There’s a hissing coming from the stove. Nothing is burning yet, but the burner is up too high. I can tell by the ghost whine of the gas beneath the flame. I want to turn it down, but I cannot move. I’m starting to panic ever so slightly.
There’s blood dripping off my fingers, and I can’t get the last portion of the plastic lid off. I need to yank, but yanking is going to splash blood everywhere. Oh. God. Oh God. It’s on my fingers. It’s creeping beneath my fingernails.
Were this a crisis … were someone bleeding out in front of me … I’d be calmer. There’d be a reason I had blood on my hands.
Right now, the only reason is that I wanted to make stupid Thai Boat Noodle Soup and to make it the real way, you need pig’s blood.
All of a sudden, I feel maybe this won’t be worth it. It will taste awful at best, and at worst, I’ll get some freakish parasite from trying to make a recipe with raw pig’s blood.
The lid mercifully comes loose without me slinging life force all over my butcher-block table. I grab a towel, take a deep breath and head for the sink. On my way, I manage to elbow the oven down a notch. And, I’m feeling a bit more ninja in the moment. Yeah, I got this. (Throws dish towel in the trashcan, cause … blood. Gross.)
In Thailand, KUAYTIAW REUA (a.k.a. Boat Noodles) got their start just as the name suggests, on boats. Bangkok was once called Venice of East. The city was made of hundreds of river canals and people moved around largely by boat. A particularly popular recipe for noodles was sold by floating vessels, served in very small, high-sided bowls passed from one boat to the next, to minimize spillage.
The broth kept you healthy. You got necessary vitamins out of the slow-cooked bone marrow and the fresh water spinach, crunchy bean sprouts and sliced, tender, braised beef or pork in fragrant herbs and spices. The last minute addition? A tablespoon of pork’s blood or beef blood (Nam Tok in Thai) was always swirled in.
Listen, I’d had approximately 457 bowls of Boat Noodle soup in Bangkok before anyone mentioned this spoonful of blood to me. Once I found out, I just kept on eating it. First off, I hadn’t died yet. Secondly, it really is addictively delicious.
That last little tablespoon of blood is, in fact, essential to the smooth, rich consistency of the soup.
Bangkok’s famed canals have long since been filled in by concrete. You can still hop on a boat and in rare cases or super touristy places, you can find boat noodles served off actual boats. You’ll find the majority on land, where they are no less delicious––still served in the same little bowl sizes, for a mere 30cents. It’s fun to slurp them down one after another after another, splashing in a little sugar, a touch of vinegar and some chilies, depending on what you like.
I was craving boat noodles like crazy this week, and thus, I scoured the internet. Saveur and Food Republic both offered up recipes, but they seemed complicated and fussy. Saveur’s photo looked like a bunch of blood in a bowl––deeply disturbing and nearly Sam Raimi in nature. Boat Noodle Soup in Bangkok does NOT look like this.
Then, I discovered Hot-Thai-Kitchen.com. And Pailin and her useful, no-fuss YouTube tutorials on cooking Thai food. I scratched out the necessary ingredients and headed to The Asian Market Corp. on Mulberry. They had everything I needed, including frozen pork blood.
One of the other shoppers in line behind me was Thai.
“I’m making Boat Noodle Soup,” I said. She peered into my basket, reached down and shuffled some cilantro aside. A curt head nod and a big smile.
“I’m scared,” I admitted, when she patted the little container of blood.
“You can do it,” she replied. Then, i kid you not, she patted me on the back before leaving. I think I needed it.
This soup does contain a million things you likely don’t have laying around, like Golden Mountain sauce, galangal, and pandan leaves. But, it is super easy to actually make. Once you get the stuff, you just dump it in at various times. Pailin will tell you when on her video. If you’ve ever made stock, you can certainly make this. I certainly will again. It was one of my favorite recipes and, honestly, one of the most entertaining cooking experiences I’ve ever had. The recipe delivered all the flavors I love in Boat Noodle Soup––fragrant broth with star anise, lemongrass and cinnamon, hints of vinegar, white pepper and soy, with chewy noodles clinging to shredded Thai basil.
Plus, zero bean sprouts. Because I hate them.
I really came to terms with a strange fear this week. Blood is natural. It’s very healthy, and while we are squeamish about it (myself still included), it’s used in recipes around the world in abundance. Americans are the weird ones. Hell, I actually wrote about it here a year ago and remained too chicken to try it out till now.
Here’s the link to the Boat Noodle Soup recipe and video again.
And, far and away the best place to have a bowl is not in your own kitchen but in Bangkok itself. If you get there, head to the rooftop at Sala Rattanakosin Hotel for this view at sunset and to these three places for my personal favorite bowls.
Kuay Teow Neau Nai Soi (“Nai Soi” for short)
Address: 100/2-3 Thanon Phra Athit, Bangkok 10200
The garage bay doors open up to this undecorated, no-frills soup shop promptly at 8 a.m. You pull a red plastic stool up to a flimsy aluminum table. English is sparse, but the menu has photos. It’s point-and-pray if you aren’t a fan of spice. But, if you can handle at least a little heat, the soup here is so good. Pork or beef comes with chopped water spinach and Chinese celery, floating alongside super-chewy, gelatinous glass noodles. The broth has tons of anise and cinnamon, coriander and Chinese five-spice, with the consistency that only comes from that splash of blood. Between the Thai chilies and the weak breeze emanating from a 1986 rotary fan, you’ll sweat right through the weak paper napkins.
Rot Dee Det
Address: 420-420/1 Rama 1 Soi 7 (Siam Square)
I’m convinced (after many attempts to prove myself wrong) that this is the only good food option in Siam Square. I love shopping here, but I’ve had countless disappointing meals. Meals where I wish I hadn’t tried to find something new, instead just leaning on awesome boat-noodle-bonanza of Rot Dee Det. It translates in English as Tastes So Good––oh yeah it does––and it’s been around for ages. Much like Nai Soi, it’s a garage, open-air setting, with a pretty lengthy menu for a soup shop. Their Boat Noodle broth is famous. Just this side of gravy, it’s a dark and viscous, with heaps of coriander stems, soft noodles, chopped bean sprouts and shreds of decadent, super tender beef. The bowls are tiny. Order three of them back-to-back. It’s only a dollar per bowl.
Place I Don’t Know the Name Of … on Soi 8
I don’t know the name but it’s super easy to find this little dinky hole-in-the-wall. Go to Soi 8. It’s a street in the Nana neighborhood. When you see Paris Pizza, you want the adjoining restaurant to the right of it. Yes, outside there are likely to be some dirty old men, the type who only come to Thailand to sleep with girls not old enough to vote. Ignore them. This is Nana, and if it’s known for anything, it’s known for these guys … and also a bunch of top-notch Indian-run tailor shops. You sadly cannot fix all the world’s problems. Go in and request Boat Noodles. They are absolute heaven here. Huge bowls. Classic preparation. Cheap, and you’ll battle no crowds. Then go get a suit made at Narry Tailors right across the road. Ask for Rai and tell him Jenny sent you.