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Published: February 24th 2012
Ready to eat
Two bowls of soup, steaming hot and ready to eat.
*Please excuse the poor quality photos. The impulse to write this blog struck me at lunch today, and so I had to use my friend's camera phone.
When people discuss amazing culinary destinations post-industrial, seemingly unremarkable city of Binghamton, New York doesn't immediately come to mind. There is some very good Italian food, reflecting one of the early ethnic migrations to work in the Endicott-Johnson shoe factories, and there are quite a number of Greek diners for reasons unknown to your humble narrator. But then there are the Asian communities, and while they don't get much attention, they are quietly turning out some of the finest meals Binghamton has to offer. The chicken biryani from Moghuls, the baba ganoush from the aptly named 'Turkish Restaurant,' and the lamb gyros and shish kabobs from a tiny Pakistani hole in the wall known as Taj Restaurant all make the list for some of the finest ethnic food I have tasted anywhere in the country. But one place stands out above all else - Sabaidee Thai restaurant, tucked into a tiny corner of the crumbling Main Street in Johnson City.
Run by a family from Lao, Sabaidee makes incredibly flavorful Tom Yum Gai, all types of stir-fried foods with oyster, basil, garlic and house specialty sauces, as well as remarkable green curries and unconscionably hot red curry stir fries. We
travelled all over the country tasting some of the best Thai restaurants, notably in Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and never could find a dish to compare. Then, only about six-months before moving to Thailand, I discovered Sabaidee's Vietnamese Pho, and it was a culinary revelation.
With that bowl of Vietnamese Pho from a Lao family at a Thai restaurant, I became addicted to Asian noodle soups. And why shouldn't I be? I am told that Anthony Bourdain, a seasoned world traveller and food critic dedicates somewhere in the neighborhood of seven pages of one of his books to a description of a single bowl of Pho (pronounced somewhere between 'fa' and 'fur'😉 from a small stand in Vietnam. To make a long story short, when I got off the plane in Phuket, I immediately had noodles on my radar, but I was to grow discouraged in my efforts. Where were all the noodles in Nai Harn beach?
Do tourists not like noodles? Did the Chinese influence of noodles and chop-sticks not make it all the way south to Phuket? Even as I attempted to venture outside the realm of over-priced restaurants serving mediocre, watered down sauces
The noodle choices and often the meat are conveniently displayed.
and curries to tourists, in areas where asking for something Pedt Ma Ma (very, very spicy) gets you the equivalent of American hot wings, my efforts were for not. I couldn't find myself a bowl of noodle soup in Phuket, let alone a dish that could even come close to competing with Sabaidee halfway across the globe in cloudy Johnson City. I had come to Thailand in no small part searching for incredible food, and felt as though I may be thwarted in this regard.
Three weeks after landing we were on our way out of Phuket and, woefully, not a single noodle had yet been slurped from a pool of spicy broth. As we prepared for the twelve-hour bus ride to Bangkok, I figured I would have a beer or three and see if I could get some sleep. Having succeeded in the aforementioned venture, I was convinced I would be out for a good portion of the night, when the bus came to an extended halt. Isn't it funny how you can be completely passed out, unaware of your surroundings while on a moving vehicle, but then, the second it slows to a stop, you wake right
This pork is marinated and kept raw until it is blanched and served. It is the most tender of the four forms of pork served at this stand.
up? Well I always thought that it was. We had stopped at a giant roadside stand, with a snack and grocery area as well as hot food. I was about to go back to sleep when I noticed something to the far end of the compound. A large steaming cauldron, a clear display case full of noodles, three large stacks of bowls... could it be?? It was indeed. Although quite comfortable, quite tired, and with a mild buzz, I decided to dig out my glasses, find my shoes, and make my way off of the bus. When I arrived in front of the vendor I had no idea what any of the different noodles or meats were called, so I simply pointed - the fallback form of communication here in Thailand. With hindsight, the bowl was rather unspectacular, and I added way too many dried chillis. Actually, I had already eaten dinner and wasn't even hungry. Nevertheless, it was a satisfying experience. I now knew that there was noodle soup to be had in Thailand.
