A popular noodle dish originating from the Northern region of the Kingdom, khanohm jeen naam ngiaao (ขนมจีนน้ำเงี้ยว) is characterized by its light – yet profound – multi-layered broth. This hearty broth includes an assortment of proteins braised with the dried pollens of cotton tree flowers, and Northern Thai sour cherry tomatoes (มะเขือส้ม); the tomatoes infuse the broth with a subtle tartness that refreshes a full-bodied profile comprising a multitude of fermented ingredients.
The naam ngiaao broth is served over fermented rice noodles and features minced pork, and braised baby back pork ribs with their tender meat clinging to the bone. As well, there are succulent, slow-cooked whole chicken feet, and cubes of slightly bouncy, mauve-hued chicken blood cakes. Served alongside the soup are various toppings, which can include shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, chopped coriander leaves, and spring onions, while dark red chili oil and glossy, charred-fried dried bird’s eye chilies offer a fiery intensity dialed up to your preferred spiciness. In addition, I like to add wok-smoked sour cherry tomatoes and broom-like, crispy-fried dried cotton tree pollen for a surprising textural contrast.
Though the dish is often described as “Shan style”, the word ‘ngiao’ was a derogatory expression for the Shan people. As the disparaging – and outdated – label suggests, the recipe might reflect societal biases and prejudices; thus, at least from the culinary perspective, the ‘ngiao’ in the name of the dish may simply be a nod to the flavors or ingredients favored by The Shan, rather than a claim of authenticity – which could also explain why the dish is based on a Siamese curry paste.
It is also not clear how ‘ngiao’ came to be used as an impolite term for the Shan, as their upright posture is expresses respect and is nothing but graceful. The Shan people are an ethnic group who inhabit the Shan State in northeastern Myanmar as well as in Laos, in adjacent regions in China’s Yunnan province and in parts of Thailand’s eastern and northwestern provinces. Their religious faith predominantly aligns with Theravada Buddhism but is augmented by their distinctive spiritual beliefs and customs. Shan cuisine relies on fresh, seasonal herbs and vegetables, and favors rice, along with rice and wheat noodles, tofu, chickpea flour, and a range of fermented and pickled ingredients often prepared at the household level, such as kimchi-like pickled mustard greens with hooker chive roots (raak haawm chuu) (รากหอมชู), various fermented soy bean preparations (tua nao) (ถั่วเน่า), and fermented tea leaves, just to name a few.
Fermented soybean cake (tua nao) (ถั่วเน่า)
Fermented soybeans, or tua nao, come as a brown paste or as dried disks, and are among the favorite seasonings of the Shan people. The fermented soybeans are utilized to enhance the umami flavor in dishes, much like shrimp paste is used in other regions of the country. Dried fermented soybean cakes, referred to as tua nao khaaep (ถั่วเน่าแข๊บ) are lightly grilled and pounded to a fine powder before use. Tua nao is a product of the proteolytic alkaline fermentation of cooked soybeans. Its production is relatively simple, and can be done at home. The process starts with the boiling of soybeans for four to seven hours. Then, the soft beans are pounded to a paste in a wooden mortar and pestle. The paste is sometimes lightly seasoned with salt or chili flakes, and a paste of lemongrass, shallots and garlic, and let to ferment for two or three days. It is during this fermentation period that the bean paste develops its savoriness, with typical earthy notes accompanied by sweet and bitter undertones, and a nutty-yeasty smell that contributes to its overall qualities. The paste is then pressed into thin disks and allow to dry in the sun. Before adding it to the curry paste, the disk is lightly grilled over fire and pounded to a fine powder.
Daawk ngiu (ดอกงิ้วแห้ง)
Another ingredient commonly used by the Shan people is the cotton tree flower (Bombax ceiba). Large and red, the fresh flowers can be used in salads. More commonly, the dried pollen of the cotton tree flowers are deployed in a manner similar to that of dry bay leaves in Indian cuisine – to infuse broths and steamed dishes with sweet and earthy notes. The dried cotton tree pollen is known in Thai as daawk ngiu heang (ดอกงิ้วแห้ง).
Interestingly, in certain regions of Thailand, people are discouraged from planting cotton trees in their homes or gardens due to the belief that they will bring misfortune. More typically, these trees are seen in open fields near the village or in temples.
One reason behind the tree’s unfortunate reputation is its traditional use in funeral rites. In the past, a deceased person’s relatives would cut down the cotton tree to construct a coffin, an economical and efficient operation due to the tree’s soft wood and straight posture.
Furthermore, in Northern Thailand, the wood of the cotton tree is frequently used to create decorative casings for coffins; in certain northeastern provinces, an entire cotton tree may be felled and carved to resemble a boat, to contain the body. Thus, planting a cotton tree in one’s garden is seen as cursing oneself or preparing one’s own coffin.
