Monday, September 17, 2012

Sap’s and the Bank 9.13.2012

A bowl of floating antique roses from the rose garden out front.....
Thursday afternoon after work I had to go by the bank on the way home, and my bank is cater-corner (catty-corner) from Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine, so it was a convenient and excellent refuel on the way home. I love noodle lord (S-G5, Guay Teaw Noodle Lord), and always get it with sen yai, which are the wide, flat rice noodles; this time I went for the rice vermicelli instead, just to try something different. As the following piece which I previously wrote explains, “lord’ has no religious significance.

The term
guay teaw lord (lord means “tube”) literally means noodle rolls, and will remind people of the Cantonese dim sum dishes featuring soft flat rice noodles wrapped burrito-fashion around seasoned shrimp and pork fillings, served with sweet soy dipping sauce. That dish is called chee cheong fun in Cantonese; the Vietnamese equivalent is known as báhn cuôn.
In Thailand guay teaw lord commonly refers to an old Chinese-Thai streetside snack traditionally served in a small woven dried banana leaf basket eaten with a pair of thin bamboo skewers. Sometimes called guay teaw lord boran (old-fashioned rolled noodle) or guay teaw lord song khrueng (rolled noodle with a variety of toppings), it was one of the popular treats of the past, often associated with Chinese street vendors. The dish is normally eaten as a snack, usually from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, or as a late night pick-me-up.           
The name originated because the noodles were traditionally served in rolls (or loosely stuffed tubes) held in stacked baskets inside large steamers. When serving, the vendor cuts the noodle rolls into bite-sized pieces easily eaten with chopsticks or skewers. The vendor then tops the sliced rolls with a number of garnishes, according to the desires of the diner: diced sweet pickled radish, stir-fried egg, fried bean curd braised in palao stock, mung bean sprouts, and crispy lightly-fried dried shrimps. Sometimes pork, sliced braised shiitake mushrooms, or wedges of palao eggs are included. The dish is then sprinkled with crispy garlic and eaten topped with dark soy or sweet black soy sauce.
The pasta used is a rice noodle which is thinner than the standard sen yai noodle (wide rice noodle), and today you are as likely to find the noodles cut into bite-sized ragged pieces instead of tubes or rolls. These are stored by the vendor in individual-sized portions, contained within small woven baskets inside the large steamers. The vendor will empty the basket of noodles into a mixing bowl, and add the toppings selected and the dish is ready to place into a serving bowl to be dressed with the sweet soy and garnishes.


Today this traditional snack is becoming a rare commodity. Seldom found on a restaurant menu, it is becoming increasingly hard to find being served by street hawkers. Like many traditional Thai dishes, it is in danger of disappearing since the younger generation isn’t that familiar with the dish. In
Bangkok guay teaw lord can still be found in Chinatown, particularly among several famous vendors along Yaowarat Road (with one of the best versions being found at the corner of Trok Texas [Texas Alley]).
In the old days the dish was sold by vendors with carts, who would locate themselves outside of schools, office buildings, rail stations or bus stops, or wherever crowds would temporarily congregate, selling a noodle lord roll for 3 to 5 baht apiece (mere pennies per portion back then). These vendors would prepare the rolls to order, rolling the sheet of pasta around the fillings as requested by the customer; sheet on the bottom, topped with ingredients, and then hand-rolled. Those days are gone: it is too time-consuming to prepare the rolls to-order, too difficult for the cart vendor to negotiate street or sidewalk traffic, and too costly to pay bribes for the local police to look the other way, allowing the vendor to operate.

Today you’re more likely to find stationary noodle lord vendors either in semi-permanent or permanent stands, or occasionally in shophouses. Rolls are more often prepared with a set of standard stuffing ingredients (if they are rolled at all), and the toppings are now optional. The rolls are held in steamers, pre-stuffed, with the customer specifying the toppings desired: fried garlic, powdered chile or chile sauce, black soy or sweet dark soy. Ragged pieces of pasta sheet are replacing the rolls, and a fairly recent innovation is for the vendor to forego the rice pasta sheet as the base for the dish altogether, opting instead to use rice vermicelli served in a bowl, with all of the same toppings. This rice vermicelli version goes by the same name as the rice sheet version.
Sap’s is one restaurant where noodle lord, yet another of Thailand’s disappearing traditional dishes, can still be ordered. It is served in a large bowl with your choice of sen yai wide rice noodles, or with rice vermicelli. Sap’s version is vegetarian, adding bamboo shoots, shredded cloud ear fungus, slices of braised shitake mushrooms, slices of fried dry-spiced tofu, minced scallion, roasted chile paste, and sweet black soy sauce, garnished with fried garlic and cilantro sprigs. I order this dish with minced pork as an addition, and prefer the sen yai noodles over the vermicelli; sen yai noodles are closer to the original concept. I top it with some of the vinegar from the chiles in the phrik dong (naam som phrik), and a little extra phrik pad roasted chile paste. A fantastic bowl of noodles.  

I also ordered a newish dish for me (and I rarely find one on Sap’s menu that I haven’t tried before): S-P18, Pla Rad Phrik. I’ve eaten it in Thailand plenty of times, usually involving sauce draping a whole fried fish, and at other Thai restaurants, but never at Sap’s for some reason. This dish features chunks of crispy, golden brown catfish bathed in a sweet-tart chile sauce. The sauce is made of garlic, shallot, Thai red chile paste, tomato, vinegar, tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce, with sliced mushrooms. All the elements of Thainess, the fish sauce, the copious garlic and shallot, the fruity tamarind, the touch of palm sugar, all contribute to make it solidly and distinctly unique from an authentic Chinese sweet-sour sauce (which by no means can be compared to the gloppy ketchup-based crap found in most Americanized Chinese restaurants). This dish is well-balanced, layered and complex, and a perfect foil for the moist fried fish. Broken record, but great once again.

Mick Vann ©


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