Most Thais are familiar with khanom jeen nam ngiaw (ขนมจีนน้ำเงี้ยว), the northern Thai staple of a pork- and tomato-based broth served over thin, fresh rice noodles. Yet few are aware of the variations the dish can take across the region. In Chiang Mai, nam ngiaw is often rich and oily, and is supplemented with the dried flowers of the cotton tree; in Chiang Rai the dish is hearty and meaty, and there's even a variant made with beef; and in Mae Hong Son, khao sen, as it's known there, tends to be thin and tart with very little meat.
Even Phrae, a relatively obscure province in northern Thailand, has its own version. On the surface, khanom sen nam muu (ขนมเส้นน้ำหมู), as the dish is known there, appears deceptively simple. But as served at Khanom Sen Paa Net, a 60 year-old restaurant in the eponymous provincial capital, it might be the most interesting and delicious version I've encountered -- largely due to the broth:
This is made by simmering a shocking amount of pork bones with coriander root, garlic, salt and a bit of fish sauce over very low coals for as long as six hours (allegedly they start making the dish at 3am). The result is one of the most amazing broths I've encountered in Thailand -- virtually clear yet profoundly meaty without any of the funky "porky" odour that pork-based broths tend to have. Towards the end of the cooking process, they toss in a few halved plum tomatoes and cubes of steamed blood; the broth is served over khanom jeen noodles, drizzled with a mixture of crispy deep-fried pork fat and garlic. The tomatoes offer barely enough acidic tartness to counter the rich meatiness, and the dish is served with optional sides of ground chilies toasted in oil, lime slices, chopped coriander, shredded cabbage and bean sprouts.
Given the work that goes into the dish, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the folks here -- the third generation to run the restaurant -- are extremely proud of the food they serve, using the best ingredients and taking great care with them -- practices one doesn't always encounter in Thailand. I was told repeatedly that no MSG or stock powder were used in the broth; even the chili condiment is made from chilies sourced from Ubon Ratchathani ("They're better than the local chilies," I was told).
Typically served alongside khanom sen in Phrae is khao som, tomato-tinted rice topped with a mixture of deep-fried crispy pork fat and garlic:
The tomatoes are steamed before being lightly fried with the rice and a bit of salt. The dish has a slightly sour (the som in the name) flavour, and upon request, they'll scoop up some of the simmered pork bones to accompany it.
Other than som tam, Thai-style papaya salad, the only other dish served at Paa Net is dessert, which on the day I visited took the form of sago pearls and corn in barely sweet/barely salty coconut milk:
which, like everything else, was utterly simple yet utterly delicious.
Khanom Sen Paa Net Soi Muang Daeng, Phrae 054 620 056 9am-1.30pm
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