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The oodles of takes on noodles

The comfort food can be served in soup or dry in several styles

Photos: Suthon Sukphisit

In their most popular forms kuay tio -- rice noodles -- are prepared in two ways. As kuay tio nam they are served in broth, and there are countless variants on this basic noodle soup. The other approach is to stir-fry the noodles in a wok to make phat kuay tio, and here again there is a long list of different fried noodles no less irresistible to noodle lovers as the repertoire of kuay tio nam.

Some of the wok-fried fried noodle dishes that are especially familiar are kuay tio raad naa (topped with meat in gravy), phat see iew (stir-fried with soy sauce Taechew style), fried crisp and topped with bamboo shoots in gravy (koy sim mee), Cantonese broad rice noodles fried and topped with beef, broad noodles stir-fried with chicken to make kuay tio khua kai or topped with minced beef fried with curry powder to make kuay tio nuea sap, and, finally, the internationally popular phat Thai.

These dishes are made with different kinds of noodles depending on their appropriateness to the recipe and the preferences of the people who will be eating them. For example raad naa and Taechew-style phat see iew can be made with either sen yai (broad noodles) or the extremely fine-gauge, angel hair like noodles called sen mee. Crisp-fried koy sim mee is only made with the wheat noodles called ba-mee. Kuay tio khua kai and kuay tio nuea sap with curry powder can only be made with the broad noodles, while phat Thai demands the small-gauge sen lek.

But one of the types of noodle used to make the fried dishes, the super fine-gauge sen mee, comes in three different forms, the white, angel hair-like sen mee, the clear "glass noodles" called woon sen, and mee sua. Each has its own character and significance in cooking as well as its own story.

Sen mee are made from white rice flour. They have great influence on the repertoire of noodle dishes where the noodles must first be cooked briefly in hot water. Favourites like kuay tio khae (served with a variety of different meatballs), kuay tio rote det (made with fresh beef), kuay tio luke chin nuea nam sai (in clear broth with balls of pounded beef) and kuay tio kai mara (in broth with chicken and bitter melon). They are also served with kraphoh plaa (fish bladder soup).

Among the fried sen mee dishes is the Thai-Chinese hybrid called mee kathi. To make it the noodles are stir-fried with water containing the red fermented tofu called tao huu yee or with tomato catsup. Then they are doused with a sauce that contains toa jio khao (a salty fermented soybean sauce), tofu and minced pork or shimp.The taste is salty-sweet. The noodles are served with long strands of scrambled egg, Chinese celery leaves, and slivers of hot chilli.

Another popular dish made with fried sen mee is mee krawp. Here the noodles are fried until crisp, then stir-fried with tamarind water, palm sugar, nam plaa, tofu and shallots. After they have been removed from the stove and before serving they are sprinkled with pickled garlic, bean sprouts, Chinese celery leaves, the zest of the aromatic citrus called som saa and slivers of hot red chilli.

Both of these are very old recipes, but there is a more recent one that is constantly gaining in popularity. Sen mee phat phak krachate (stir-fried with water mimosa). It is very simple to make, and many people think that it originated at the Chinese Vegetarian Festival.

From its vegetarian festival beginnings it was adapted and altered to give it a range of different flavours, and it began to be served outside the festival period, sometimes with added garlic, Shitake mushrooms, shrimp, tofu, straw mushrooms, carrots, and fresh chillies.

Next we come to woon sen, which is made from mung bean flour, which makes the batter very sticky and the noodles clear and transparent when they are cooked. They are special favourites with the Hainanese, who made them into the dish called phat Hailam or jap chaai Hailam. The dry noodles are soaked in water first, the stir-fried with shrimp, minced pork, tofu paper, shitake mushrooms and het huu nuu (wood ear mushrooms), then seasoned with white soy sauce, oyster oil, sesame oil and Chinese liquor. Finally, vegetables including Chinese celery and spring onion are put in.

Woon sen fried with egg are one of the easiest dishes to make. All that needs to be done is to fry the woon sen with some garlic, flavour it with soy sauce or nam plaa and sugar, and add the egg.

Woon sen also figure in a Northern dish, kaeng ho. Originally this dish was made by taking leftovers from a previous meal or meals and frying them together. But there also had to be pickled bamboo and woon sen included. These two ingredients could never be left out.

No frying is involved in the preparation of yam woon sen, a very important and popular favourite. It is a potently flavoured version of the Thai hot-sour salad called yam.

Woon sen are so popular that they are sold everywhere. Even big companies that specialise in the ready-to-eat wheat flour noodles offer instant woon sen dishes packaged in envelopes.

The woon sen of the most reliable quality, however, are the ones manufactured in Amphoe Thaa Ruea in Kanchanaburi, an amphoe that is famous for these clear noodles.

The third kind of noodles is mee sua, considered to be the oldest of all. Chinese annals record that the Chinese emperor had to eat them because of the belief that they would endow him with long life (because the noodle strands were very long). They were made by kneading wheat flour and water, then adding salt. The dough was hand-cut into strands and then boiled until cooked. The cooked noodles were set in the sun until completely dry. Mee sua noodles are chewy, naturally slightly salty, and can be stored for a long time.

In the past, when Chinese were emigrating to destinations all over the world and many came to Thailand, they took mee sua along with them. They could conveniently boil and eat it aboard ship during the journey, too, and it made for a satisfying meal.

Since it is a food with a belief attached to it, when Chinese pay homage to ancestors they include a woven packet of eggs and mee sua among other offerings like chicken, pork, fish and fruit. Some households fry it to prepare phat mee sua by softening the noodles in hot water and then frying them with tofu paper, shitake mushrooms, cabbage, ground pork, dried shrimp and spring onion, and finally seasoning it with soy sauce and sugar.

Phat mee sua is Chinese lunchtime standard. Even when there is no ceremony paying homage to ancestors, families in China cook it up for themselves and enjoy it as the midday meal.

Besides frying them, mee sua can be softened in boiling water and then put into a bowl with water that has been boiled with sugar to make mee waan, a kind of filling dessert or sweet snack. Mee waan was once popular with Chinese people in Bangkok, and decades ago was sold from stalls on Yaowarat.

Mee sua imported from China can be bought in in Thailand, but the most famous source of the noodles is Phitsanulok province. Anyone who travels there is expected to bring some back for friends and relatives.

Kuay tio that are good for frying have their own clear identity, and have had a great influence on Thailand's culinary culture. There is a diversity that ensures that there is enough variety in fried noodle dishes to provide a favourite for practically anyone, and the list is sure to grow in the future.

Different phat sen mee dishes

Phat mee sua.

Kuay tio luke chin nuea nam sai – noodles with balls of pounded beef in clear broth.

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