On the suface, khanom jeen, thin, round, freshly-made rice noodles, look simple. But the process of making them can take as many as five days, and involves an astonishing amount of labour. That's why I was surprised when David Thompson, Head Chef at Bangkok's nahm, told me that for the last several months his kitchen has been making the noodles in-house. Perhaps sensing that I was incredulous, he invited me to stop by the restaurant's kitchen and document the process.
The first step in making khanom jeen involves soaking uncooked rice in water. I was told that 'old' rice (rice harvested in previous seasons or years) is required for this, as it has a low water content and doesn't tend to get 'sticky' during the subsequent stages. After three days of soaking, during which the water is changed each day, the soggy mixture is ground to a coarse paste. At nahm, they use an old-school hand-powered granite mill to do this. The resulting dough is bundled and pressed overnight, extracting much of its water.
The next day, the crumbly dough is divided up and shaped into small logs:
which are then boiled for 15 minutes:
leaving the exterior soft and translucent and the interior largely uncooked:
The still-hot dough is then transferred to a huge wooden mortar -- actually a hollowed-out tree stump -- where it is vigorously pounded with heavy wooden mallets:
This process takes two people and as many as 30 to 45 minutes, and I was told that the goal is to pound until the dough has stopped sticking to the wood.
At the end of this process, the dough has the appearance and texture of shortening or marshmallow creme:
A lid is thrown on it, and the mixture is kept at room temperature overnight. I was told that this stage can vary in duration, depending on how sour the noodles are ultimately meant to be.
The next morning, the dough is stirred thoroughly to provide it with an even consistency and to eliminate air bubbles. In batches, it's inserted into a small sieve with a plunger device, and extracted into simmering water:
Upon contacting the hot water, the dough solidifies, and voilà: you have khanom jeen.
The threads are fished out and rinsed in a couple baths of cool water before being allowed to drain:
After all this time and effort, it's hard to believe that khanom jeen generally must be consumed within the same day, otherwise the noodles tend to go off or become too dry.
There are several different ways to eat khanom jeen in Thailand, but most commonly they're topped with one of several types curry-like dishes and eaten with sides usually including herbs and vegetables, and sometimes including meat, egg and fish:
Nahm do some really excellent curries, including the mild 'coconut and turmeric curry of minced prawns with banana blossoms and asian pennywort' (pictured at the top of this post), and what is possibly my all-time favourite nahm dish, the almost comically piquant 'spicy smoked fish curry with prawns, chicken livers, cockles, chillies and black pepper'.
Khanom jeen is available at nahm for lunch, Monday through Friday.
nahm Metropolitan Hotel, 27 Th Sathon Tai 02 625 3388 Noon-2pm Mon-Fri & 7-10pm daily
View Thai Eats in a larger map