Rice Noodles in Clear Broth with Beef Balls (เส้นใหญ่ลูกชิ้นน้ำใส): Thai-Style Noodle Soup 101


Thai Noodles
Whenever I get an email from someone asking me to post a recipe for Thai-style noodle soup which they had on their last trip to Bangkok, I always say yes. But then I always feel fearful for both of us.

I fear for myself, because I know it’s going to be a lot of work – a serious commitment. I don’t even know how or where to begin. A book, I mean, A HUGE BOOK, could be written on that one genre of modern Thai food alone. I’m not exaggerating. To write a quick, simple post on Thai noodles and the whole noodle culture would be an insult to something so complex. I fear that the more I say, the more pessimistic I sound and the more it seems that I’m talking people out of making noodles — which isn’t true. Well, kind of. But not entirely.

I’m also fearful about disappointing those who are eager to learn how to make Thai street noodles at home, because I’m not sure they know what’s involved and how much work it actually requires to turn their kitchen into a Bangkok noodle stall. See, there’s a reason noodles are not home cooking. Ask an average Bangkokian how many times a week, he makes noodles at home, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes, um, like, zero …?

Or maybe I think too much. Maybe you just want something simple. If that’s the case, let’s start with what I consider the easiest type of Thai (Thai-Chinese, actually) noodle soup: noodles in clear broth with Asian-style bouncy meatballs. I can’t think of anything else out of the hundreds of different types and combinations of noodles that is simpler than this.

asian meatballs
(There will be a summary in recipe format at the end. Right now, please just walk through these things with me.)

You need meatballs. They have to be these bouncy Asian-style meatballs which are different from the kind of meatballs you would find in European cuisines. These meatballs are made from meat that is ground to a smooth and very sticky paste, formed into small spheres, and pre-cooked before they’re sold. Sometimes starch is added; sometimes not. The texture? If you throw one on the ground really, really hard, it won’t go splat; it will bounce. That’s what I mean by ‘bouncy’. Those who have had Vietnamese phở that comes with beef balls are already familiar with the texture of Asian meatballs.

These meatballs are most commonly made of beef, pork, and fish (chicken balls, shrimp balls, and squid balls wouldn’t be uncommon in Thailand). The beef variety often comes in two types: tender, smooth, and meaty beef balls and gristly beef balls (because they’re made from gristly bits of the cow which a lot of people, including me, like). This meaty vs. gristly thing doesn’t apply to pork, fish, or anything else.

I’ll show you how to make them at home at some point. But for now, let’s just buy them. They come vacuum-packed and frozen. Just look for them in the freezer of your local Southeast Asian grocery store. If you see “beef balls” or “pork balls” somewhere on the package, you’re good. These things, as mentioned above, come fully cooked and, once thawed, are ready to use.

For this recipe, we need beef balls. Smooth ones.

preserved cabbage
Next on the list is preserved/salted cabbage (tang chai ตั้งฉ่าย), an ingredient which I haven’t talked about on this site (because I’d never made this type of noodles here before). Preserved cabbage is different from preserved radishes used in pad thai (see my post on pad thai ingredients); the two are not at all interchangeable.

But don’t be too concerned, because it’s probably not that easy to get the two confused at the store. This is because while preserved radishes often come in a sealed plastic bag, preserved cabbage, at least when it comes to Thai brands, often comes in a short, round jar that’s bulging on all sides like a pressed grapefruit.

What I’m trying to say is that if you put a grapefruit on the table and press down on its top really hard to the point where the grapefruit is just about to burst open, it will look just like a preserved cabbage jar. But when you’re at the store, don’t go looking for an actual grapefruit that’s bulging, though; look for a container that looks like a bulging grapefruit with “preserved cabbage” on the label.

