The photo below is a response to this thread at eGullet concerning Thai bread. Bread is not, of course, a staple food for Thai people, but it is very popular nonetheless. Normally the Thais are brilliant at taking foods from other cultures and integrating them into their own cuisine in delicious ways, but with bread, something went wrong. Very wrong. This wrong (WARNING. The following contains graphic images of disgusting bread!):
The bread above was labelled as Deluxe Floss (heh heh) and was purchased at the brand new Siam Paragon branch of Bread Talk (heh heh). Floss refers to the topping of sweet, golden fluffy strands of pork (heh heh), and is a very popular topping for Thai baked goods. I’m not sure where they got this idea. One imagines they should probably abandon it. The bread, as with the majority of its genre, is so soft it makes Wonder Bread look like a pain poilane and it is painfully sweet with a disturbing oily sheen.
I think Deluxe Floss is a good place to our journey through the Magical World of Thai Baked Goods, and in future installments I will touch on the use of cheap hot dogs, sweetened condensed milk, and mayonaise.
Just writing to let you all know that I’m off to Mae Hong Son, northern Thailand tomorrow and won’t be posting for a week or so. I will, however, come back with heaps of pics on northern Thai food, including the famous noodle dish khao soi and hopefully a scoop on the delicious and virtually unknown food of the Shan ethic group.
I spent last week in Mae Hong Son province, by far my favorite place in Thailand. Mae Hong Son borders Myanmar (Burma) in the far northwest of the country, and is extremely mountainous and remote. The province is home many Shan or Thai Yai, a group of people who are today mostly found in Myanmar, but who are actually of the same ethno-linguistic group as the Thai. The Thai Yai have had a large influence on the cuisine of Mae Hong Son, which is a combination of Shan and northern Thai cooking. Mae Hong Son is certainly not a culinary destination, but the food is unlike anywhere else in Thailand, and Mae Hong Son is probably my favorite province to eat in. The staple food of most northern Thais is khao niaow, sticky rice, which in Mae Hong Son is dished up “to go” in bai tong tueng, the leaf of a type of teak tree:
One of the most famous northern Thai dishes is a curry-and-noodle dish called khao soi. The true origin of the dish is unknown, but it is thought to be a Shan dish brought to northern Thailand from Myanmar by Muslim traders, and is today available in virtually every town in Mae Hong Son:
Shan food is similar to Burmese in that it relies on thick, oily curries and some dried spices, in particular turmeric. An important Shan staple is tomatoes, especially the tiny, sour ones known as makhuea som:
These tomatoes are used in a northern style chili paste of Shan origin known as nam phrik ong. The chili paste is served with veggies and deep-fried pork crackling, and resembles a thick spaghetti sauce:
Simply buy or make the appropriate curry paste, some meat, and add these and the veggies to boiling water, and you have a curry!
Northern people also like grilled foods, such as aep, curry paste and meat, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled:
This is just an appetizer. In the coming days I’ll share the deliciousness by making a few Mae Hong Son/northern Thai dishes.
Today’s lunch was taken at the venerable Or Tor Kor Market, Bangkok’s finest. In a bout of indecision I decided to order phat thai. Despite the mad popularity of this stuff in the US, it doesn’t really seem to be all that popular in Bangkok, and I rarely eat it.
I do like it though, but have only made it myself once or twice. Phat thai is not a difficult dish to make, but it does require a certain amount of skill (otherwise the noodles tend to ball up into a sticky mess!), and is easiest done in a large flat skillet, as shown below, although some people do prefer to use a deep wok. The phat thai below is called phat thai hor khai, “phat thai wrapped in an egg”, and is my favorite type. To illustrate how it’s done I tried to capture each “step” below.
The first step involves frying bits of firm tofu, chopped shallots, dried shrimp and dried preserved radish:
Next involves taking the rice noodles, which have been pre-softened in a sauce that usually consists of fish sauce, tamarind and sugar, and frying them with the other ingredients:
After this some bean sprouts and a kind of crisp green onion are added:
The mixture is then pushed to the side of the pan and a couple beaten eggs are added:
The egg is spread thin and when it has solidified a bit the noodle mixture is heaped on top:
The egg is then wrapped around the noodle mixture to form a “package” of sorts:
And we’re done:
Phat thai is always served with additional sprouts, green onions, as well as a slice of lime and banana flower. The phat thai above was a special deal fried with oysters and mussels. Not bad, but in this case, very, very oily!