When we arrived in Nakhon Sawan, there were noodle carts everywhere. "Heavenly City" indeed! I attribute this to the fact that Nakhon Sawan is
The typical condiments at a Thai noodle stand.
a very Thai city, with few tourists to please. For Thai people, it seems, the delicious and exceedingly cheap bowl of noodle soup is a meal fit for any time - breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight drunk food, you name it. If I had to give a cautious estimate of the number of noodle vendors in Nakhon Sawan and it's environs I would have to put the number somewhere between 250 - 350 individual vendors, each with a slightly different twist on the classic dish. While many vary slightly, here are some of the basic components, for those of you as interested in food as myself.
Noodles: No matter your preference, there is very likely a noodle to please anyone. When ordering noodle soup, step one is to choose your noodle. They can be classified in two types - rice noodles and egg noodles. The rice noodles include Sen Yai (long, wide rice noodles - about 2-3 cm wide) Sen Lek - my personal favorite of the rice noodle variety (long, about 1/2 cm wide) as well as a thin wiry noodle called Sen Mee, which I don't really care for. There are also very wide noodles that are used
Add some dried chillis
These are actually the more mild form of dried chillis. Some stands have a variety which are lightly roasted and then kept in oil. This particular variety seen in this photo is about 5x as spicy as typical "crushed red pepper" in America, while the roasted variety are probably about 10x.
in a dish called Phad See Ew, but you would be hard-pressed to find them at a soup stall. Then there is my personal favorite - the egg noodles, made with wheat flour. These are known as Baa Mee, or Mee Leung (yellow noodles) and are absolutly delicious. They are a bit thinner than a Lo Mein noodle, but here in Thailand overcooking noodles is a sacrilege, and so you will not find them served mushy - as is often the case to my disdain at American Chinese restaurants. Egg and flour noodles which are also common here can be found in a northern Thai dish called Khao Soi, which are also exquisite, but can be discussed at another time. Do not be fooled by Italian propaganda - Asia is not only the birthplace of the noodle, it is still the home as well.
Vegetables: The common vegetables served in this dish are mung bean sprouts and chopped kale. You will find this blend from nearly every vendor, and it adds some much needed nutrients to the dish. The vegetables are quickly blanched before being added to the soup, so virtually all of the vitamins are maintained. This is
Mee Leung 1
The delicious yellow noodle
a great way to eat vegetables, because often times at home we either boil vegetables, or steam them - perhaps in the microwave, either way eventually dumping the vitamin rich water down the drain. What is left is probably less nutrient rich than what has been poured away down the sink. With the soup, none of the vitamins are lost.
Broth (Tom Yum
): When I left home, I immediatly came to the realization that in most of the world, nothing is wasted. In South East Asia, the bones from the animals are used to create richly flavorful broths. Typically in Thailand pork and duck bones are used, though you can certainly find many exceptions to this rule - from deep, rich beef stocks filled with dry roasted spices and herbs to very light, delicate, almost clear chicken and fish stocks. I am told that in Vietnam, cows were never eaten by the people, their labor in the fields being far to necessary to waste. When the French arrived, however, they brought with them their taste for abundant portions of red meat. And so the cows were slaughtered, and the bones were often discarded. The locals would gather these bones
Blanching the veggies
Here the vendor is blanching the vegetables before adding them to the soup.
and use them to create broths, which could be combined with noodles to make cheap, sustaining and flavorful meals. I do not know precisely how the tradition began in Thailand, but you can find similar noodle dishes throughout Asia - as far north as Korea, south as the Philippines, west as Nepal and east as Japan.
Meat: The types of meat in noodle soups vary as widely as the number of edible animals that walk the earth. It is interesting to observe the furious pace at which meat is consumed in a country governed by a philisophical-religious outlook that very clearly states you should not kill any sentient beings. Nevertheless, meat is available everywhere in Thailand's cities and that certainly includes the noodle stands. Duck, chicken and beef, as well as fish in the form of fish meatballs and fishcakes are all standard accompanimeants, as well as the occasional seafood, jellyfish, or even coagulated blood cakes. By and large, however, the meat of choice is pork - sometimes stewed, sometimes marinated, at times fresh off the bone, at others finely chopped and and fashioned into various forms of meatballs.