I’m sorry about my simile. Don’t leave me. I promise I’ll change. I love you.

garlic
Before you begin the process, you need to make fried garlic oil (kra-tiam jiao กระเทียมเจียว)

Fried garlic oil serves two purposes when it comes to Thai street noodles: it perfumes the dish and it lubricates the blanched noodles thereby keeping them from clumping up. It’s an essential ingredient that is found at any noodle stall regardless of what type(s) of noodles it sells.

To make good fried garlic oil, five things are important:
1. Use unflavored oil.
2. Begin the process with the pan, the oil, and the garlic at room temperature. If the oil is hot, the garlic will burn before it gets to be golden, sweet, fragrant, and thoroughly crispy.
3. Use low to medium-low heat. You want to cook it long, slow, and low.
4. Make sure the garlic is pounded into shards. Not smashed and squished into a paste. Not finely chopped. Shards. The easiest way to turn whole garlic into garlic shards is with a mortar.
5. Allow the finished crispy garlic and its oil to cool down completely before storage; otherwise it turns soggy.

crispy garlic
Let me talk a little more about the shard thing.

I find that pounding the garlic into shards of roughly equal size and thickness is key to creating evenly browned and crispy fried garlic for Thai-style noodle making. You want every single little piece to brown evenly at the same temperature over the same period of time. If you have larger pieces and smaller pieces in the mix, by the time the larger ones are thoroughly browned and crispy, the smaller ones will have burned.

Shards (achieved through pounding) also create the kind of crispy texture that is better than just tiny, tiny pieces of garlic (achieved through chopping). Think regular bread crumbs and panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs). Same deal. Turning the garlic into a fine paste won’t do either; it will just form a sticky ball once caramelized.

This whole point isn’t so important in a noodle soup such as this, though, because the garlic eventually becomes soft in the broth. However, knowing how to make crispy garlic makes a difference in the brothless version of this dish (almost every noodle dish comes in “wet” and “dry” varieties — more on this in the future). So I thought I would mention it.

dried rice noodles
Moving right along — the noodles.

You can use any type of noodles you like. The fresh ones only need to be blanched in boiling water. The dried ones, like what I use here, need to be boiled in large pot of water pasta-style until they’re soft enough. No soaking required since we’re not preparing them for frying.

What you see here is X-large rice noodles mentioned in my post on pad thai noodles. These are not recommended for pad thai, but can be used in pad see-ew if you can’t find fresh wide rice noodles. There’s no particular reason why I went with these noodles; they were just there.

Cooked rice noodles
Boil the noodles while they’re dried like you do dried pasta, being careful not to break them for they’re quite brittle.

After 10-15 minutes, they should be soft enough to eat. Go for soft. In this context, al dente is not a good thing.

Oh, I forgot to tell you, by this time, you should already have a pot of stock boiling on the back burner with your smooth beef balls floating on the surface — all ready to go. The aromatics, namely green onions and cilantro, should also be all chopped up and ready to use. There should be some seasonings set out on the table as well. This noodle soup is quite bland. This is the way it’s made in Thailand. Most noodles are made in such a way that they’re savory, i.e. have enough umami in them, but somewhat neutral in terms of flavor.

That’s why you’ll always see a seasoning caddy at any noodle stall. In Thailand, diners are expected to season their own noodles to taste. I could write a long post on the seasoning caddy, its varieties, and the whole “season to taste” concept alone. But let’s keep that for later.

blanched bean sprouts
Now the bean sprouts, one of the most common vegetables you will find in your Thai-style noodles.

At a noodle stall, the vendor will have a tall, large pot with two sections: one contains the broth and one contains boiling water for blanching the vegetables and noodles. Usually, a handful of vegetable is placed in a wired basket, followed by a handful of noodles; both of them get blanched in boiling water until the noodles are soft and the bean sprouts tender-crisp.

