Category Archives: noodles

My boyfriend

I haven’t told my husband yet, but I have a boyfriend. If he knew, he would be more bewildered than anything else. Actually, the boyfriend would be pretty bewildered too. Because he doesn’t know he’s my boyfriend.

I have never met the man. I have never even been in the same room with him. He plays the guitar. He is American. He is male. That is as far as I can get before I become embarrassed and can’t talk about him anymore. But I listen to him every day, while I’m running on the treadmill. That is our time.

You probably think I’m talking about John Mayer, because he is a big American guitarist who also happens to be male. No. I would rather gouge my eardrums out with rusty scissors than listen to that man on my beloved treadmill. John Mayer is greasy stir-fry left to cool on a dirty countertop while the waitress picks her toes. Sorry, if you are a John Mayer fan. Yes, I know you think he is talented.

I’m talking about this guy:

Jack White

(I did not add the photo directly to the post because Karen says that’s stealing. So you have to click on the link. Sorry).

I look through photos of him sometimes to calm me, when I am procrastinating from doing something vitally important. My editor is really pleased about that. Jack White is probably the reason why my book will never be published. That is OK with me. I have several “favorite” photos. One is my absolute favorite because he is staring at the camera with the same skeptical expression I imagine he would use if he ever actually met me. Like he is a heartbeat away from calling security.

But my friends do not share this love for Jack White. When I show Karen a particularly fetching one of him holding a red umbrella, I get this reply via text:

KAREN: He looks like he’s on his period.

Oh, Karen. Maybe it’s a good thing we have vastly different tastes on these matters. She is an aberration, an outlier. But then I show my friend Patrick a photo over dinner, because I am back to being 11 years old and boring my friends at the lunch table about Duran Duran.

Patrick puts on his best Miss Marple voice: “After my womyn’s studies seminar I’ll go pick up Lily in the Subaru and head to the kd lang concert,” he says. This is utterly baffling. Last time I checked, Jack White seemed very male. In fact, his complete lack of enthusiasm for wearing underwear is one of the things that bothers me about him, if for no other reason than the fact that we all now know that he dresses to the left (does that mean he is a liberal?)

I feel like we are in an Alice in Wonderland world where Justin Bieber is a real catch and Adam Levine is a major league heartthrob who is not creepy in the slightest. What is going on? Why are people going on about things that are obvious and completely, utterly simplified, the tom yum noodle versions of humanity? There is no subtlety in a bowl of tom yum noodles. It doesn’t really require a lot of extra work to do well. Sometimes, all you need are the tom yum seasonings from a pack of instant noodles added to a bit of pork broth, and there you have it. Britney Spears in a bowl.

For my money, when I go anywhere, it’s all about yen ta fo. If you read here regularly, you already know about my fondness for them, but they really are my favorite soup noodles in the world — more than snoretastic pho, more than tired old ramen, and don’t even get me started on those poseur minced pork noodles, the Fall Out Boy of street food. Yen ta fo is hard to describe: plain rice noodles dressed up in a pork broth-based sauce liberally touched with red fermented tofu and chilies, pork and fish meatballs, bits of squid and congealed pig’s blood, and a whole handful of blanched morning glories. The very best bowls have deep-fried bits of pork crackling and garlic as garnishes. Through some strange culinary alchemy, these ingredients should all combine into a melange that is somehow spicy-tart-salty, and only a little bit sweet. Every bite shows something different, depending on what you get. It’s not always perfect or even good, but then again it’s not about making choices that are easy or simple.

Yet this all gets described on most menus as “red seafood noodles” or “pink noodles in sauce.”

An exemplary bowl of yen ta fo

An exemplary bowl of yen ta fo

 

The best bowl, the one I go to the most frequently when I want this dish, is Guaythiew Pik Gai Sai Nampung on Sukhumvit 20/1 (the alleyway between Sukhumvit Sois 20 and 18). This place is actually known for its chicken wing noodles, which can be too salty for some (present-day Eddie Van Halen). I prefer the “red seafood”, which may not, at first glance, look like what you’ve been waiting for, like that thing that will see you through an hour and change on the treadmill every day. But that just means that there’s more for me.

 

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What’s Cooking: Yum

A "three-way" yum of shrimp, pork and dried fish at Polo

A “three-way” yum of shrimp, pork and dried fish at Polo

I’ve been away, so I haven’t had as much Thai food as I’d like. Although the world is full of what I’m sure are great Thai restaurants that venture beyond the sour-sweet stir-fries and chicken with cashew nuts that we all know and will perversely miss some day, I have a general rule about not eating Thai food when I’m out of the country. It is usually — not always, but a lot of the time — a pale shadow of what I’d get at home. Since I live at home, why don’t I just get it there?

But I find that the thing I miss most when I’m away is the spicy-sour-sweet melange of what-have-you called, fittingly, “yum”. It’s room temperature and chopped, perfectly made to eat in greedy mouthfuls with a spoon — the bigger, the better, hopefully alone so that you don’t have to share. It’s made up of things that might not tantalize on their own, like tiny dried fish or julienned banana blossoms or blanched Chinese kale stems or even chopped lemongrass bulbs. Its variations are infinite, but the overall effect of the dish is the same: a bit of spice, a lot of tart, some fish sauce, some sugar. Some heft in the form of a smoky grilled eggplant, or lightly cooked shrimp. Something light and refreshing, like lettuce. And always some texture, some crunch. It’s the very definition of something that is better than the sum of its parts.

