Our How to eat series explores common street food in Thailand and explains the how-and-what of ordering. Ready, set, EAT.
Noodle soup is one of the most common dishes served on the footpaths and sidewalks in the Kingdom — it can be found in tiny alleys behind a wat, next to convenience stores, and on rolling carts everywhere. Bags of noodle soup are snatched up by workers on their lunch breaks and lazy bowls are slurped in the late afternoon by chain-smoking taxi drivers from roadside stalls. It’s ironic that outside of Asia, noodle soup is Vietnamese territory. While pho is incredible, noodle soup in Thailand deserves room in the sun.
How to order this everyman’s dish? It’s easy. First choose your noodles, next your broth, and finally your meats.
Noodles! Ba mii are yellow and made of wheat and eggs. Woon sen are mung bean noodles that turn translucent when cooked (and are often referred to as cellophane noodles in English). Rice noodles come in multiple iterations: sen yai (very wide, flat, soft fresh noodles), sen lek (thin, flat, usually dried noodles), and sen mii (thin, round noodles) are the most common.
Next comes the stock: naam, naam tom yam, naam-tok. Naam is just plain broth, usually pork, that has been simmered with aromatics and spices for hours — most vendors have their own special recipes and live or die by their broth quality. Naam tom yam is seasoned in the tom yam-style. Naam tok is broth where blood has been blended into the stock as it boils — might sound a bit disgusting, but naam tok has a complex richness, almost a smoky note that is hard to argue with. You can also get your noodle soup dry; the broth comes in a separate bowl on the side. Ask for your noodles heng (dry).
Finally, time to choose meats. Most vendors’ meats match their broth: for example, if they have pork broth, they’ll have pork products. Beef and chicken noodle soup stands are more rare, but do exist. Luk chin are firm meat balls; luk chin mum are soft meat balls (think loose sausage dropped into soup — as delicate and savoury as meat clouds). Muu daeng (roasted, seasoned pork loin, the seasoning gives it a red colour), and many others, including liver, blood cake, and dumplings filled with ground meat or shrimp called giow (don’t miss these). If you don’t know the name, just point and nod. If you don’t specify, the vendor will choose for you.
After you’ve made your selection (just string together the things you want in this order: “noodle selection, broth or dry, meats”. If you wanted wheat noodles in tom yum broth with red pork and dumplings you’d ask for “ba-mii naam tom yum muu daeng giow“. It’s that simple. And honestly, if you mess it up, it’s still going to be amazing.
To find a noodle cart or restaurant, look for piles of various noodles, assorted roast meats being sliced, and a cauldron of simmering broth. A bowl should cost between 25 and 55 baht depending on what meats go into it. Happy hunting!
By Brock Kuhlman
Last updated on 12th May, 2011.