But since we’re not making noodles one order at a time in that way, I’ll have you blanch the bean sprouts separately — all four servings at once. Then you divide them among four bowls.

cooked noodles
Cooked noodles go on top. Be sure to rinse them under hot tap water to get rid of the excess starch and shake off all excess moisture before adding them to the serving bowls.

noodles with crispy garlic oil
Immediately, some fried garlic oil goes in. Stir it into the noodle strands to keep them lubricated.

When all of this is happening, that pot of broth with floating beef balls should be simmering on the stove.

noodles topped with preserved cabbage
Sprinkle a pinch of preserved cabbage on top of the noodles. This ingredient is routinely added to noodles in Thailand, but if you don’t like it, you don’t need to use it. It doesn’t taste or smell funky; just a bit salty.

noodles with broth
Then ladle some broth over the noodles, covering them entirely. Sprinkle some chopped green onions and cilantro leaves on top. Dust the whole thing lightly with ground white pepper (black pepper is never used). As you can see, I ran out of ground white pepper the day I made this.

Then season to taste at the table. I recommend white vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, and dried red pepper flakes. Consume immediately while the broth is still hot.

Or if you’re anything like me, you wait until your noodles become cold and have absorbed most or all of the broth, before you eat it like a cold, noodl-y … something. It drives people around me nuts, but I can’t help it.

And now the recipe.

5.0 from 4 reviews

Rice Noodles in Clear Broth with Beef Balls (เส้นใหญ่ลูกชิ้นน้ำใส): Thai-Style Noodle Soup 101
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Recipe type: One-Plate Meal
Cuisine: Thai-Chinese
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • 2 quarts chicken or pork stock (see notes below)
  • One pound Asian-style frozen beef or pork balls, thawed
  • One green onion, trimmed
  • ¼ cup cilantro leaves
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and pounded into coarse shards (see post)
  • 8 ounces bean sprouts, rinsed and drained well
  • 8 ounces dried extra-large rice noodles
  • 2 tablespoons preserved cabbage, optional
  • Freshly ground white pepper
  • Table seasonings: fish sauce, white vinegar, sugar, dried red pepper flakes
Instructions
  1. Put the stock and thawed beef balls in a large pot. Bring the broth to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer. Keep it on low while you work on the other components of the dish.
  2. Slice the green onion crosswise thinly. Set it aside along with the cilantro leaves.
  3. Put the garlic and vegetable oil in an 8-inch skillet and place it on medium-low heat. Slowly heat the garlic and the oil together, stirring occasionally (the garlic tends to brown first around the edges). Do not be tempted to increase the heat. Let the garlic brown slowly.
  4. In the meantime, put 3 quarts of water in a large pot and bring it to a boil over high heat.
  5. Check on your garlic. Give it a stir periodically.
  6. When the water boils, add the bean sprouts to it. Let them blanch for 30 seconds, then scoop them out with a large slotted strainer. Shake off the excess water and divide the blanched sprouts among four individual serving bowls.
  7. Once all the bean sprouts have vacated the water pot, add the dried noodles to it; stir.
  8. At this point, the garlic should be close to golden brown. Get a small heatproof bowl nearby. Once the garlic becomes golden brown, immediately remove the skillet from heat and transfer its content to the heatproof bowl. Do not let the garlic cool down in the skillet as the residual heat will continue to brown it to the point where it’s too dark and bitter.
  9. While the garlic oil is cooling, the noodles should be close to done. Do a strand check to see if they’re soft enough. If so, take the pot off the heat. Strain the noodles. Shake off excess water. Divide them among the four bowls with the blanched bean sprouts in them.
  10. Stir about ½ tablespoon of both the crispy garlic and the garlic oil into the noodle strands.
  11. Add to each bowl ½ tablespoon of the preserved cabbage.
  12. Pour the steaming broth and the beef balls over the noodles. Top each bowl with the reserved green onion and cilantro. Dust the whole thing with ground white pepper, to taste.
  13. Serve the noodles immediately with the seasonings on the table for each person to season his noodles to taste.
Notes
You can use store-bought chicken broth for this. However, the best broth for this particular application is homemade broth made of nothing but raw chicken carcasses or raw pork bones and water. To make 2 quarts of stock, use about a pound of raw chicken or pork bones and 10 cups water. Start out with both ingredients cold. Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer, covered, for about 2 hours (you can throw in a couple of smashed garlic or cilantro roots, if you want). Skim off scum towards the end, strain, and discard the bones. You should end up with roughly 2 quarts. Add some fish sauce or salt to it just to give it some flavor.