Garnish: While most of these stocks are blessed with
amazing flavor in their own right, you would be hard-pressed to find a soup stand that did not have a table full of garnishes. In my several months as a connoisseur of noodle stalls, I have yet to see one lacking. At the more Vietnamese style stalls, the bean sprouts are often served on the side, with lots of fresh basil and a wedge of lime. Often times the stalls will also have crushed peanuts, and many have a type of vinegar with chillis. But no matter what, every noodle stall has the basics: sugar, dried chillis and fish sauce. For those who like it salty, add some more fish sauce. Spicy? Crushed chillis. Sweet? I think you get the idea. For me, a little bit of each is always in order, and two scoops of the crushed peanuts, if available.
As a three year veteran of teaching in America, I was becomming a master of the twenty minute lunches. You race down the hallway to the teachers lounge. Upon arrival, it becomes a race to pull your leftovers or microwave dinners out of the refrigerator, and wait in line for one of the microwaves. With one eye on
the clock, you devour your food like a pack of wild dogs over a fresh kill. With about three minutes to go, you run to the bathroom, copy machine, mailbox, check your telephone, and anything else that may have to get done before racing back down the hallway toward the classroom. Although we do have a slightly longer work day here, lunch is much different. To begin, there are no lunch periods that teachers must adhere to, and we do not have scheduled duties where we have to be ever present to monitor students. For whatever reason, children in Thailand do not need to be supervised when they are not in class. They can all sit in a room with one another and, believe it or not, act civil toward one another. They may even get an assignment or two done.
With this extra freedom we get from not having to constantly babysit, teachers here are able to get away and actually sit, eat, taste food, digest and have a bit of conversation. The canteen here at the school alone has about twenty vendors, each turning out roughly ten different dishes. Within a kilometer or so radius are another
One of the hundreds in Nakhon Sawan
fifty or so vendors, preparing a wide range of dishes and offering fresh fruit. Nonetheless, my friend Gary and I can not get enough of the baa mee tom yum moo (yellow noodles in soup with pork). From one particular vendor. What started as a once or twice a week venture has quickly become an everyday occurrence. We can not help ourselves. For 30 baht ($1 USD) we sit in the 95 degree heat and slurp down steaming hot and very spicy soup. The amount of sweating caused by this trifecta is so staggering that I often find the sweat literally dripping down into my bowl. It's all good. We always back for more - everyday. There is no other way to describe the amazing medely of flavors.
Anthony Bourdain once said that he would "jerk a butter knife across his best friend's throat" for a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. Sitting on my couch back home, having never been to South East Asia, I laughed along, taking it for granted that Bourdain was joking. Today, I am not so sure.
How to order noodles from a Thai noodle cart:
This type of porn is called moo deng (red pork) and is among the most common found here. It is precooked so it takes on a bit of a firmer consistency.
are in or are going to be in Thailand, and are wondering how to order a bowl of noodles from a noodle stall (as I once was, before stumbling upon a guide somewhere online) here is a simple way to ask:
Noodle type + tom yum + meat type + number of bowls.
For example: mee leung / tom yum / moo deng / neung. Which means: yellow noodle / soup broth / red pork / one
If you care to, you can also add Au
"I want" to the beginning and cham
"bowl" to the end,
and always the polite ending word (kha (F) or khrap (Male) to the end. If the noodle vendors find you to be friendly, many will come over with specials pieces of pork from the stock, or other extras. The noodle types are as follows:
Egg noodles (yellow noodles) - Mee Leung
Wide rice noodles - Sen Yai
Thin rice noodles - Sen Lek
Thin wirey rice noodles - Sen Mee The possible meat choices you may have:
Meatballs: Look Chin
Red pork: Moo Deng
Beef (if available): Neuah
The best way I can describe this is like a pork meatloaf, which is then sliced and added to the soup. I do not see this around town very often.
Fish (if available) - Pblah
Seafood (if available) - A-han Talay
Noodles + Tom Yum + Meat
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