There you are, out on a hot date with the person of your fancy. You want to impress them maybe just a little bit. So off you go to a Thai restaurant downtown. The menu arrives and you suggest pad Thai. Now pad Thai is certainly a big favourite, but you’ll get so much more street cred if you ask for ‘pad mee Korat’ (pad Thai’s rustic, provincial cousin). Or ‘kuay tio phat poo’ – perhaps throwing it casually into the conversation that this is the first time you’ve seen this dish (rice noodles fried with crab) outside of its birthplace in Chanthaburi. Or even simply ‘mee krob’ (crispy noodles) just to show how aware you are that they are often eaten as a side dish like rice.
You see, pad Thai might be well-known, but what’s not so well known is that Thailand has a lot of different kinds of noodles. And there are also many delicious (and different) noodle dishes being enjoyed every day by millions of Thai people. Some have their origins in the northern farming regions of the nation. Others have been influenced by the cross-border interchange with Laos in the north-east. Others have evolved in the cosmopolitan melting pot that is Bangkok. And then there’s the influence of coconut milk and seafood in the southern part of the nation.
Put it this way – noodles are like sausages. You can try Cumberland pork sausages, different kinds of German wurst, or the spicy chorizo from Mexico, the Cajun andouille, black pudding, chipolatas, saveloy or salami – the list goes on. Each one is a different type of sausage. But to feel that you’ve experienced sausages after eating hot dogs, is much like feeling in-the-know after eating a plate of pad Thai. But whereas that list of sausages is international, the variety of different noodle dishes in Thailand alone could probably fill a cookery book, and no doubt already has done.
So let’s start off with something you can find just about everywhere; the universal Thai noodle-soup stall. There’s basically a choice of five types of noodles. The yellow stringy ones that look a bit like spaghetti are known as ‘mee leuang’, with the yellow colour coming from the use of egg. The broad, flat ones are ‘sen yai’ and the smaller version, ‘sen lek’. The ones that are actually the very thin rice vermicelli are ‘sen mee’. And then there are the glass noodles made from mung beans, ‘wun sen’. And these different noodles crop up again and again in different dishes.
But, as well as this, there are many deliciously-unusual Thai dishes which feature noodles. Starting off with one that won’t
challenge your spice buds, take a look at ‘kuay tio khua kai’. At first glance it looks like an omelette. But then you’ll realise that it’s filled with chicken and wide egg noodles, preserved squid, green onions, and soy sauce, all served on a bed of lettuce.
Another similarly-mild and tasty offering is ‘mee kati’. This combines thin rice vermicelli noodles and a rich, slightly sweet, coconut milk-based dressing. In restaurants the noodles are usually topped with an omelette cut into strips and the
dressing served on the side, often with minced pork and tofu. But on the street or at markets, mee kati usually has the dressing and noodles fried together in advance. Both versions are served with a variety of bitter-tasting sides such as
chives, pork blood and lime.
Already mentioned, ‘pad mee Korat’ is the signature dish of the city of Nakhon Ratchasima, also known as Korat. It takes the form of dried flat rice noodles fried with slightly fatty slices of pork and often an egg, then generously seasoned with palm sugar, tamarind pulp, soy sauce and a touch of chilli, then supplemented with bean sprouts and garlic.
It’s hard to escape the Chinese influence with most of these Thai noodle offerings. And one that has really caught on is ‘koi see mee’. With wheat-and-egg noodles that are fried pancake-style until smoky and crispy, it’s topped with a broth that combines chicken, mushrooms and crunchy bamboo, then served with condiments that usually include soy sauce, sliced
mild chillies in vinegar and ground white pepper.
Originating further south, from around Chanthaburi and reflecting this with its seafood bias, there’s ‘sen jan phat poo’. It has a distinctive orange-yellow appearance due to the flat, thin rice noodles used, combined with crab and fried in a slightly sweet curry-like dressing, and it’s served with sides of bean sprouts, garlic chives, cucumber plus a slice of lime for squeezing.
A dish with its roots in and around Bangkok is the ‘mee krob’, referred to earlier. This is unusual in that, unlike the others, it isn’t seen as a main dish and is usually served like rice, as a side dish. It’s fabulously crunchy, just a bit sweet and sticky, and is usually combined with chicken, shrimp, pickled garlic or cashews, and often garnished with garlic chives.
And to round things off, what could be better than the famous ‘kuay tio pad kee mao’? This is the Thai equivalent of ‘bubble and squeak’, and history tells us that it originated as a drunken fry-up (just Google the words to realise that ‘drunken noodles’ is a very lose translation!). Somewhere along the way the mix of meat and fish plus whatever else was spare in the fridge had ‘sen yai’ added. But today, just about any old noodles will do, with good old spaghetti now coming in as the international ‘noodle’ of choice.
See? It’s easy. So the next time you’re out, why not give pad Thai a miss. Because, after all, there’s simply oodles of other noodle dishes to choose from!
Rob De Wet