 

25 Responses to Rice Noodles in Clear Broth with Beef Balls (เส้นใหญ่ลูกชิ้นน้ำใส): Thai-Style Noodle Soup 101

  1. R. Saunders March 27, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

    Leela-

    Thanks for the time and effort you put into this topic.

    I found it very interesting and I learned some techniques.

    In Thailand, I was always a “sen yai” man versus a “sen lek” or “sen mee” man.

    However, where I live in the US, I can’t find the “sen yai” anywhere.

    (Note to others: When I am using the Thai transliteration, I am referring to the type noodles.)

    One thing I found quite useful is the shard of garlic technique.

    Another is the white pepper.

    I always assumed that the shaker at the “look chin” stalls was MSG and not white pepper.

    And I have a question:

    Normally, do Thais at the soup stalls use an actual stock or do they use the concentrated stock cubes?

    Or does it depend?

    I always assumed that they used a type of stock concentrate.

    I would be pleasantly surprised that it was more likely a real stock now.

    • Leela March 28, 2013 at 4:22 am #

      MSG is usually used in the broth and more is added to each individual bowl by a small spoon at the noodle lubrication (ugh) stage. With the added MSG (standard practice), the umami comes at you at full force even though the broth is light and thin (unlike the unctuous Japanese ramen broth).

  2. Craig Cruden March 28, 2013 at 3:50 am #

    Great post about noodles.

    There is a very simple reason why the noodles are rarely made at home in Bangkok….. most of the lower/middle income people that are paying 3,000 to 5,000 baht for a room and maybe sharing it ($100 – $166) have no kitchen…. (normal thai kitchens are outside in the countryside – i.e. separate from the house).

    Here you can get chicken carcasses anywhere (not necessarily so in North American grocers – but if you find the right butcher he will save them to sell to you). Chicken broth you make vs store bought stuff – not the same at all (as you mentioned) which cannot be over-emphasized. I tried making broth with pork bones but I should have read up on them first since my first and only attempt so far was just doing them the same way I would do chicken and the broth looked horrible (white) – not close to a good broth from an Isan (Som Tam/Larb Mu/Tum etc.) food stall. Beef bones (for Vietnamese Pho) — haven’t found any yet locally – when I stopped by the market asking for them they just looked at me funny and asked why I would want them – don’t usually keep them because of the smell (of the broth). Although I have on occasion seen beef broth (I think) — none on my street though.

    Most times if I have noodles I take them home and having the “oil coating” to the noodles is absolutely a necessity to keep them from clumping (noodles go in a separate bag than the broth or they keep on cooking until they are dead). No oil would leave the noodles one noodle ball :o I have made the oil/garlic before at home but have generally just use lard + garlic + some pork cracklings (I render the lard because I sometimes make fried rice and oil is not that great for that task – I can get a kilo of pork fat at the market for 35 baht – makes around .75kg of lard).

    Again, great post – keep it up!

    • Leela March 28, 2013 at 4:14 am #

      You’ve brought up several important things. Each component (the garlic oil, the garlic oil with pork cracklings and which types of noodles it’s used in and not used in, pork bones versus chicken carcasses, why Western-style broth tastes different from simple chicken stock, etc.) deserves a long, long post.

      The fact that Bangkokians (and most Thais) don’t make noodles at home goes beyond the issue of not having a well-equipped kitchen, though. Even people who have a full-fledged kitchen with helpers working for them 24/7 don’t make noodles at home.