The sky is the limit when it comes to thinking up yum salads of your own, so it’s probably not surprising that many families have their own favorite yum recipes. My husband’s family is no different. When they get together, you can be sure to find a big vat of beef green curry (gaeng kiew waan nuea), some fermented rice noodles (kanom keen), a bit of roti, and, in a nod to the Japanophile tendencies of modern-day Bangkok, some pickled ginger. Also on the table is a big brimming bowl of yum soon sen, a “salad” of glass vermicelli that is a far cry from the anemic glass vermicelli salads I have had anywhere else. With its mix of palm sugar and coconut milk and tamarind juice, this salad recalls more of the luxurious sweetness of a good mee Siam you’d find on the southern Thai border, and less of the cartoonish “hot ‘n spicy” of a package of Mama tom yum noodles. It’s sort of like eating garlic bread for the first time again.

Obviously, I lack the self-discipline to stop and take a photo of this dish, so you will have to be content with a photo from Karen, taken at the beginning of a family banquet when everyone was being too polite to be the first to tuck in:

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Yum woon sen in the earthenware bowl in the middle, surrounded by everything else anyone could think of on that day

 (Photo by Karen Blumberg)

I have to admit, I had a bit of trouble securing this recipe from my husband’s aunt. These things aren’t easy to come by. So if there’s something that might be missing, or some cooking step that someone may have forgotten to mention, well … don’t look at me. I’m just the messenger.

Yum Woon Sen

Ingredients:

–       500 g woon sen (glass vermicelli)

–       1 kg shrimp, cleaned

–       shredded kaffir lime leaves (for garnish)

–       1 L coconut milk

–       1 kg shallots

–       25 g dried chilies

–       150 g tamarind juice

–       5 Tbs fish sauce

–       150 g palm sugar

–       unscented cooking oil (for stir-frying)

 

To make:

 

  1. Soak glass vermicelli in water for half an hour.
  2. Mince and then stir-fry shrimp until pink, let rest.
  3. Slice and fry shallots until opaque.
  4. Split coconut milk into two portions, the add palm sugar, fish sauce, and tamarind juice (juice only). Mix, and heat until boiling, stirring occasionally. Set aside.
  5. With the remaining coconut milk, “stir-fry” glass vermicelli that has been drained. Add other coconut milk. Add shallots, leaving some for garnish. Add chilies, sliced roughly. Stir-fry until dry. Scatter julienned kaffir lime leaves and remaining shallots over the top as garnish.

 

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A spoonful of sugar

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The formidably cluttered work station at New Chu Ros

The first time we set out to find this place (and by the first time, I mean: the first time after the four times I’d been there before while researching the first book), we got lost. I thought this old Banglamphu standby — located deep in the bowels of a covered-walkway market specializing in bits of fabric and ladies’ undergarments — was located in Little India. Pahurat somehow figured in the location of the place, I knew (I am not very good at directions). All I needed to do was to find the outdoor market.

Except … there are a whole lot of outdoor markets. All over Pahurat. And all around Banglamphu, too. Because the second time, we were lost irreparably — this time in a random alleyway around the corner from the old-style shopping center known as Old Siam (incidentally, a great place for coffee, juices and a bathroom break if you ever find yourself in the area). The third time, I found it. And it was closed. And the fourth time, I forgot where it was and found myself in the same random alleyway again. Yes, I know.

The fifth time, it was open, AND in the place we thought it would be (after going to the wrong market one last time. Because, we are us). It’s in a place called the Pahurat Market, yes, but really, how helpful is that? Better yet: across the street from the KFC at Old Siam (the actual KFC, not the sign, don’t use the sign). More specific? After crossing the street, turn right, and then turn the corner, and the market will be the first on your left. It’s a proper market — no listless little alleyway with cutesy stationery shop and a couple of sad old vendors selling incense here. It’s lined with fabric shops and jam-packed with stalls selling girdles and nightgowns and the odd touristy knick-knack or two. And it’s there — about 30 meters in to the left, or, if you want a shortcut, directly through the shop specializing in dancers’ traditional Thai headdresses and to the right upon exiting.

If you are still confused, there’s the voice — the proprietor of the shop has a very distinctive voice that really defies description. Any pedestrian within hailing distance will get an earful, exhorting them to come in and listing the specialties of the house: in this case, noodles, every kind, in a pork or tom yum or fermented red tofu broth.

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A bowl of yen ta fo with iced coffee

My favorite order at these kinds of noodle places is yen ta fo — the red fermented tofu-based sauce paired with fish meatballs, slippery slivers of squid, deep-fried pork bits and blanched morning glory — without broth or noodles. I don’t need the yen ta fo garnishes to have to share the spotlight. I find yen ta fo is a maligned sauce even among Thais, many of whom say they won’t eat it because it’s too sweet. I find that funny because, well, have you had Thai food lately? I think that the real measure of whether you’ve transitioned to becoming a true Bangkokian today is when you start sugaring your noodles. Anyone can revel in the dirty trashcan stink of fermented fish sauce or bomb their palates to Neverneverland with the typical assortment of chilies and spices … but it takes a true Bangkokian to add a heaping spoonful of sugar to all that drama. No longer can we have the savory without the sweet, and (maybe) vice versa.

I’ll admit it: terrible yen ta fo is indeed too sweet. But the very best ones, like the bowl at New Chu Ros, throw in plenty of tart and a tinge of spice, making yen ta fo a literal party in the mouth of textures and flavors. So if you are intrepid enough to brave the Pahurat market, and willing to possibly get a little lost, try out the bowl at New Chu Ros. Girdle optional.

(All photos by @karenblumberg).

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