In Buddhist cosmology (วิวัฒนาการพุทธ), hell (นรก; narok) is perceived as temporary state of existence within the cycle of birth, and employed as a teaching device to demonstrate the effects of negative karma. Unlike the hell of other religions, the Buddhist hell is not an eternal and everlasting punishment but is often depicted as a series of layered realms of suffering for those who commit certain types of moral offenses.
One of these realms is Chimphli or Metalsimpli (สิมพลี or ฉิมพลี), also known as the Hell of the Cotton Tree. This specific hell is frequently described as a forest of towering cotton trees, each covered with sharp, iron-like thorns; individuals who committed adultery or betrayed their spouses are condemned to climb the trees, enduring physical torment as a form of spiritual consequences of their sins.
How to cook the dish
The preparation of khanohm jeen naam ngiaao starts with preparing the broth. Place baby back pork ribs and chicken feet in a large pot with boiling water, along with a couple of bruised stalks of lemongrass to deodorize. Simmer on low heat, skimming and discarding the impurities that float atop the broth, and continue to gently braise the meats until the rib meat is tender, the chicken feet are almost falling apart, and the stock has been reduced and its flavors concentrated. Discard the lemongrass and set it aside.
The curry paste
I use the standard phrik khing (พริกขิง) paste as the base for the naam ngiaao curry paste and use the same ingredients and ratios. However, possibly reflective of the dish’s ngiao origins, the paste omits lemongrass and kaffir lime zest, which are less common in Shan cuisine. Instead, the paste includes fresh turmeric and deploys three potent umami agents: fermented shrimp paste (kapi), along with fermented fish (pla ra) and fermented soybean cake (tua nao).
Each of these ingredients contributes a unique umami character and interacts distinctively with smoke; the fermented shrimp paste (kapi) and fermented fish (pla ra) are grilled wrapped in banana leaves but, in order to neutralize the intense fishy aroma of pla ra, it is grilled resting on a bed of aromatic fingerroot. Last, the fermented soybean cake (tua nao) is lightly grilled until it crisps up, and then pounded to fine powder.
I prepare the rest of the ingredients – chilies, galangal, coriander root, garlic, and shallots –according to the phrik khing (พริกขิง) universal ratios.
For chilies, I suggest choosing large-bodied chilies such as dried red long chilies (phrik chee fa), which, when deseeded and rehydrated, display intense red hues. If you want to add an extra layer of sharp heat, which is typically missing in the large chili varieties, add extra spicy dried bird’s eye chilies. Since the fresh turmeric used in the paste imparts a light-yellow tint, be careful not to let its golden hues overpower the vibrant red color of the chilies. I like to gauge the amount of turmeric to achieve a final dish that has the warm and inviting color of a ripe tomato – a rich, deep red color with just a touch of orange undertones.
|Fermented fish (pla ra) (ปลาร้า)||Kaffir lime zest|
|Fermented soybean cake (tua nao) (ถั่วเน่า)|
Once the curry paste is pounded smooth, with no need to wash the mortar in between, pound the underpaste made from fresh chilies and garlic. Then, in a large pot over medium heat, melt some pork lard and sauté the underpaste. I refer to it as “underpaste,” since I fry it in the fat before the main paste, as a foundation layer that introduces, early on, the tomato’s color, and echoes its freshness, thus providing a refreshing counterpoint to the intense savoriness to come.
When the lard is nicely infused with freshness, add the curry paste; almost immediately after, add the minced pork and fry the paste and the pork together until fully cooked and nicely caramelized. Good heat control is important; you can deglaze the pot with the stock as needed, ensuring the paste doesn’t burn as the pork caramelizes.
When fully cooked, stop the frying process with some stock and add the dried cotton tree pollen followed by the cooked baby back ribs and chicken feet, sliced tomatoes, and the cubed and washed chicken blood cake.
I deliberately include the full range of tomato maturity levels, from young and green to mature and red. I also add larger sliced tomatoes and will finish the dish with wok-smoked tomatoes. Besides the noticeable differences in flavor introduced by this array of maturities, we can consider it as an axis of growth, an animation of the tomato flavor progression from birth to fruition, thus engaging our senses in yet another dimension of complexity.
Add a small amount of fermented soybean paste, known as tao chiao (เต้าเจี้ยว), to echo the tau nao, and a pinch of sugar to enhance the ‘mouthfeel’ of the broth. Pour enough stock to cover and allow to gently simmer covered until the dish comes as richly flavored broth.
Finally, season the dish with light soy sauce for body and rock salt for sharpness, and serve over fermented rice noodles with garlic oil, pork fat cracklings, coriander leaves, spring onions, deep-fried small bird’s eye chilies, shredded cabbage, pickled mustard greens, bean sprouts, crispy pork rinds, chili oil, and a wedge of lime.
