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Old Coffins, Hot Noodles

Remember, around New Year’s, I mentioned an archaeological mission to see ancient log coffins in northern Thailand? Quite a trip, that was. The article is out in this month’s Archaeology. And while the story covers the history and scientific significance of this rocky terrain up near the Burmese border, it doesn’t say much of the fabulous Shan food we ate while on the job.

Take, for instance, a quick little roadside lunch in Tham Lod village, where we spotted a few hot pots of steaming pork and a rich, smoky tomato-y sauce to be spooned over rice noodles with fresh cilantro and crispy fried garlic. Perfect ender to a morning of exploring a nearby cave with a centuries-old chedi inside.

You’ll find numerous versions of this dish spanning the hills that stretch from Burma’s Shan State, through northern Thailand and into Laos. One cold winter morning in Shan State, we ate an exquisite bowl of thick, round rice noodles smothered in a toasty broth using a paste of tomato, fried garlic and chile. The locals called it khao soey “sweet soup,” distinguishing it from other noodles. “Tomato makes it different,” our guide, Sai, told us.

It reminded me of another crisp morning on the Mekong in Laos, where I had a similar zippy dish. I was so taken with those noodles, I asked for a recipe at the Tamarind café and cooking school. So simple! Make a soup stock by boiling pork bones. Meanwhile, mix chopped pork with fermented soybean, fish sauce, chile, garlic and tomato. Let sit 20-30 minutes until the flavors permeate the meat. Add to the soup, pour over rice noodles and serve with lime, lettuce, mint, green beans, watercress, cilantro and crispy rice cakes, if you desire. This is Lao kao soy.

The name is evocative of the kao soi (or khao soi) that in many ways makes Chiang Mai famous. But you won’t find sweet coconut milk curry in these noodle dishes. What you will find is a lot more heat. I imagine a Southeast Asian version of my mother’s spaghetti (ground beef, onion, green bell pepper, tomato sauce, tomato paste). I imagine her packing up that sauce and trucking it halfway around the world, then letting it stew long enough to absorb the local flavors.


If you would like to make something like this, and you would prefer a more precise (and intricate) recipe than the one above, give David Thompson’s a try. It’s taken from his authoritative text, Thai Food:

Kanom jin nahm ngiaw
From Thai Food by David Thompson

200 g (6 oz) pork ribs, cut into 2 cm (1 in) lengths and rinsed (often minced beef is used instead)
pinch of salt
2-3 cups stock
2 tablespoons oil or rendered pork fat
pinch of palm sugar
3-4 tablespoons light soy sauce (use wheat-free tamari for a gluten-free version)
2 cups coarsely chopped, deseeded tomatoes
2 blood cakes, cut into 2 cm (1 in) cubes, optional
150 g (5 oz) minced fatty pork
1 teaspoon deep-fried garlic
1 tablespoon chopped spring onion
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
2 coils – about 100 g (3 oz) – fresh kanom jin rice noodles

Garlic and chile paste:
2 garlic cloves, peeled
pinch of salt
1 long red chile

Shallot paste:
6-10 dried bird’s eye chiles
pinch of salt
4 tablespoons chopped red shallot
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoons chopped red turmeric
1 teaspoon fermented soy beans (tua nao) or shrimp paste (gapi)

First, make the two pastes separately by gradually pounding the ingredients together using a pestle and mortar, adding one by one, until smooth.

Put pork ribs in a pot, add salt and enough stock to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender (about 15-20 minutes), skimming as required. In a wok, heat oil or rendered pork fat and fry garlic and chile paste until golden. Add the shallot paste and fry until fragrant. Season with palm sugar and soy sauce, then add tomatoes. Simmer for several minutes and then add blood cakes, if using, and minced pork, stirring to prevent it clumping. Pour this over the pork ribs and simmer for 4-5 minutes. Check seasoning: it should be rich and salty, a little hot, sour and sweet. Sprinkle with garlic, spring onion and cilantro, and serve in a bowl alongside the noodles. Serve with bean sprouts, finely cut snake beans, shredded pickled mustard greens, deep-fried dried bird’s eye chiles and/or deep-fried pork skin

Eggs for sale, Ban Tham Lod lunch shop.

4 replies on “Old Coffins, Hot Noodles”

Wish the article went on in more detail and photos as that’s one of my fave magazines. I don’t see that many SEA archaeological stories. Those finds sound much more interesting than what I found in downtown BKK one time…not really archaeological per se.

My guess (or maybe I should say hope!) is they were moving remains somewhere else. I’d never seen a scene quite like this. I wasn’t hungry after I’d walked around in there!


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