      • Zelda April 2, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

        That’s interesting. Most Chinese I know do not roast meat at home as average kitchens are small, with no space for an oven. In Hong Kong, people buy in all of their roast duck, roast pork and char siu. Sadly, it is considered too much trouble or a bit of a country bumpkin activity to make many foods from scratch. Is that the case with Thais and their traditional dishes too?

  3. Korteztk March 28, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    Wow, this recipe looks delicious! Thanks, as I try to digest exactly what I am going to have to do to make it happen (other than read it over a few dozen times).

    I appreciate all the time you spend for our benefit just to “learn” us how to make great food.

  4. Susan March 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    I am so glad you posted this! I returned to the states after a sabbatical in Thailand, and I’ve yet to find *any* noodle soup that satisfies my craving. I still love ramen, but it’s complexity doesn’t scratch my itch for the soup stall noodles or the nostalgia for Thailand. I’m beginning to think that my craving comes in part from MSG, as well.

    I asked my favorite soup lady for some pointers before I left Chiang Mai, but my Thai isn’t that great, and my soup lady was more, uh, tolerant than helpful. I’ve blindly tried making bowls of noodles based on my observations and the offerings at the Asian markets here in Austin. I have to admit I’ve been trying to dunk baskets of noodles, meats, and sprouts into boiling water with no avail–either the sprouts are horribly soggy or the noodles are al dente and gross. I’ve been soaking noodles and not soaking noodles and my trial-and-error method needs to come to an end!

    I appreciate that this recipe doesn’t even TEMPT me to try the basket method whatsoever!

  5. Elisa March 28, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    I think you *should* write a post on the seasoning caddy!!! Things like:
    where can I get one in ‘merica? I look every time I’m in the asian/international market with no love. what 4 things should I definitely have in there?! what sort of wild and crazy options are there? ahh I miss Thailand right now.

    • Craig Cruden April 5, 2013 at 12:18 am #

      Actually a post on condiments/caddies would be great. I can’t get my chili’s in fish sauce to taste exactly like what I get from the “Made to Order” food stall right in front of the building. The standard one usually has 4 options, but they differ depending on what is being served at that stall. So many things that I know I need to learn, so many things I don’t know that I need to learn. Even after taking 12 days of thai cooking courses at SITCA, living here for years, some really small (and big) things stump me :o Just received a special delivery of Pla Ra from the Northeast so that should keep me busy for a while while I try and figure out how to make some Isan food.

  6. Clouds in the Kitchen March 28, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    I love all thai soups… Delicious…. So glad I live here …Good recipe. Thanks. I am also fearful of publishing them …so many, such a tall bill…you have done a great job…

  7. Zelda March 29, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    I’m not buying any processed meat products after the horse meat scandal here in the UK. Nothing against horse meat, by the way, just the fact that one never knows what the hell goes into these products. I must say I dislike the store bought Asian beef and fish balls – they truly have the consistency of a rubber ball.

  8. Megan March 29, 2013 at 9:45 pm #

    This recipe (and your writing about it) makes me very, very happy.
    And, YES PLEASE do a post on the condiment caddy. It’s such a mystery to me.

  9. GT March 31, 2013 at 1:20 am #

    I am really looking forward to your recipe for the bouncy Asian-style meatballs! I can buy them at the store, but I like to have control over what goes into my food, and I haven’t found a good recipe yet.

  10. Daniel Tan March 31, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Leela, maybe you should mention that the majority, if not all, of the frozen Asian meatballs that you see in the US market are made in the US by small manufacturers who sell their products through Asian grocery stores.

    I’m tired of people who make comments about all the weird things that may go into Asian products.

    If they’re insinuating that we sneak cat meat, dog meat…whatever into these meatballs, then I find that incredibly racist.

    If they’re expressing concern about the food additives, then I hope they’re equally concerned about the chemicals that go into hot dogs, bologna and other things that are similar to Asian meatballs.

