A gold-tinted coconut-based broth featuring chicken simmered with a generous amount of galangal and turmeric. Warm, silky and soothing, the broth is served over fermented rice noodles seasoned with shiny, red-hued roasted or fried chili jam. The crowning touch is a garnish of crispy fried shallots, spring onions, and coriander leaves, a fitting tribute to the dish’s origins.
Presenting a yellow luster comparable to gold, turmeric was once considered a significant plant in India. Its cultural value went beyond cooking; for centuries, it was used in religious rites and as a miraculous therapeutic remedy that could cure illnesses and heal wounds. As such, turmeric was a common plant grown in many kitchen gardens. Yet, while we still deploy turmeric in cooking as a spice, whether dried or fresh in curry pastes, we have largely forgotten about its cultural significance and health advantages.
With this pedigree, it is unsurprising that fermented rice noodles in a rich turmeric-tinted coconut broth was once a favorite dish of the aristocracy, as a light meal or an afternoon snack, during the reign of King Rama V. In fact, similar recipes with related names are found throughout the earliest Siamese culinary literature, until the dish gradually fell out of fashion in the 1940s.
Apart from the dish’s apparent Indian style, implied in its name, and the use of chili jam, which was clearly designed to suit the Siamese palate, this dish also reflects the cultural changes within Siam and highlights the impact of globalization on the food culture of the era. Lady Plean Passakornrawong, for one – who appreciated and was especially fond of western ingredients – suggested in her 1908 book Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa serving the broth over Italian spaghetti or French vermicelli.
…ฤาเส้นมะกโรนีปาเก็ดตีอิตาลี ฤา เวอร์มิแซลีฝรั่งเศศก็ได้…ท่านผู้หญิงเปลี่ยน ภาสกรวงศ์ ตำราแม่ครัวหัวป่าก์
Lady Plean explains that the dish is called either gai dtohm khanohm jeen (ไก่ต้มขนมจีน) or naam yaa khaaek (น้ำยาแขก) and thus, to highlight the Indian feel of the dish, it should be served with crispy shallots fried in coconut oil or butter.
…อย่างนี้เรียกว่าไก่ต้มขนมจีนก็เรียก น้ำยาแขกก็เรียก ถ้าแขกแล้วหอมนั้นต้องเจียวด้วยน้ำมันมะพร้าวฤาน้ำมันเนย…ท่านผู้หญิงเปลี่ยน ภาสกรวงศ์ ตำราแม่ครัวหัวป่าก์
The recipe may at first appear to be similar to the old Siamese recipe for tom kha pet (c1890) (ต้มข่าเป็ด จิ้มน้ำพริกเผาแบบโบราณ; tom kha bpet), in which duck is also cooked in coconut milk with a large amount of young galangal and served with a sour-sweet chili jam.
While it’s tempting to combine them all into one dish, we risk losing the element of surprise and the sense of mystery; when resurrecting traditional recipes, even minor adjustments to a recipe can result in a significant impact on the flavor and mood of a dish. More important, such adjustments may fail to bring forgotten culinary nuances back to life.
The galangal acts as a meat deodorizer and gives the chicken a pleasant aroma. Moreover, due to its astringent qualities, the taste experience and the three flavor profile of chili jam are prolonged and perceived separately. Therefore, young galangal is favored for its fresh scent, and it should be used in substantial amounts determined by the fragrance of the dish.
Turmeric powder, on the other hand, is used gradually and in quantities indicated by the color of the dish. Lady Plean’s and most of the later recipes of the dish, including that of Princess Yaovabha Bongsanid in her memorial book Sai Yaowapa, use dried turmeric powder. However, I prefer to simmer fresh turmeric with galangal and later adjust the color with a light dusting of golden turmeric powder. Different types of turmeric tint the dish in hues that can range from lemon-colored to deep orange, with different intensities of earthiness and bitterness.
