Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pi Porn: The Noodle Goddess

At Sap's Fine Thai Cuisine, one of my favorite all-time dishes is S-NS14, Guay Teow Tom Yum Moo, which is basically a spiced-up version of my favorite Thai breakfast, Guay Teow Luk-chin Pla, pork noodle soup with fish balls. Take the later dish, add all of the standard table condiments, and it becomes the former dish. Here is the version at Sap's (S-NS14):



....followed by the other dish I had, Pud Ped Nor Mai Gai, or bamboo shoots, Thai basil, chicken, egg, jalapeƱo, and spicy sauce. A crazy delicious stir fry:



Art dropped by and ordered the Tod Mun fish cakes, with bits of fresh green bean, curry paste, and slivers of makroot:



...followed by their most excellent version of that specialty of Chiang Mai, Kao Soi, or Red Curry Lanna-Style Noodle Soup:



...another fantastic meal at Sap's, but my soup reminded me of previous trips to Thailand, and a tiny little shophouse cafe serving one amazing dish.

The goddess of guay teow luk-chin pla (pork noodle soup with fish balls) is named “Pi Porn” (Great Aunt Porn…Porn being a common Thai female name). She is elegant in appearance: probably in her late sixties or early seventies, with gray hair, a smooth complexion, disarming smile, and a brilliant twinkle in her eyes. She has the look of an older woman that you know was devastatingly beautiful back in her salad days. She runs a shop house in a soi (side street) compound about ¾ of the way out Ramkaenghang Rd., a convenient stop for us on the way in to central Bangkok. Friends have been patronizing Porn’s shophouse noodle joint for years, and insist that Porn’s product is among the best in all of Bangkok.



Many Bangkok mornings began for me with a couple of bowls of her delicious fish ball and pork (ground and braised chunks) soup with rice noodles (a common breakfast item in Thailand), backed up with a glass or two of iced pandan leaf tea or a Coke. Porn’s diminutive noodle shop is a popular spot in her soi compound, and usually by the time we get there, the big morning rush is winding down, she will have had time to restock all of her ingredients, and there will be a gaggle of older neighborhood gals sitting around gossiping and slurping noodles.

When we pull up in front of her place, Porn will shoo the gals around so that we are insured one of the limited number of tables in her houseplant-encircled oasis, and if the gods are smiling that particular morn, it will be directly under the single ceiling fan. After wais (the Thai prayer-like nodding-greeting which shows respect) are exchanged and drinks are ordered and dispensed, we have only to decide on the choice of noodles: flat rice, thin rice, transparent mung bean, or thin egg. Porn will go to her spotless cart, which is nestled in the corner of the screened-in room on the ground floor of her three story house, and ceremoniously don her apron.

In a glass case are portions of the different types of par-blanched noodles, cooked ground and braised pork, and golden-fried handmade fish balls. Set up in mis-en-place are containers of sprouts, chopped scallion, and assorted garnii, while a propane burner sits under a large built-in stainless cauldron of rich, faintly bubbling pork stock that has been reducing slowly and intensifying in flavor for many hours.



Fish balls are the Southeast Asian equivalent of the Italian meatball, except they are made of ground fish (or shrimp, or squid, or slipper lobster, etc.) blended with varying amounts of rice flour; like a good crab cake, the less filler the better. Westerners might be suspicious of something like a fish ball. When the fish is ground-up like that you can’t look it in the eye to see how fresh it is, you can’t see those scarlet gills.

Not to worry; Thais insist on absolute freshness. Any Thai chef worth their salt will make their own fish balls, using only the freshest seafood, but there are plenty of sources of superior-quality fresh fish balls available at the market if time doesn’t allow, made from all kinds and types of seafood. Unlike the frozen fishy blobs we find at our local Asian market here in the States, these seafood nuggets are toothsome delights, with a fresh, sweet flavor that wistfully hints of the ocean.

Thai pork is still delightfully old-school: sweet, juicy, and full-flavored. Pork in Thailand isn’t produced in huge Midwestern megaswine factory feedlots like it is Stateside. Thais tend to grow the older breeds that are fattier, take longer to mature, and taste ten times better. They are lovingly grown in micro batches, frolicking around their pens like giggly little school girls. Even the Thai commercial pork distributors tend to purchase from many small independent producers rather than a huge fattening facility.