    • Zelda April 2, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

      I don’t eat chicken nuggets, spam, corned beef or Frankfurters either, if that makes you feel better?

  11. Spikygreengobbermonster April 6, 2013 at 2:26 am #

    I love the bouncy texture of these meatballs,they just go so well with all the other tastes and textures in the broth.If you make them yourself and like them bouncy you have to 1)Purrée the meat really well 2)Slap them into a bowl to get the the proteins going 3)Work in a bit of crushed ice 4)Parboil them.

  12. Laura April 10, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

    Oh the condiment caddy! I loved it in Thailand, but have not found most Thai restaurants in the States to have very good ones.

    You know what I would love to see a post on, similar to the condiment caddy? Condiment etiquette. I find so many SE Asian soups to be so bland–is it acceptable to truly poor a ton of sugar/vinegar/fish sauce into your soup? Or have you spoiled some subtle deliciousness that I as a Westerner am oblivious to? :) (I will say I am not a fan of chicken noodle soup either, so it might be just me.) I wondered this, especially when in a Thai restaurant. Am I insulting the chef if I use A LOT of the condiments?

  13. DWB April 11, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    “Don’t leave me. I promise I’ll change. I love you”

    And we Love you too, Leela. Don’t you dare ever change!

    It has become clear the condiment caddy is both frightening and intriguing to us westerners. As your loyal readers, we already are quite interested in Thai food in the authentic way. Please address the condiment caddy, and proper “at table” seasoning for Thai dishes.

    I think this is important because many of us enjoy the Thai taste,and would like to integrate these flavors into our everyday meals, if from Thai origins, or not. As a result of your guidence, I now use “chili jam” in many foods, most of which are not of Thai origin.

  14. Z$ April 16, 2013 at 6:59 am #

    Thanks for such a detailed how-to. I’ve had a version of this from a Thai restaurant in Arlington VA that tasted so rich and a little sweet too. They called it floating market noodle soup. We made a noodle soup with homemade meatballs and oxtail, but it was clear something was missing. Cursory internet research suggests it might be cow’s blood. Is that right, and is that easily obtainable?

    • Leela April 16, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

      Z$ – Some grocery stores with a meat department in Chinatown have cow’s or pig’s blood. Otherwise, it’s hard to find. But that’s not the only thing that makes boat noodle soups unique, though — the spice blends in the broth also play a big part.

      • Ardita May 10, 2013 at 9:46 am #

        Yes, that spice blends! I tried the beef version of this noodle (since most of the meatballs are pork, which I don’t eat) and it has a slightly sweet taste and spices that I find similar to Vietnam’s “Pho” soup. Is there any star anise in the mix? What are the usual spices that are mixed into the broth?

        I’m a “sen lek” person, BTW :D

  15. Zelda April 2, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

    My comment was about ‘processed meat products’ – burgers, sausages, frozen pasta Bolognese, meatballs – Asian, Swedish, whatever. No racial insinuations whatsoever. I dislike the taste and consistency of store bought Asian meat/fishballs, but homemade ones are fine.

  16. Nicole April 4, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    Not stepping in the processed meat products debate, but I’ll chime in to say that I also dislike the “bouncy meatball” texture, even if it’s the correct texture! Would I get run out of town on a rail if I made tender meatballs instead?

  17. EmmaC April 4, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    Nicole, mix some fish sauce or soy sauce, minced garlic, and ground pepper into ground chicken or whatever you like and drop them by a teaspoonful into the simmering broth. You’ll get non-bouncy meatballs.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Thai Boat Noodles from Pok Pok CookbookSheSimmers - December 9, 2013

    […] against the grain into 1/8-inch-thick bite-size strips 16 fresh or defrosted frozen pork balls (see this post to find out what they are) 10 ounces semi-dried thin, flat rice noodles (about 5 cups, tightly […]

Leave a Reply

Rate this recipe: