The history of fermented rice noodles (เส้นขนมจีนแป้งหมัก; khanohm jeen bpaaeng mak) reaches far beyond their literal length. The shared culinary heritage of these noodles connects the diverse peoples of the Greater Mekong Sub region, where the noodles are commonly consumed. From the Burmese-Mon (Raman) groups on the western edge to the Tai-Lao ethnicities of Sipsongpanna and down through Lanna, Lan Chang and Suvarnabhumi to the Cambodian and Vietnamese communities towards the east, these fermented rice noodles tie together distinct cultures. Among the Tai ethnic groups, khanohm jeen noodles are revered as a sacred dish, often prepared for merit-making, charitable events and communal ceremonies.
The noodles are dressed with various watery dishes that can take different forms. For example, in the south of Thailand, people eat their fermented rice noodles (หน้มจีน) with coconut-based curries such as gaaeng naam kheeuy (แกงน้ำเคย), or fermented fish innards curries such as gaaeng khee dee (แกงขี้ดี) and gaaeng phoong bplaa (dtai bplaa) (แกงพุงปลา, แกงไตปลา). The Issan and Laotian people mix their fermented rice noodles, which they refer to as khanom sen (ขนมเส้น) or khao poon (ข้าวปุ้น), with fermented fish (pla ra) (ปลาร้า) for a dish they call khaao bpoon saao (ข้าวปุ้นซาว); and, of course, in parts of northern Thailand, the noodles are deliciously paired with naam ngiaao (น้ำเงี้ยว), a water-based tomato, pork rib and chicken feet broth.
In the Central Plains of the Kingdom, fermented rice noodles are inextricably linked to a dish known as naam yaa. Composed of a dense, coconut-based minced fish curry, the dish is infused with layers of salted fish and possesses the distinctive, invigorating and purifying notes of fingerroot. Typically, naam yaa is served with fresh lemon basil as the herb of choice along with an array of side dishes collectively known as meuuat khanohm jeen (เหมือดขนมจีน). These include blanched bean sprouts seasoned with a touch of turmeric for color, fresh lemon basil leaves, thinly sliced three colored chilies, and ground chili for added heat. More elaborate versions will add blanched Chinese bitter gourd slices, batter-fried young morning glory shoots, and fresh shrimp minced and fried with its tomalley in pork lard, as well as crispy-fried shallots as the finishing touch.
As Thai cuisine has evolved, so too have the variations of naam yaa. In the modern Thai culinary lexicon, we can identify two major types of the dish. The first is plain naam yaa, distinguished by the lavish use of coconut cream, which accentuates the richness of the dish. In contrast, the water-based naam yaa bpaa (ขนมจีนน้ำยาป่า) is a rustic version starring generous amounts of fermented fish (pla ra) (ปลาร้า) and chicken feet, emphasizing the frugality and simplicity inherent to rural vernacular cuisine. A testament to its uncomplicated roots, the dish presents a stark contrast to the intricate culinary techniques associated with the coconut-based naam yaa, which is more prevalent in the cuisine of the Central Plains aristocracy.
Even with these variations, the cooking methods for traditional coconut-based naam yaa dishes show a remarkable consistency across various historical recipes. The process starts by boiling fresh fish – sometimes accompanied by salted fish – with aromatic elements such as dried chilies, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and fingerroot. Once cooked, the fish meat and the boiled aromatics are manually pounded into a paste, while their liquids are collected through a labor-intensive process that involves repeated pounding and straining until the paste is smooth, the fish meat fluffs up, and all the juices from the aromatics are collected and returned to the broth. This paste is then simmered in coconut middle cream until a dense consistency is attained.
The parallels between the ingredients and cooking techniques of contemporary naam ya and the historical gaaeng yaa (แกงยา) suggest that gaaeng yaa (แกงยา) could be the culinary ancestor to modern-day naam ya dishes. It is possible that, historically, naam yaa was simply considered a “medicinal broth”, which would indicate any liquid condiment possessing medicinal properties served alongside rice noodles. Its precise meaning could have been further defined by nationality, region, type of meat, and the protein used for cooking, among other factors.
