Noodle. The shape your face makes when you say the word resembles the face you do when you’re eating them. Noodle. Noodle. Noodle. Am I right? Are you doing the face now? Let’s just hope there is no-one around you to notice your twitches or you might be eating a bowl by yourself later.
That tight pursing of the lips that allows you to suck in the satisfying slippery strip is the essence of noodle nourishment. For foreigners, eating them’s a challenge in itself. (And then they give you chopsticks!) “It’s more delicious to be eaten that way!” The Thai’s will claim. Mmmh, If you like slopping juice all over your face and gulping down nothing but fresh air that is. During my travels in Thailand, I’ve caused hysterical laughter at many a noodle street stall with my persistent efforts. It’s easy, watch. Pinch? Twist? (What!)
Nowhere on earth is the noodle a more worshipped food than in Thailand. Noodle eating is an institution. It’s tea to the Brits, croissants to the French. Men, women and children. Breakfast, lunch or dinner. Every day of the week is noodle-day in Thailand.
And, before you even think that eating such a dish so often may become a dull episode, there are enough different types of noodle, ways of preparing it and dressing it, that you could probably eat a different kind every day for the entire year!
But, what makes one noodle different from another noodle I hear you ask? In Thailand, it’s a complicated science.
There are soy bean noodles, cellophane noodles, also called glass noodles or transparent noodles, Chinese style yellow noodles (sen ba mee) Japanese style noodles (ramen, udon and soba noodles), skinny noodles (sen lek) not to be confused, (as if you were!) with really really skinny noodles (sen mee) flat, thick noodles (sen yai) curly noodles (guaiy-jap) Then there’s the noodle that’s began life not really as a noodle at all, but a grain of rice, ‘kanum jean’ or sticky rice noodles. Okay, still with me? You better be, as we’ve only just begun!
You’ll first encounter with noodle-ology probably began with the famous dish, Pad Thai, the sweet wafts of which can be inhaled, day or night, during a leisurely stroll down the equally famous Khao San Road.
However, like many things when backpacking in South East Asia, the most accessible of travel experiences aren’t always the richest in terms of getting to grips with the culture. One must delve deeper to find out what real authentic noodling is all about.
The most common way to eat noodles is in a soup or broth. These are frequently eaten at the little street stalls which are a ubiquitous sight throughout the land. Ingredients are endless. You can have vegetables, pork, beef, duck, shrimp, crab, squid, meat ball, fish ball, liver, chicken even grizzly chicken feet if you so desire! 30 baht fetches you a fair sized bowl, and as much of the condiments as you can handle. To eat them real Thai style, you must deal generous lashings of toppings from each metal pot; pourings of potent fish sauce, spoonfuls of sugar, vinegar, ground peanuts and it goes without saying, loads of ground chilli pepper! Now you’re ready to eat.
Sat on the busy street with locals in the scorching heat of the day hoovering up an authentic bowl of ‘goyteowmoo’ (pork noodle soup) sweating and slurping, slurping and sweating, is a cultural experience that should not be missed in Thailand. You’ll find noodle stalls on most street corners in Bangkok, often erected directly outside Starbucks, McDonald’s and fancy Bistros, a testament to the staying power of the much-loved noodle stand.
And the noodling adventures don’t just end there on the street. When you start to get into the real nitty gritty of noodle-ology, one discovers that the adept little noodle has even worked its squirmy way into the everyday language of Thailand! Popular phrases that derive from the eating of noodles prove their status as a fundamental ingredient of Thai culture.
Take the expression, ‘mai kin sen’, literally meaning to ‘not eat noodles’. If a Thai person says it about someone they know, it means that they no longer speak, ‘not on good terms with’. Make sense? My absolute favourite is the Thai phrase ‘sen yai’ which translates exactly to mean big noodle. Colloquially, it is used to refer to someone with a certain amount of power and respect in the area, kind of like the Western version of ‘big cheese.’ Brilliant.
So, my fellow noodle enthusiasts! After all that, where does all this noodle nonsense get you? Do you now feel ready to go forth into Bangkok and test out the strength of your noodle-hood on the street? Or are you feeling even more bamb-noodlezed than when we began? I hope one thing’s true, that no more shall you be satisfied with your Pad Thai and a sprinkling of peanuts ever again!
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