A noodle soup lover's guide to Bangkok
Bangkok's streets are crammed with food stalls on every corner, many of them selling some version of noodle soup, or kway tiew nahm, the locals' easy and cheap comfort food.
But if you don’t know what you’re doing, the array of options is intimidating and may even scare you away.
To avoid missing out, follow this handy guide to the five most common noodle soups available on the streets of Bangkok.
Three local food experts -- writer/photographer Austin Bush of Austin Bush Photography, Jarrett Wrisley of Bangkok restaurant Soul Food Mahanakorn and food writer Chawadee Nualkhair of Bangkok Glutton -- weigh in and offer advice on how to tell good noodles from mediocre.
Here they are, arguably in ascending order of flavor intensity.
Kway tiew nahm sai (clear noodle soup)
Starting things off nice and mild is this most basic of noodle soups. The key ingredients in the nahm sai are pork bones, chunks of radish and aromatics like cilantro and white pepper.
Essential toppings, other than the noodles of course, are sliced or minced pork, and fish or pork balls, along with an assortment of vegetables such as bean sprouts and Chinese kale.
Many stalls jazz things up with a dash of fried garlic flakes.
This humble soup is not nearly as glamorous as some of its counterparts, and a propensity, according to Austin Bush, towards “stock-cube stock and cheap mass-produced fish/pork balls” means that many versions around the city are uninspiring.
But if you don’t do spicy or have a squeamish stomach, poke around for a decent stall, and make it your go-to breakfast spot.
Bah mee moo daeng (egg noodles with barbecued red pork)
Noodle soups in general are reminiscent of Chinese immigration to Thailand -- the noodles, the way we use chopsticks to eat them.
But bah mee kieow moo daeng is the most ubiquitous, iconic Thai-Chinese street food dish.
Alas, it also means that most versions are lackluster. Bush laments, “The norm seems to be noodles that are pasty and smell of ammonia, with moo daeng that is dry, and lean tasteless pork that's been painted red.”
And while he contends that the widely loved bah mee moo daeng shop in Chinatown, Sawang (336 Rama IV Road. Closed Mondays), is a bit heavy-handed on the MSG, it is a favorite of Wrisley, who says, “The stock is rich, meaty and very peppery; the roast pork is slow-cooked and tender with a bit of fat and a natural hue -- not the fluorescent red, bone-dry variety found in most lesser shops -- and the noodles have a nice, firm bounce. Add a crab claw on top for some luxury if you want.”
We also love the notoriously slow but extremely porky version served at Ekkamai Soi 19 most late nights. Order it with a half-boiled egg on top.
Yen ta fo
Mention yen ta fo to Chawadee Nualkhair, and she’ll immediately start exclaiming: “I love, love, love yen ta fo. Like a great party, it's a mix of a bunch of things that you wouldn't think go together but do -- pork crackling, bouncy squid, blanched greens, fermented tofu.”
What’s also very notable about this widely-adored dish is the color: it’s a deep pink, which comes from the aforementioned fermented tofu paste. The bowl served at almost everyone’s favorite stall, Yen Ta Fo JC (which is now running branches at the food courts of supermalls, but accept nothing but the street stall original just off Sala Daeng Soi 2, in Silom), has two distinctive assets.
First, the delicious, flavorful fish-tofu balls and secondly a generous tablespoon of nearly caramelized garlic that goes great with the sweet and spicy broth.
Order it with their lovely flat rice noodles, or do what Nualkhair does and request haeng (without the soup) and kow low (without the noodles): “It turns it into a sort of awesome salad and keeps the noodles from mucking up and diluting the flavors.”
Kway tiew reua (boat noodles)
An intense and full-flavored dish, boat noodles are greatly loved in Bangkok, though they are a central Thai dish, which allegedly originated around the old floating markets of Ayutthaya (hence the name).
While the noodle options and pork toppings are mostly the same, the big distinguishing factor is the meaty, murky, and very savory broth heavy on dried spice and herbs like spring onion and sweet basil.
Most come with a dash of pork blood, too.
As for choosing a noodle to go with your boat noodles, Bush says, “Only a savage would order the dish with bah mee -- boat noodles were make for sen lek [thin rice noodles].”
Most stalls will offer pork or fish crackling separately and adding it on top. Highly recommended.
No one is really sure where khao soi comes from.
“I know there’s that story about the Lamduan Faham [district] lady tipping some coconut milk into her noodles to please customers from Bangkok,” says Nualkhair.
It’s more likely, she admits, that the Chin-Ho Muslim-minority group from Burma who settled around Chiang Mai brought the dish over. Thanks to the distinct, if vague, origins, this northern Thai noodle soup dish is very different from its counterparts.
Featuring a turmeric-heavy, coconut-milky, curry-like broth, it is topped with raw shallots, pickled vegetables, chili jam and a fistful of crispy noodles on top of the traditional bah mee.
Here’s a word of caution from Bush: “In northern Thailand, you'll never find any lauded khao soi restaurant that serves the dish after 3 p.m. -- it's a breakfast and lunch dish for a reason. Any restaurant or stall that serves khao soi for dinner should be approached with caution.”
The exception, we find, is Soul Food Mahanakorn in Bangkok, a hopping dinner spot that serves a mouth-wateringly precise version of beef cheek khao soi.