Over time, cooks adjusted the dish’s potency, moderating the amount of salted and fermented fish ingredients and medicinal roots based on taste rather than medicinal properties. However, there was one notable exception – fingerroot. This holds true for the modern-day khanom jeen naam yaa sauce as well, as the effective deodorizing properties of fingerroot make it particularly suitable for fish-based dishes.
The feast for the grand celebration marking the completion of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram) in 1784 included khanohm jeen naam yaa (ขนมจีนน้ำยา). The court ladies were instructed to arrange refreshments for the 2,667 guests who were invited to the ceremonies, as well as for many other auxiliary guests. In addition to rice cooked the Muslim way (ข้าวอย่างเทศ), and a coconut-based soup with mung bean vermicelli gaaeng raawn (แกงร้อน), the presented dishes included fermented rice noodles with fish curry sauce (ขนมจีนน้ำยา), Allegedly, the ladies had to process up to two thousand liters of rice per day to make the noodles (วันละ ๑ เกวียน;1 gwiian per day).
Tracing the roots of naam yaa dishes, we find that the earliest written record of the naam yaa recipe dates to 1889. It first appeared in Lady Plean Passakornrawong’s earliest published work, her gourmet column in the magazine Bpradtithin Bat Laae Joht Maai Haeht. This early version of naam yaa is prepared using clown featherback fish (ปลากราย) and followed the common preparation method.
Additionally, in King Rama II’s poem, a variant of the dish is referenced “naam yaa as a bitter curry (น้ำยาอย่างแกงขม)”. This rendition of the dish was usually accompanied by bitter ingredients. Side dishes often included thinly sliced, blanched bitter melon, batter-fried young vegetable leaves and shoots, shrimp fried in pork lard, and crispy-fried shallots.
While naam yaa continues to be a dish of choice when serving fermented rice noodles today, it’s important to remember the diverse array of dishes that graced the dining tables of the Siamese nobility in the early 1900s. These included dishes such as:
Khanohm jeen naam phrik goong (ขนมจีนน้ำพริก) – Rice noodles with shrimp and aromatic coconut sauce: A grand but labor-intensive dish, it was traditionally reserved for special occasions such as ordinations and house blessing ceremonies. It showcases a three-flavored creamy coconut sauce, enriched with minced shrimp, freshly roasted peanuts and mung beans. The intricate preparation process involves extracting the aromatic essences of key ingredients through various cooking methods – roasting, frying, boiling, reducing, pounding and grinding. It was served with fermented rice noodles and a range of accompaniments.
Khanohm jeen naam phrik gai (ขนมจีนน้ำพริกไก่ อย่างท่านผู้หญิงกลีบ มหิธร) – Fermented rice noodles with multi-sour aromatic chicken sauce, by Lady Gleep Mahithaawn: This is an accessible yet flavorful dish, characterized by a light yet satisfying nature.
Naam Yaa Jiin (น้ำยาจีน อย่างกรมหลวงพิทักษมนตรี) – This dish features a water-based sauce served over fermented rice noodles. The sauce has a light ivory color and derives its unique sweet-savoriness from slow-braised chicken, pork and shrimp, along with a curry paste reinforced with smoke-dried fish as well as aromatic roots such as galangal, fingerroot and sand ginger.
Naam yaa neuua (น้ำยาเหนือ) – Northern Style Naam Ya – This is a creamy fermented rice noodle dish served with a chili-less broth made from pounded snakehead fish meat and aromatic ingredients cooked in coconut cream. The velvety broth is poured over noodles and topped with minced shrimp meat fried with their tomalley in pork lard, and garnished with bean sprouts, crispy-fried shallots, and green lemon basil leaves.
Arabian Noodles (ขนมจีนอาหรับ) – This variant of fermented rice noodles features a light red sauce thickened with pounded chicken meat, shrimp and beans, braised in coconut cream and milk. The sauce is poured over the noodles and served with fresh cucumber slices and crisp radish, garnished with crispy-fried garlic and dried chilies fried in coconut cream and butter.
Khanohm jeen khaaek (ขนมจีนแขก หรือ ไก่ต้มขนมจีน) – This dish boasts a gold-tinted, coconut-based broth featuring chicken simmered with galangal and turmeric. The broth is ladled over fermented rice noodles seasoned with glossy, red-hued roasted or fried chili jam, and garnished with crispy-fried shallots, spring onions and coriander leaves.
