Sunday Supper. Thai Boat Noodle Soup Recipe. Kway Tiao Lua: It’s All in the Blood.
I first fell in love with this noodle dish known as “Thai Boat Noodle soup” after my father introduced it to me back in the 1990s. We ate it at this place, if some of you may remember, Noodle World, which at that time was actually decent. It was the joyous union of two of my favorite noodle soups, Chinese beef noodle soup and Vietnamese pho. From the Chinese beef noodle soup, you have the prominent usage of five spice powder, star anise and cinnamon sticks in a dark soy sauce-tainted broth. From pho, you have the usage of offals such as tripe, liver and stomach and thin, flat rice noodles (banh pho). Then there’s something else in here that puts this noodle dish in a league of its own. For some, this could make or break the dish: beef blood. But don’t close this window just yet, the introduction of animal blood is nothing recent. Centuries ago, maybe even to this day, the French used it to thicken soups and stews like boeuf bourguignon. The Argentines, Paraguayans and Uruguayans use it heavily in their delicious blood sausage, morcilla. This ingredient was almost treated like a “wine” or a “flavor enhancer/thickener”. And I promise you that you wouldn’t even know it was in your bowl of noodles.
For those that live in Los Angeles, there are a few places in Thai Town you can taste this delicacy borne on a peddler’s boat in a Thailand river. You’ve got the funky, rich and bold version from Sapp Coffee Shop. There’s a decent, five spice powder-heavy bowl from Ruen Pair that tastes best after a long night of drinking. And then there’s my favorite for the time being, at Pa Ord, which I feel has a nice balance between Sapp and Ruen Pair’s. It’s slightly sour from vinegar, light on the five spice powder and thickened with just the right amount of beef blood. I made this before in the style of Sapp’s but since the opening of Pa Ord nearly two years ago, I wanted to revise the recipe in the style of the now retired Pa Ord chef/owner Lawan Bhanduram. This recipe was developed after talking to people at Pa Ord, Sapp Coffee Shop and the Silom Thai Market in Thaitown and I’m sure they all left out a secret ingredient. So here goes!
Ingredients for Thai Boat Noodle Soup (Kway Tiao Lua). Serves 8-10 noodle enthusiasts.
10-12 quart pot (I used my 13.25 quart pot)
5 lbs. of beef bones (legs and shin bones; oxtail adds good flavor too)
1-2 lbs. of beef shank
1/2 lb. of flank steak
1 pack of Asian beef balls or pork balls
3-4 heaping spoonfuls of Thai noodle soup powder or Chinese Five-Spice powder
4 tablespoons of Thai sweet soy sauce (starting point)
12 tablespoons of Thai light soy sauce (starting point)
Thai seasoning sauce (similar to Asian Maggi)
Edible beef blood
1-2 cinnamon sticks
Handful of star anise
6-8 – 1/2″ slices of galangal
fresh rice noodles (banh pho or wide rice noodles)
3-4 small lumps of rock sugar (to taste)
Salt & white pepper
1-2 Kaffir lime leaves (optional – closer to Sapp style)
Additional TBNS Toppings
Beef tripe (sliced)
Pork blood cubes
Pig tongue (braised)
Instructions for Thai Boat Noodle Soup (Kway Tiao Lua)
One. Place your bones of choice and beef shank in your cauldron and fill it up to the top with cold water. The reason you start out with cold water versus hot water is to extract maximum flavor out of the bones and flush out all the impurities. If you really want maximum flavor, roast the bones until they are browned, and then boil them – this is what is done for Vietnamese pho. Once the water is boiling, bring it down to medium for another hour. After an hour, you’ll have a nice foamy surprise waiting for you in the cauldron – scoop out everything. Do not pull out the marrow from the leg bones.
Two. Add 3-4 heaping tablespoons of the Thai noodle soup powder, galangal slices and all the spices in. If you can’t find this particular Thai brand, you can use Chinese Five-Spice powder – it’ll be just fine. Add the suggested starting amount of Thai sweet soy sauce and Thai light soy sauce. These soy sauces are not to be confused or replaced with the Chinese versions – they are completely different. The Thai sweet soy sauce is made with fermented soy beans, palm sugar and/or molasses and is known for is subtle sweetness. This is used solely for coloring food and soups. The Thai light soy sauce is much lighter in salinity than Chinese superior soy sauce and is a bit more watery. Definitely do not use Japanese soy sauce as it is very strong on the salinity and nuttiness. In addition to the two Thai soy sauces used, there is also one more that is used to give it a slight sour/vinegar-like taste. If you cannot find Thai seasoning sauce, then you can use a tiny bit of Asian Maggi. But we will use this later on. Due to the large size of the cauldron, you will be using a lot of soy sauce. Boil this for 2.5-3 hours, until the beef shank in the cauldron is tender enough – then take it out and set aside. The bones will remain in the soup for maximum flavor. Also, resist the urge to use fish sauce.
Three. It is 3 hours since you’ve been boiling the broth and now it is time to do the final seasoning and the point in which our bowls of noodles will start to differ. You really don’t need to use the Thai sweet soy sauce anymore, so you can put that away. Season the soup with the Thai light soy sauce until you’re happy and use rock sugar lumps to balance out the salinity. Once that is achieved, you want to use the Thai seasoning sauce or Asian Maggi to add a slight sourness to the soup and double check that the salt is balanced out with sugar. If you want more of the Thai noodle soup powder, add more.
Four. In a large pot, bring some water to a boil and keep on low. Add your beef or pork balls in there and let them soak in the hot tub while you prepare everything else. This pot will be used to boil your noodles so have the noodles ready. The key to making this dish right is boiling the noodles for no more than 5 seconds in boiling water, placing it in a bowl and covering it right away with broth. But rice noodles can only stay firm for so long – serve immediately! You can also use this pot of water to boil any vegetables you may want to add such as Chinese hollow-heart vegetables (also known as Morning Glory) or Chinese broccoli (gai-lan). Another key ingredient here is the fried garlic or shallots that tops off your soup noodles. In a small pan, heat up some oil (vegetable, canola or corn; not olive oil). Add the fried garlic or shallots (or both) into the oil and lightly brown them, careful not to burn the garlic – set aside. For the flank steak, cut thin slices and dip them in the pot of boiling water to your desired doneness and set aside. If you have additional meat toppings, boil/heat them up and set aside for plating.
Five. So now that you have your condiments and toppings ready, it’s time to finish off the broth with… beef blood. In a separate pot, ladle enough soup for service into a separate pot and bring it to a boil. As a general rule, for every serving, use one large tablespoon of beef blood. I like my Thai boat noodle soup on the thicker/richer side so I did two large tablespoons of beef blood per one serving. Ladle enough broth to cover the 3/4 mark of the noodles and top with white pepper, fried garlic, cilantro and your meats. Enjoy!
I was very happy with the way this turned out and ate two bowls in one sitting. It’s amazing how the blood turns this otherwise, very Chinese noodle dish, into something more special and unique. The ultimate test for me though is to see if my father would approve of it since he ate this growing up in Laos and Thailand. But even if I had the exact recipe as Pa Ord or Sapp Coffee Shop’s, it will never taste the same. And I have a feeling it’s because I’m not serving this delicious noodle dish out of a boat on some river in Thailand. For that reason, look for me on the Los Angeles River haha. Thanks for reading.