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Thai Noodles

March 19, 2012

Have you ever eaten a dish whose name you never understood, but yet you always wondered how it got its name?  My whole life, I grew up eating something known as Thai Boat Noodles.  It’s basically, a hot, yummy, fulfilling beef noodle soup.  As a kid, I could never figure out why this dish wasn’t just called a noodle soup, why was it called boat noodles?  The noodles aren’t shaped like boats, their served in a bowl and not a boat-shaped platter, so I could never understand why it had the name it did.  I guess if I actually sat and thought about it, I probably would have been able to put 1 and 1 together many years ago to make 2 and it would have all made sense.  But of course, I wasn’t smart enough for that.  I don’t think it was until a few years ago that I actually figured out why they were called Thai boat noodles.  It’s like it just clicked for me one day, and it had me saying, “duh!”

Back in the day, long before cars became prevalent on the roads of Thailand, and especially in Bangkok due to its series of canals and waterways, merchants used to ply wood canoes up and down the canals selling their goods.  It’s how business was done.  Many houses backed right into the canal, so it was the perfect way to buy your fresh fruit and vegetables and your prepared food.  You walk out your back door, wait along the canal and soon enough, various merchants, selling various goods would glide by your deck.  When you wanted to buy something they were selling, you’d signal to them and they’d row their canoe over to you and you’d buy from them whatever you wanted.  On a smaller, and more touristic scale, this practice still exist today with Bangkok’s famed “Floating Market”.  One of the most popular items to purchase off of these boats was noodles.

Noodles have long been a staple of the Thai diet.  Because of the fact that noodles sold from these boats that traveled up and down the canals were so popular, these noodles eventually became known as Thai boat noodles.  The reference to the “boat” in the name of the noodles has nothing to do with the shape of the noodles, or any other characteristic of the dish other than the fact that they were commonly sold off of boats.  Today, these Thai boat noodles can be seen all over the country in roadside cafes, restaurants and food courts.

In actuality, Thai boat noodles are really just a fancy term for beef noodle soup.  However, traditional Thai boat noodles were made using ingredients that most of us would shy away from today; including using cow’s blood to flavor the broth of the soup, as well as including items such as tripe and liver, among others in the actual soup.  It’s the Asian philosophy of never wasting any part of the animal that has given up its life so that you can eat.  Unfortunately, I’m too picky of an eater, and I’ve never been able to come to terms with that philosophy.  Good thing for me, traditional Thai boat noodles made with those ingredients are becoming less prevalent and today, you can find Thai boat noodles that are traditional and non-traditional.

Not surprisingly, Thai boat noodles from different parts of Thailand are very different from one another as well in terms of the broth, the ingredients in the noodles, and even down to the type of noodles that are used as well.  They are as varied as night and day.  For instance, the noodles pictured above were ordered at a small mom and pop roadside stand in the small city of Khao Yai, about an hour outside of Bangkok.  The noodles themselves were more like ramen noodles you can find in most places.  The broth was more of a clear broth and the added greens were a vegetable known as on-choy.  The flavors were more mild allowing you to flavor the soup however you choose with vinegar, fish sauce, and chili and chili oil.  And the soup came with crushed peanuts mixed in for flavor and texture.

Compare that with the Thai boat noodles that I ordered in the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.  The broth is more of a beef-flavored broth with rich colors.  The Thai boat noodles in Chiang Mai came with beef meatballs and in one of the bowls you can see the noodles are more like vermicelli noodles, though the second bowl of noodles also uses more ramen-like noodles.  The greens here are a mixture of cilantro and green onions.  The soup itself was more intense in flavors and a little spicier and didn’t come with the crushed peanuts or any other flavoring ingredients.

And yet, I can also get a different type of Thai boat noodles home-made at home.  A steaming bowl of beef-flavored broth tinged with some star anise flavor and made with vermicelli noodles.  The “greens” in this dish are actually bean sprouts, though on-choy can also be used.  The bowl is served with both sliced pieces of marinated beef as well as beef meatballs.  And the soup is flavored with garlic and garlic oil as well as fish sauce and vinegar creating a balance of flavors of salty, sweet and sour, for which Thai food is known.

So, even though they are all called Thai boat noodles, they are all very distinct depending on where they come from, where you order it, and how it’s made.  But, there’s no doubt that no matter how they make it and what’s in it, you know it’ll be good.  Full of robust flavors and textures all in a little bowl of goodness.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Judy hall permalink
    March 19, 2012 8:00 am

    Thai boat noodles is one of my kids most favorite dishes! They would pick boat noodles over pizza!!!! We love our thai food:)

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