In Sai Yaowapa, the recipe also calls for dried bay leaves (ใบกระวาน), and chili jam that is thickened with hulled mung beans (ถั่วทอง); the dish is served with batter-fried thaawng laang bai mohn leaves (erythrina suberosa) (ทองหลางใบมน).
I also adapted Mrs. Samaknantapol’s (Jeep Bunnag) (นางสมรรคนันทพล, จีบ บุนนาค) idea of serving the dish with a multi-sour chili jam. In her 1933 book Sam Rap Raawp Bpee (สำรับรอบปี), she seasons the chili jam with a triad of sours – tamarind paste, lime juice and bitter orange juice – bestowing upon the dish a brighter, cleansing feel and a palate-enchanting playfulness of shifting citrus aroma patterns that offset the richness of the coconut broth.
Chili jam can be stirred into the chicken broth or, as I prefer, drizzled on top when serving individual portions. The latter method, in addition to creating a visually striking color marbling between the golden broth and the shiny red blaze of the chili jam, allows diners to adjust the level of seasoning by adding chili jam to suit their personal taste.
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- 2 cups coconut cream (หัวกะทิ)
- 1/2 cup water (น้ำเปล่า)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
- 50 g chicken thigh (สะโพกไก่)
- 150 g chicken breast (อกไก่)
- 3/4 cup young galangal (ข่าอ่อน) cut into thin slices
- 2 tablespoons fresh turmeric (ขมิ้นชัน) sliced
- 2 dried bay leaves (ใบกระวาน) optional
Adjust color and the broth velvetiness
- 1/4 cup coconut cream (หัวกะทิ)
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder (ผงขมิ้น) for color
- 2 parts chili jam (น้ำพริกเผา)
- 2 parts fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1 part palm sugar (น้ำตาลมะพร้าว)
- 3 parts tamarind paste (น้ำมะขามเปียก)
- 1/2 part lime juice (น้ำมะนาว)
- 1 part bitter orange juice (som.saa)(น้ำส้มซ่า)
- 1/4 part mung beans (yellow, hulled) (ถั่วทอง) optional, roasted and pounded to fine powder
- batter-fried leaves and flowers (ใบและดอกไม้ชุบแป้งทอด)
- In a pot, combine the sliced young galangal and fresh turmeric with a thick coconut middle cream, or 1:1/4 coconut cream and water.
- Optional: add dried bay leaves.
- Add salt and bring the coconut to a simmer.
- Add the chicken and simmer on low heat.
- Once cooked, remove the chicken from the broth and pull the chicken brest meat into thin threads while still warm.
- Pound the chicken thigh meat to a smooth paste.
- Strain the broth; discard the turmeric and galangal before reheating it.
- Put the pounded chicken thigh meat and chicken threads back into the broth and reheat over low heat.
- Use turmeric powder to give the broth the desired golden color intensity.
- Turn off the heat and add fresh coconut cream to restore the dish’s velvety mouthfeel. Set aside.
Prepare the chili jam:
- Optional: thicken the chili jam with roasted and ground yellow-hulled mung beans.
- Re-season the chili jam using fish sauce, palm sugar, tamarind paste, lime juice and bitter orange juice to a sour-salty-sweet flavor profile according to the ratios indicated.
Prepare the toppings:
- Prepare crispy fried shallots as described here, or alternatively use coconut cream cooked into fat (น้ำมันขี้โล้; khee lo:h) to fry the shallots instead of oil or pork lard.
- Cut the spring onions into fine, thin slices, using both the white and green parts.
- Pick young coriander leaves and soak them in cold water to freshen them.
How to serve the dish:
- Place a portion of the fermented rice noodles in a serving bowl.
- Using a ladle, pour the chicken coconut broth over the noodles.
- Drizzle chili jam on top.
- Garnish with spring onions, coriander leaves and crispy fried shallots.
- Optional: serve with batter-fried leaves or vegetables.