Sang-de-Boeuf Porcelain Fermented Rice Noodles (ขนมจีนครามแดง) – This dish features a thickening paste made of roasted mung beans, roasted peanuts, crispy-fried shallots, crispy-fried garlic and cooked shrimp meat, enriched with chili jam and shrimp cooking liquid. The flavorful mixture is served with meticulously prepared strands of chicken and shrimp, and accompanied by an assortment of fresh greens and vegetables.
Khanohm jeen saao naam (ขนมจีนซาวน้ำ) – Features fermented rice noodles served with sweet and sour pineapple, fluffy dry shrimp powder, young ginger, sliced garlic and bird’s eye chilies, seasoned with sugar, fish sauce and lime. Accompanying the noodles are freshwater fish balls cooked in coconut cream and turmeric, and grilled fish balls smoked in grated coconut.
Khanohm jeen Yee Poon (ขนมจีนญี่ปุ่น) – Features bite-sized appetizers composed of fermented rice noodles rolled on a lettuce leaf and topped with cucumber, cooked shrimp and pork belly. The dish is dressed with a sour-sweet and salty fried chili jam, sprinkled with roasted peanuts, and decorated with coriander leaf and fresh red chili pepper.
Additional reading: Making Fermented Rice Flour Noodles
What follows is a step-by-step procedure on how to prepare khanohm jeen naam yaa. It will guide you through each part of the process, ensuring that you can recreate this traditional recipe at home.
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- 600 g snakehead fish (ปลาช่อน) (small and fat), rinsed in water, tamarind water then plain water
- 1 slice salted Indian salmon (ปลากุเลา) grilled over a bed of aromatics wrap in banana leaves
For the broth
- 1 1/2 liters coconut milk (หางกะทิ)
- 1 cup coconut cream (หัวกะทิ)
For the paste (cook in the broth):
- 7 pieces dried 'bang-chang' red long chili (พริกบางช้างแห้ง) deseeded
- 2/3 cup lemongrass (ตะไคร้)
- 3/4 cup shallots (หอมแดง)
- 1/3 cup Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
Fingerroot pulp and extract:
- 1 cup fingerroot (krachai) (กระชาย)
- 1 part fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1/2 part palm sugar (น้ำตาลมะพร้าว)
- ground dried chili (พริกป่น)
serve with (เหมือดขนมจีน):
- fermented rice noodles (khanohm jeen) (ขนมจีน)
- bean sprouts (ถั่วงอก)
- lemon basil (ใบแมงลัก)
- three colors of chilies – red, green, yellow and chilies (พริกสามสี)
- Chinese bitter gourd (มะระจีน)
Cooking the broth:
- An overview of the paste ingredients.
- In a pot, bring coconut milk with the aromatics (dried red long chilies, lemongrass, shallots and Thai garlic) to a boil.
- Once the aromatics have infused the coconut milk with their aroma, add the fresh snakehead fish and allow it to fully cook.
- Once cooked, remove the aromatics and fish meat from the pot. Set them aside to cool down.
- Add a piece of salted fish meat to the broth and continue to simmer on low heat until all the salted fish meat dissolves in the broth.
- Strain the broth to discard any bones and return it to the pot.
Preparing the cooked aromatic paste and fish:
- In a mortar and pestle, pound the boiled aromatics to a fine paste. You may need to strain the excess liquids a few times as you continue pounding; repeat until you achieve a smooth paste consistency.
- Return the paste and the strained liquids back to the strained broth and allow to simmer on low heat.
- Collect the meat from the cooked snakehead fish. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the fish until its meat fluffs up.
- Add the pounded fish meat to the broth and continue cooking it on low heat.
- Season the broth with fish sauce and adjust the spiciness with ground dry chili.
- Add palm sugar at the ratio indicated
- Separately, chop and pound fresh fingerroot. Pound and strain the fingerroot pulp repeatedly until all the liquids are extracted.
- Once the fish broth is thick and all the ingredients come together, add the fresh fingerroot pulp and juice.