Boat Noodle Alley, Bangkok

Boat Noodles

I’d heard about an alley of restaurants in Bangkok serving mini-portions of noodles, and I was excited. But that’s really my default setting when it comes to eating in Thailand, so I was actually extra excited plus. The restaurants line a small canal not far from Victory Monument BTS station, which is handy for some bonus accidental sightseeing. And they serve boat noodles, amongst other things, so called as they used to be served from boats plying the canals. A few twists of noodle, a sprinkle of greenery (snipped up water spinach and herbs), some meat and a spiced broth enriched with pigs blood.

The noodles are available in small (10 baht ~$0.30AU) or large (35-40 baht), but go with the small, which provides freedom for the strong and pungent, in a way that can be overwhelming with large portions. Every diner has their own style,and some even order a couple of small bowls of the same dish and dump them all in the one bowl before seasoning and eating instead of opting for the large size. On my few visits here, I’ve managed to try four of the restaurants in this little strip, ordering widely from their picture menus.

Boat Noodles

Here’s how it works. You pick a variety of noodle (wheat, egg, glass, thin or thick rice), then a method of preparation and a meat. These last two vary as you progress down the alley and each place has about 5 preparations, but all serve boat noodles, the one with the spiced blood soup, and florid pink fermented beancurd broth – yen ta fo. Most serve a dry spicy noodle, and some have a tom yum soup version. Also on the menu are crisped pigs skin and deep fried wonton wrappers. All tasty and so affordable it seems a shame not to try.

Tradition dictates a particular noodle for each preparation, but the lack of phonetic descriptions messes with my carefully prepared food phrases and I end up randomly picking and choosing. I don’t maths well, but five types of noodles, five preparations and a few meats (beef, pork, braised beef, a range of balls), means many potential combinations – certainly more than all but seasoned eating competition winners could down in one sitting.

bangkokt-9

The first place you come to – Pranakorn Noodle Restaurant – served up this sad looking boat noodle. It tasted fine, pleasantly musty with dried spices and not at all bloody, but there is something to be said for presentation and extras. The big plus of this joint is a very fine, almost savoury steamed coconut and pandan custard. These little cups are sitting on the table, I dare you to stop at just one. Also, this is the only place where you can sit by the canal. Although it’s filthy, you might, as we did, spot a couple of enormous water monitors tussling.

Boat Noodle Alley Coconut dessert

The other places have the benefit of air conditioning and generally friendlier service, tastier food (first two pictures), and larger menus. For me, the joy of eating here lies in the portion sizes. Small bites that are the antithesis of a hulking carb-heavy bowl of pho. Where a handful of servings adds up to just a light lunch and you can enjoy a cacophony of flavours and without being overburdened in the stomach or the wallet. Plus, it’s fun, even if you don’t spot the huge water lizards fighting.

 

Boat Noodle Alley
Google map location
Very easy to find. Exit Victory monument BTS station to the north (check the maps in the station). Follow the raised walkway. Continue following the walkway halfway around the Victory monument, take the easy right before the walkway crosses the main road. You’ll cross over a canal. Go down the stairs and chuck a u-turn. Take the next left, and you’ll see the alley and and the restaurants.

Open 11am – 9pm

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Coconut Ice Cream

CoconutIce-cream
Thai coconut ice-cream

I’ve been travelling a bit recently and getting out of my loner comfort zone by talking to backpackers. It’s been an eye opening experience, especially when the conversation twists and whirls to Bangkok, as it invariable does. I fall more for this magnificent city each time I visit. They all gushed about the Khao San Road version of Bangkok, with barely a breath given to what may lie beyond. Sure, Khao San area has all a backpacker may need: fishermans pants, fake university degrees, cheap ‘cocktail’ buckets; but greater Bangkok has so much more to offer, especially when it comes to food.

Superlative noodles, blow-your-head-off somtam and chic fine-dining are just a few meals that I’ve recently enjoyed outside the backpacker ghetto. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing great to eat in this area. This coconut ice-cream pictured was from Sukhumvit, but the roving sellers make appearances on the Khao San side of town as well. They crack a drained coconut open, scrape up the flesh with a special tool, and top with mini-scoops of creamy pandan-accented very-coconut ice-cream. A final flourish of evaporated milk seems gratuitous on this sizable dessert, but is welcome for its almost savoury counterpoint.

The flavour and textural combination simply embodies the concept of ‘balance’, everpresent in good Thai food, in an easily accessible and tasty package. Happily available even in backpacker town.

CoconutIce-cream

Available from roving salespeople across Bangkok, 25 baht a pop (about $0.80AU).

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Mien Luon Tron

mient

Lunch in Hanoi has been getting boring for me recently. You’re probably looking at your soggy sambo with wilted lettuce, or oily foodcourt noodles and thinking I’m a spoilt cow, but when you get used to the exotic, it no longer is. So lunchtime for me lately has either been bun cha or rice from a range of com binh dan joints I’m testing out, but my bun cha habit is getting bad. So one recent morning, a Hanoi lunch starts just past 11am, I took a chance and sat at the only busy market stall around and ordered what the other customers were greedily digging in to: miến lươn trộn.

Mien noodles are quick-cooking, chewy and translucent. Made from mung bean, sweet potato or cassava, they are the basis for dishes from Korean japchae to spicy Thai salads, are eaten everywhere in between and have just as many different names. The word is that these Vietnam produced noodles differ from the rest as they’re made from the starch of the canna lily.