The typical Thai housewife will certainly have her favorite local pork butcher in the market; one that she knows always has top quality product. It isn’t out of the ordinary for her to even know the farmer that grew the pig she was buying, cooking, and eating, especially away from the huge metro areas like Bangkok. But even in the heart of a huge city like Bangkok, the housewife or cook is much more intimately involved with the producers of her foodstuffs, and there are far fewer steps between field and table than one would imagine.

Porn will arrange the empty bowls, then re-heat and add the appropriate noodle for each. Next go in the halved fish balls and the pork, some sprouts and scallions, and then a large ladle-full of the rich, simmering, aromatic stock. A light toss of garnii and the bowls are delivered. Cooking and serving time for a table of four often takes less than a minute and a half.



At this point we take over, creating a customized bowl to our liking. Thai’s would never just start eating a bowl of soup noodles without first adding their particular proportions of seasonings from the collection stored in the middle of every table: fish sauce, sugar, ground peanuts, roasted Thai chile paste, ground bird pepper, and vinegar flavored with chile slices. The gaggle of neighbor gals all watch with expectation when I remove the top of the container of roasted Thai chile paste, then giggle and nod in approval when I dump in a big incendiary spoonful. I like it very spicy; something that most farang (Westerners) might freak-out over. They are positively atwitter when I then add ground bird pepper and Thai chile slices in vinegar on top of that, murmuring and clucking positively to each other as I do.



Our table instantly falls silent and noisy noodle slurping commences. This soup is so incredibly delicious that you are focused solely on dipping the soup spoon in, filling it up quickly, and getting it to your mouth by the time the previous mouthful is being sucked down. In short order we are barking out orders for variations on the theme: another bowl, but “dry” (meaning no broth) this time; a “special”, meaning a side bowl of just pork and fish balls; and, if our timing is very fortunate, a large bowl of pork bones straight from the fresh new replacement batch of pork broth…bones that are heavily laden with chunks of clinging succulent pork meat. Pure ambrosia, and what an amazing way to start the day! The cost for this bowl of nirvana?...20 baht per bowl, or about 60 cents.

Porn and her galpals all love me. Here I am, a portly farang with a friendly demeanor, eating there day after day, possessed with a capacity to rapidly down multiple bowls of pork and fish ball goodness, and I eat it the right way, spicing it up to the extreme level, as it should be done. The love at her shop is mutual, I have really grown to appreciate…no, worship her mastery of such a simple and humble dish, transformed here into a rarefied class by her profound culinary skills.

Twice we have been graced at Porn’s noodle palace by the tinkling of a small bell out in the soi that faintly registers through all of the slurping and moaning going on at our table. Sap, however, instinctively reacts. He immediately stuffs a wad of baht into the hands of a friend and sends him scampering out into the sunlit street. Lo and behold, it is the neighborhood khanom krok vendor making her rounds! It might as well be manna falling from the tropical skies; a gift from the heavens.

Khanom krok are small, flattish, and round coconut puddings that are cooked in a special circular cast iron pan. The surface has dozens of depressed dimples, each holding about three scant tablespoons or so of a batter of coconut cream, palm and white sugars, glutinous rice flour, and egg yolks. They cook in this dimpled pan over a small propane burner (or a charcoal brazier out in the villages), covered with a round aluminum sheet pan, transported by a vendor’s cart. These little custardy puddings are so tasty that it’s almost impossible to stop eating them, gorging until you’re ready to explode, like the gluttonous Mr. Creosote in the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life.



Here they are cooked a different way, steamed in tea cups:



...and here is the same pan used to make a delish breakfast snack in the market, quail eggs eaten with a skewer:



Khanom krok have a sweet, rich coconut flavor and a seductively silky texture. Pop one into your mouth with the provided wooden skewer and each pudding makes just about one and a half bites that meltingly and deliciously cascade down your gullet. The cost for a dozen of them in a small styrofoam tray: 10 baht, or about 25 cents. We always get extras in a futile attempt to take some home for later, but we always polish them off before we get to our destination. Combine Porn’s tantalizing noodle bowls with the vendor’s sinful coconut custards and you might as well just turn around and go back home to chill; your day has already reached its absolute peak, and can’t possible get any better.

Mick Vann ©

2 comments:

  1. Wow that food looks good, I should have waited until after lunch to read this. Did you take all these pics?

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  2. Can't wait to eat at Sap's. Wish I had some of that soup right now, bet it would ease this Champagne headache. BTW, Mr. Creosote is in The Meaning of Life, not Life of Brian.

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