Yeah, that’s right: khao soi. Those of you not prepared to go one-on-one with the deliciousliest Thai dish of all should probably leave. OK. Now we’re alone, and I can let you in on a secret: khao soi is not even Thai. This famous northern speciality is probably an amalgam of Burmese/Shan and Chinese-Muslim cooking styles. The word khao soi, which doesn’t really mean anything in Thai, probably comes from the Burmese khauk-hswe, which means simply “noodles”. Unlike most Thai noodle dishes, the broth is made with coconut milk, very similar to a dish still eaten today in Shan State Burma called ohn no khauk-hswe. It seems likely that Chinese-Muslim traders brought ohn no khauk-hswe to Thailand, and added the spices they were so fond of.
OK, enough freaking history. Now it’s time to face the khao soi:
Don’t try to deny its power, look at it, stare at it, let it take you in:
Khao soi uses flat egg noodles, some of which are deep-fried and used as a topping. To cut through the general oiliness of the dish, khao soi is accompanied by a dish of acidic condiments such as sliced shallots, slices of lime, and pickled cabbage, as seen below:
This is Noel in a bout of khao soi-induced madness trying to intimidate the noodles:
Unfortunately this photo doesn’t show the fear in his eyes.
The bowl above was consumed at Khao Soi Lam Duan in Chiang Mai, probably the best and most famous khao soi place in Thailand. The owner claims that her mother actually invented the dish, but this seems very unlikely. Unlike most Thai dishes, khao soi is usually only served with chicken or beef, which also seems to verify its Muslim origins.
Today we’re going to continue our education in bizarre Siamese baked treats by touching on another cornerstone of the oeuvre: hot dogs. Somehow Thai “bakers” have found a way to make these missiles of reject meat even less attractive than they already are. Take this example, titled Jumbo Sausage Roll (heheh) and purchased at the local Tesco/Lotus:
Like most of this genre, the hot dog is displayed prominently on top of the bread. I think this is a bragging point, with the roll suggesting “Hey there! Look at me, I’m no regular, run-of-the-mill roll! I have a hot dog!” As far as I can approximate, attempts were made to make the Jumbo Sausage Roll resemble a pizza; the red streaks are some sort of ketchup-related product, the mucuous-like liquid generously slathered over the hot dog is supposed to approximate cheese, and the whole thing is sprinkled with dried oregano.
I gave the whole thing to our neighborhood dog, who just sort of stared at it. After a few minutes, when I went back outside to get my camera, he still hadn’t touched it. I think that says something.
My thread on Thai noodles at eGullet has generated a considerable amount of interest in, uh…Thai noodles, especially khao soi. Worked up by all of this, culinary bad-ass, Onigiri has been doing a lot of behind the scenes trash talking saying that there’s no way a white guy can make good khao soi, even if he does live in Thailand. I say there’s no way anybody in Iowa, even if she is Thai, can make a good one. So before this verbal war escalates any further we’ve decided to have a Battle of the Khao Soi. I’m going to buy the ingredients Saturday, make the khao soi on Sunday, and post the results here afterwards. She’s going to do the same and post her results as well. Obviously as there’s no way to judge this, it’s only fair that I declare myself winner in advance. As consolation I plan to send Onigiri a Jumbo Sausage Roll.
Kuay jap yuan is acually a Vietnamese dish that was introduced to NE Thailand via Laos. Kuay jap is Chinese for a kind of thick noodle dish, and yuan is a semi-derogatory word for people or things of Vietnamese origin. Not sure what it’s called in Vietnamese, perhaps Graham at noodlepie can tell us? In any event, it’s a very simple dish to make, and equally delicious.
Two ingredients are essential for this dish: moo yor, a kind of Vietnamese sausage described below, and the fat round sticky-rice noodles particular to this dish. They’re sold dried in Thai supermarkets and labelled as “Vietnamese Noodles”. The noodles are coated with a layer of flour and are made by being boiled directly in the broth (rather than in separate boiling water, as in most noodle dishes). The flour mixes with the broth and results in a somewhat thick broth. Do NOT use the flat rice noodles, they will not provide this texture.
Again, as with most of my recipes, I’m not big on measurements.
The night before I had made chicken stock and reserved some of boiled chicken meat. I pulled about two litres of the stock out and brought it to a boil, and in the meantime made hom jiaow, crispy fried shallots. This is done by frying about half a cup of thinly-slice shallots in lots of oil over medium-high heat until brown and crispy:
When finished set the hom jiaow on paper towels to absorb oil. Set aside.
Next prepare the remainder of the soup ingredients. Thinly slice half an onion, chop up some green onions, and add them to the boiling broth along with some fish sauce to taste:
Possibly the most important ingredient of kuay jap yuan is a Vietnamese pork sausage called moo yor (moo is Thai for pork, and yor is the Thai pronunciation of the Vietnamese gio). Moo yor is steamed in banana leaves. Unwrap the moo yor:
slice it, and add it, along with the chicken, to the boiling broth:
Let this boil for a few minutes, and in the meantime wash and prepare a platter of fresh herbs: green onion, cilantro, mint, as well as slices of lime and chilis:
These will be served along with the finished noodles.
