is perfectly normal behavior that every food lover worth his or her own weight in potato chips understands and engages in. Sometimes there is not enough time to try everything you want to try. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it! What’s the problem?

Faced with only two full days in Taipei, I was grappling with this very conundrum myself. There are a gazillion eateries in Taiwan’s capital, and only a few hours to taste them all. Do you think this meant I would have to do without something or other? HELL NAW. It was my first time in Taipei, and my very first experience with real Taiwanese food. I wasn’t going to chuck this opportunity with concerns about “diet” or “health” or “looking nice”, etc.

Thais like to consider Cantonese food the foundation of all great Chinese food. They say Cantonese food is the epitome of classical Chinese cooking, and a celebration of the light, natural flavors coaxed out of superior ingredients. I find this interesting because, even now, I still don’t get it. I still find it leaden and unappetizing, coated in gelatinous, saliva-like sauces. I know I am in the minority here, and likely traumatized from my childhood spent in every Cantonese restaurant located between Pittsburgh-Cleveland.

But no, I see Taiwanese food as the real embodiment of this light/natural aesthetic — minimal manipulation with great ingredients, minimal fuss, and unusual, thought-provoking combinations. The great difference between this and what Thais like is that there is no grand wallop of flavor. It’s introverted food, subtle, a little cerebral … some might even call it retiring or shy. It takes a little time with a dish to get to know it well. It’s not out to seduce, like Thai food, or wearing its resume on its sleeve, Cantonese-style. In this way, I feel like I can relate to Taiwanese food in a way I can’t with the more ESFP-geared charms of a place like Thailand or Hong Kong.

So when there were three places I really wanted to hit on Yong Kang Street, one of Taipei’s most well-known areas for food, I was determined to find them all (a “bang-bang-bang”, if you will). The first, and most obvious, is the famed xiaolongbao eatery Din Tai Fung, an Asia-wide dumpling empire that has been lauded by the New York Times. Its flagship is just around the corner, on Xinyi Road, and is a huge tourist draw. How much of a tourist draw? The girl in front speaks fluent Thai, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and Cantonese. Despite its tourist attraction status, its famous soup dumplings may be even better than anywhere else. The standard pork and chicken soup dumplings are available, but there are also variations like pork and black truffle, which require an entirely different spoon and absolutely no sauce.

Din Tai Fung's pork and truffle soup dumpling

Din Tai Fung’s pork and truffle soup dumpling

The second place featured one of my very favorite noodle dishes in all the world, danzai or “dan dan” noodles. I wanted to make sure I got them at Slack Season Noodles (also known as Tu Hsiao Yueh, located at 9-1 Yong Kang St), started in 1895 by a fisherman who made noodles in the off-time spent away from his fishing boat (hence the name “Slack Season”). Today, there are several branches of this place, but the most famous may be on Yong Kang Street, where a noodle vendor is still located out in front of the dining room, patiently enduring tourists taking endless photos of them.

Traditional danzai noodles from Slack Season Noodles

Traditional danzai noodles from Slack Season Noodles

The final, third place was the hardest to get into, featuring the longest, most intimidating line. If it wasn’t called Yong Kang Beef Noodle (No. 17, Lane 31, Secion 2 Jinshan South Rd), I would have certainly walked away, but I didn’t come all this way to wimp out and deprive myself of Taiwan’s famous beef noodles. So in the line I went, listening to countless American tourists walking by and remarking on how some people are so “crazy” as to stand in line for food.

Well, let me tell you, the line was worth it. It’s not a beef noodle like in Thailand, where the broth is either thickened with cow’s blood and a representation of all that is beefy, or a clear broth that ends up being light and refreshing — it’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between those two. The broth is hearty and beefy, yet light, and the noodles chewy and satisfying, but it’s that beef that is the real star: thick melting slabs generous marbled and tender enough to be cut with a single chopstick.

beefnoodle

But the real discovery here was the “spicy dumpling”, which featured a sheet of nearly-melting dough around a nicely-seasoned ball of mince, doused in a sauce thickened with fermented tofu. Could I resist a generous dollop of macerated red chili with garlic to accompany it? Of course not.

The spicy dumpling at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

The spicy dumpling at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

 

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Filed under Asia, beef, food, noodles, restaurant, Taiwan