The luon (eel) here is sliced into long fingers that curl and tangle together when they’re deep fried crunchy. Off-putting perhaps, but these spiny lengths taste mild and are well and truly inanimate. But, if it’s all too much this dish can sometimes be ordered with stir fried beef instead.

Tron means dry, but this dish is anything but. It’s just served with the soup on the side.

mien-2v3t

The still-hot mien noodles are joined in the bowl by blanched bean sprouts, the crisp twists of eel, roasted peanuts and deep-fried shallots with a handful of herbs freshly scissor snipped in. Glugs of this and ladle-fuls of that are added to loosen and flavour it sour and salty. Pickles, sometimes the regular pickled carrot and kohlrabi (củ su hào), other times an almost salad of marinated cucumber, can also be added. A big bowl of chilli sauce, furious red and topped with a layer of oil the same colour tempts, for extra flavour that’s not especially required, but I add it anyway. Mixing this dish turns it into a sparky noodle salad, bright and full of interest, with a portion size perfect to start an afternoon of grazing.

And it just happens to be lunch time now.

 

Miến lươn trộn.

Available around town.
This version which comes from my local market, Cho Yen Phu, is available from breakfast until early afternoon, and costs 25,000 dong (~$1.15 AU).

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Bot Chien

Bot Chien

Vietnamese cuisine changes with latitude, and the south is a wonderland of long-forgotten specialities and new tastes for this new Hanoian. But with only a fleeting moment in Ho Chi Minh City, this trip became an extended grazing session.

When I first moved to Hanoi a friend from Ho Chi Minh City gave me a list of things to eat if I were to ever visit her hometown. High on that list was Bot Chien, a popular after-school snack. When mid-afternoon hunger struck and with no destination pre-researched, I google maps searched ‘bot chien’ and headed to the closest location.

I’m often confused about how to eat a new meal, especially with language barriers and cultural misunderstanding. So on an initial visit, I take cues from other tables. Sometimes servers will intervene, showing their preferred way to mix a dipping sauce, or flavour a bowl of noodles. Other times, like with bot chien, it’s anything goes.

At Bot Chien Dat Thanh, the situation was confusing. There was a plate piled high with shredded green papaya and carrot. A soy based dipping sauce. Three little pots of chillies, raw, dark oily chilli sauce, and a smooth fluorescent red condiment. A plate of crisped rice-flour-cake fried with egg, steaming hot fresh from the skillet. A quick scan of the room, mostly single male eaters, showed myriad eating styles. Pile the salad on the rice cakes and drench the whole thing in sauce with added chilli. Or dip alternating mouthfuls of the bot chien and salad into your chilli spiked soy sauce. Or a mix of the two.

Whichever method you choose you’ll get a mix of crunchy rice cake edges and chewy centres, mild and steadfast, held together with unremarkable egg and just enough grease. The crunchy, fresh salad and rice cake are enlivened by a dip in the outstanding sauce. Mainly soy, with a touch of sour and sweet, unexpected in this land of fish sauce. Alternate mouthfuls of cool, salty, crunchy salad and hot, spicy, chewy rice cake were my eating choice. And it worked, we ordered another serve before the first was complete.

After this meal I started spotting bot chien stalls everywhere, and it turns out it’s a popular late night snack as well. With good reason. Next time I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, bot chien, whichever way you eat it, is on the list.

Bột chiên Đạt Thành
277 Võ Văn Tần- Quận 3

Bot Chien 18,000 dong (~82 AUCents)
Also, fresh spring rolls and papaya salad with dried beef.

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Banh Duc Nong

Banh Duc Nong

When I first arrived in Hanoi I was invited along on a food crawl with a group of new friends. After about three seconds I became utterly lost, and simply followed my companions sitting where they told me to sit, eating what they told me to eat. This marathon dining session was for a magazine article, so I assumed I’d be able to relive the best tastes from the day when it was published. Unfortunately, the output was mediocre and omitted the one memorable meal of the session, the one that I’d wish to eat again, if only I knew what it was called and how to find it.

Banh Duc Nong

Fast forward three years and the narrow alley entrance to 8 Le Ngoc Han is familiar. After selecting the correct eatery (it’s the middle one) we are greeted with smiles. This is a kitchen out the front, eat in someones living room affair, and the place is packed. We sit locked in by the crowds, next to a fish tank, chatting with young Vietnamese ladies and surveying the menu. A range of noodles (bun, mien, banh da) in various seafoody incarnations are available, but we, and most of the customers, are here for the bánh đúc nóng.

Banh Duc Nong

Bánh đúc nóng is difficult to describe, but delicious to eat. A thick glutinous rice flour mass, tender enough to be broken easily with a spoon, but with enough structural integrity to hold its own fills the bottom of the bowl. It’s hidden by meaty minced pork cooked with wood ear mushrooms, bright herbs, fried shallots, puffs of fried tofu and just enough mild soup. Add chilli sauce, mix the whole lot, then spoon up this savoury mess. The rice flour slurry is dense without being heavy, enlivened by the textural and lively toppings.

I cleaned my bowl and considered ordering another. But if this joint with it’s smiling older-lady workers has been here this long, it’ll still be around next week for another bowl of bánh đúc nóng.

Banh Duc Nong

 

8 Le Ngoc Han, Hanoi

Bánh đúc nóng: 15,000 dong.

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