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For the stock:
- 400 g pork baby back ribs (ซี่โครงอ่อน)
- 10 pcs chicken feet (ตีนไก่)
- 2 stalks lemongrass (ตะไคร้) bruised
- water (น้ำเปล่า)
To cook the dish:
- pork lard (น้ำมันหมู)
- 200 g minced pork meat (เนื้อหมูบด)
- 100 g Northern Thai sour cherry tomatoes (มะเขือส้ม) pan charred
- 200 g Northern Thai sour cherry tomatoes (มะเขือส้ม) fresh
- 4 large tomatoes (มะเขือเทศ) cut into halves
- Chicken blood cake (เลือดไก่) cut into large cubes
- 10 dried cotton tree flowers (daawk ngiu) (ดอกงิ้วแห้ง)
- rock salt (เกลือสินเธาว์)
- light soy sauce (ซีอิ๊วขาว)
For the curry paste:
- 10 dried red long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าแห้ง) rehydrated and deseeded.
- 4 dried Thai bird’s eye chili (phrik kee noo) (พริกขี้หนูแห้ง) rehydrated
- 4 tablespoons galangal (ข่า) sliced thinly
- 6 cm fresh turmeric (ขมิ้นชัน)
- 2 tablespoons coriander roots (รากผักชี) scraped, washed and chopped
- 4 tablespoons Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
- 4 tablespoons shallots (หอมแดง)
- 1 tablespoon fermented shrimp paste (kapi)(กะปิย่างไฟ) grilled
- 1 tablespoon fermented fish meat (pla ra) (ปลาร้าสับ) grilled
- 1 fermented soy bean cake (tua nao)(ถั่วเน่า)
For the under paste:
- 1 fresh red long chili (phrik chee fa) (พริกชี้ฟ้าแดง)
- 1/2 tablespoon Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
- fermented rice noodles (khanohm jeen) (ขนมจีน) khanohm jeen (ขนมจีน)
- garlic oil (น้ำมันกระเทียมเจียว)
- pork fat cracklings (กากหมู)
- coriander leaves (ใบผักชี)
- spring onion (ต้นหอม)
- fried dried bird's eye chili (พริกขี้หนูสวนแห้งทอด)
- cabbage (กะหล่ำปลี) shredded
- pickled mustard green (ผักกาดดอง )
- bean sprouts (ถั่วงอก) ถั่วงอก
- crispy pork rinds (แคบหมู)
- lime lime wedge (มะนาว)
Prepare the stock
- To a pot, add water and the bruised lemongrass stalks. Bring to a boil and add the baby back pork ribs and the chicken feet.
- Over low heat, braise the beef until the meats are tender and the liquids have reduced to a concentrated broth. Remove the lemongrass and set aside.
The three strong umami ingredients for the curry
- Over direct flame, roast the fermented soybean cake (tua nao) (ถั่วเน่า) until it crisps up, then pound it to a fine powder.
- Grill the fermented fish (pla ra) (ปลาร้า) meat in banana leaves over a bed of sliced fingerroot to deodorize.
- Grill the fermented shrimp paste (kapi) in banana leaves.
Prepare the underpaste
- In a mortar and pestle, pound the fresh red long chilies and garlic to a smooth paste. Set aside.
Prepare the curry paste
- An overview of the under paste ingredients
- An overview of the curry paste ingredients
- An overview of the three umami ingredients
- Deseed and rehydrate the dried chilies in hot water.
- Pound the curry paste; start with the chilies and gradually add the other ingredients, from the driest to the wet.
- Gradually add fresh turmeric to achieve light orange undertones in the bright red chili color.
- Add the fermented soybean cake (tua nao) (ถั่วเน่า).
- Add the grilled fermented fish (pla ra) (ปลาร้า) meat.
- Add the grilled fermented shrimp paste (kapi).
- Pound the paste until it is smooth with a rounded aroma. Set aside.
Cooking the naam ngiaao (น้ำเงี้ยว)
- In a large pot over medium heat, melt some pork lard.
- Sauté the underpaste in the lard as a foundation layer to introduce the tomato’s color and freshness.
- Add the curry paste and fry it with minced pork until fully cooked and caramelized.
- Deglaze the pot with stock as needed to prevent burning.
- Add the cooked baby back ribs and chicken feet.
- Stop the frying process by adding some stock.
- Add dried cotton tree pollens.
- Add the sliced tomatoes. Add tomatoes at different maturity levels for a variety of flavors, from young and green to mature and red.
- Add the charred tomatoes.
- Add the sliced chicken blood cake.
- Add a small amount of fermented soybean paste (tao chiao).
- Add a pinch of sugar to enhance the broth’s mouthfeel.
- Pour in enough stock to cover the ingredients, cover the pot and allow them to gently simmer until the dish becomes a richly flavored broth.
- Season the dish with light soy sauce for body and rock salt for sharpness.