When the meat is heated through, add the dried noodles:
When the soup reaches a boil again, reduce the heat and let simmer until the noodles are done, about 5-7 minutes. Taste the noodles to see if they’re done, and taste the flavor of the broth again:
Serve in bowls sprinkled with the hom jiaow, add the fresh herbs of your choice, mix:
Battle of the Khao Soi has spilled over into eGullet, which somehow raised concern that the whole thing is being done simply to promote my and Onigiri’s respective blogs. This is false for two reasons: 1. You mean, people actually read this stuff? 2. My only goal since birth has been to crush Onigiri and prove once and for all that I possess supreme confidence in my khao soi skills and that she is nothing but a pathetic Thai wannabe wallowing in unrealistic expectations of her culinary ability in a foreign wasteland.
Khao soi is not necessarily difficult to make, but it is time consuming, as it incorporates making a curry (which involves make a curry paste), preparing a great deal of condiments, as well as noodles. Set aside an entire morning for making it (khao soi, for some reason, is never eaten at dinner in Thailand). The recipe below will make enough khao soi for two hungry people.
The khreuang kaeng, or curry paste, is the most important part of a curry. Below are the raw ingredients that will make up my khao soi curry paste:
And a list:
Cha ko (a kind of spice), shelled 1
Coriander (cilantro) seeds 2 Tbsp
Big dried chilies 4-6
Chopped ginger 1 heaping Tbsp
Chopped turmeric 1 heaping Tbsp
Salt 1 Tbsp
Curry powder 2 tsp
Take each of the curry paste ingredients except for the salt and curry powder, and dry-roast individually until fragrant and browned:
Using a mortar and pestle, combine all of the curry paste ingredients until they result in a fine, thick paste:
This is a long, boring process that will inevitably send pieces of smashed chili flying directly into your eyes. The result is your curry paste. Set it aside.
Now prepare the condiments. First, the chilies in oil: take about 30 or so small dried chilies and dry-roast in the same wok until dark and fragrant but not black and burnt. Grind these up quite finely using a clean dry mortar and pestle. Using the same wok, add 1/4 cup of vegetable oil, heat until just about to smoke, then add the ground chilies and stir until fragrant, but not burnt, about one to two minutes:
Remove to a clean dry heatproof bowl and set aside to cool.
Wash, dry, and coarsely chop cilantro and green onions. Peel and chop about 10 shallots. Drain and coarsely chop the pickled mustard greens. Slice a few limes. Arrange all of these on a dish. These are your condiments:
Now it’s time for the soup. Take about a 3/4 of a cup of thick coconut milk and heat it in a saucepan over medium heat until it starts to bubble and simmer. Add the curry paste ingredients:
Continue stirring until the liquid is reduced considerably, and a film of oil has begun to form:
This may take as long as 10 to 15 minutes. Be patient! This is a very important step and ensures that the oils of the various ingredients will be released, making a more fragrant curry.
When a fair amount of oil has pooled, add your meat, in this case four to six small chicken thighs, and fry in the oily paste for about five minutes:
Take another half cup of thick coconut milk and dilute with about three cups of water. Add this to the saucepan:
Bring to a light boil, turn the heat down as low as possible, and simmer. After about 10 minutes or so, taste the soup and add salt or see ew khao, a kind of soy sauce, or sugar, if necessary.
While the broth is simmering, it’s time to do the noodles. Khao soi noodles, a flat squiggly egg noodle, are notoriously hard to find, even in Thailand. A good substitute is the fresh egg noodles called ba mee. Bring a large pot full of water to a boil, separate the fresh noodles, plunge into the boiling water and boil for about five minutes:
Drain well and set aside in colander (the noodles can be made in advance and quickly re-boiled at eating time, if necessary).
Put a generous serving of the noodles in a bowl, top with one chicken thigh and lotsa broth, and you’re done! How diners choose to flavor their khao soi with condiments is up to them. Personally, I like lots of lime and lots of chili:
So whaddaya got, Onigiri?
Battle of the Khao Soi was a certified success, grossing me hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements, critical acclaim in a number of multi-national glossy magazines, and generating literally millions of hits to RealThai. There is talk of a made-for-TV movie, and this morning I was identified in the street four times. However most important is the fact that I continue to maintain my place as the King of Khao Soi. Onigiri and I have reached a truce of sorts and hope to conduct another competition in the near future.
I’ll be heading down to southern Thailand, then on to Laos, and will probably not be blogging too much this month as a result. When I do get back however I’ll post some juicy pics of southern Thai food.