A quick Google search for Thai noodle soup brings up a list of recipes that, for the most part, are hardly Thai. This vegan Thai noodle soup recipe is a more authentic take on kway teow nam, or noodle soup, based on the many bowls I have consumed over the years.
There are a lot of components to this dish. In addition to the recipe provided below, there's also the stock, various condiments, and garlic oil. Once you have all of these ingredients in place, however, you can pull a bowl of noodle soup together very quickly.
The many types of noodle soup
Thai noodle soup is not a single dish. There are many types of soup noodles across the country, some that retain the same basic profile, others with regional variants, and still more that you would find only in specific places. The type of noodle soup we're talking about here is a style called nam sai, or clear noodle broth. The ingredients for this type of soup can vary. In Thailand you might find kway teow moo nam sai (clear noodle soup with pork) or kway teow neua nam sai (clear noodle soup with beef), kway teow luk chin moo nam sai (clear noodle soup with bouncy pork meatballs), and kway jap nam sai (rolled noodles in clear stock), among others. I list these dishes to illustrate variety, not to condone violence. Anyway, you can find vegan versions if you look for them.
What Thai noodle soup is not
I'd like to briefly share what Thai noodle soup is not. I'm not saying these things wouldn't taste good and that you shouldn't do them, but that you'd be hard pressed to find anything resembling dishes like them in Thailand.
- Aside from kanom jeen, Thais do not eat curry with noodles. Once, in Hat Yai, I found a woman selling kway teow kaeng som (a boiled curry without coconut milk) and was floored to see a Thai curry in soup noodle form. I told a few Thai friends and they said they had never heard of such a thing. When I returned the following year, it was no longer on the menu. This is the only instance of noodle soup with curry I've ever seen. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but know there is no proliferation of soup with some curry paste + coconut milk in Thailand.
- Ginger is not the base of everything. Yes, ginger is used in Thai cooking, but as far as noodle soups go the place you are most likely to find it (if anywhere) is as an ingredient in the stock. Many Westerners who write about Thai noodle soup recipes utilise European methods of frying aromatics and then adding liquid. This is not a common Thai practise for this type of dish. Thai noodle soups involve a lot of individual ingredients prepared separately and then put together at the end.
- Thai noodle soup isn't phở. A sprinkling of herbs are dusted on a bowl of kway teow nam. They are not piled in.
- Blandness is expected in many Thai noodle soup dishes. It's up to you to season it yourself, using a selected of condiments provided at the table. Sriracha, especially the Huy Fong style, is not one of these. Firstly, that is not like Thai sriracha at all and second, Sriracha is not a noodle soup condiment.
- If the rice noodles aren't fresh, you soak them first. The amount of time rice noodles spend in contact with boiling water needs to be only seconds. This is how you avoid mushy strands that break apart when you try to pick them up with your chopsticks.
How to eat Thai noodle soup
The secret to this clear Thai noodle soup lies in a combination of good stock and kruang prung, or condiments for diners to season a dish to their liking.
Condiments are paramount
Noodle soups such as this one typically arrive at the table blandly seasoned. Noodle vendors in Thailand, whether in the form of a mall cafe or street cart, provide a caddy of accompaniments to season your bowl, especially: nam plaa prik (bird's eye chillies soaked in fish sauce) for saltiness, umami, and heat; sugar for sweetness; prik bon (toasted dried chile flakes) for smoky spiciness; and nam som prik (mild chiles soaked in vinegar) for sourness. There is no right or wrong way to season your noodles.
Foreigners are often perplexed by kruang prung culture, despite that condiments are not alien to European and American tables. We would hardly accept a cone of fresh chips without a hefty blast of salt and a few solid shakes of vinegar, but somehow the idea of adjusting the profile of a bowl of soupy kway teow is a source of confusion. These misunderstandings are forgiveable. After all, how should one culture know how to deal with the tabletop condiments of another unless they have experience? Besides, I have lived in the UK for nearly 20 years and I still don't fully understand what mint sauce is for and so I am in no place to judge.
Utensils for Thai food
Thai food, that which is served with rice, or even pad thai, is eaten with a fork and spoon. Noodle soups, with their Chinese origins, are an exception. You can eat it however you’d like, but the traditional method would be with chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon.
Vegan Thai noodle soup (kway teow nam sai – ก๋วยเตี๋ยวน้ำใสมังสวิรัติ)
- Two saucepans
- Noodle basket (optional)
Vegan mock pork
- 65 grams vital wheat gluten
- 18 grams tapioca starch (2 tablespoons)
- ⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
- Pinch sugar
- Pinch MSG
- 30 millilitres cold water (2 tablespoons)
- 15 millilitres vegetable oil (1 tablespoon)
- 10 millilitres white rice vinegar (2 teaspoons)
- 10 millilitres Thai thin soy sauce (2 teaspoons)
- 200 grams medium firm tofu
- Boiled water with 2% salinity 20 grams salt per litre water
- Vegetable oil for frying
Per bowl of noodles
- 250 millilitres noodle soup stock (1 cup) See notes
- 60 grams dried sen lek (thin flat rice noodles) or sen mee (very thin round rice noodles)
- Small handful bean spouts
- 1-2 stems morning glory, cut into 4 cm pieces
- 2-3 pieces fried tofu (recipe follows) or use bought tofu puffs
- 2-3 tablespoons mock ground pork (recipe follows)
- 2 vegan Asian style meatballs optional (see notes)
- 1 teaspoon roughly chopped coriander
- 1 teaspoon sliced spring onion
- 1 teaspoon fried garlic in oil see notes
- Kruang prung of chilli vinegar, prik bon, sugar, soy sauce with chillies see notes
How to make vegan pork
- Whisk dry ingredients together in a medium bowl.
- Combine remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Pour into flour and stir with your fingers until it comes together, just beyond shaggy. Leave to rest for 10 minutes.
- Heat a small pot of water on low, not boiling. When hot, tear the seitan pieces into the size you’d like and add them to the water. Cook for 10 minutes and drain.
How to fry the tofu
- Cut the tofu into approximate 2-3 centimetre pieces. Don’t worry too much about getting this perfect. Dump the cubes into a heat proof bowl or saucepan. Pour the just boiled water over to cover. Cover and leave for 15 minutes. Strain and lay the tofu on a tea towel to dry, patting the edges to soak up water.
- You can either shallow or deep fry the tofu. I prefer the latter. Add enough oil to cover the tofu and then some into a wok. Knock the heat up to medium high. Add the tofu and fry, turning the pieces from time to time with chopsticks or a holey-spoon (technical term for spider strainer), until puffy and golden. How long you fry is kind of down to personal preference. It’s going to be good no matter what. Remove with holey-spoon and leave to drain on kitchen roll or a clean tea towel you’ll immediately put in the wash after this.
- If you prefer to shallow fry then add a bit of oil to a nonstick pan and fry the tofu on all sides until crispy and browned. Drain on kitchen roll or tea towel as above.
How to assemble the noodle bowl
- Soak the rice noodles in lukewarm water for 30 minutes.
- Find a pot that’s deep enough for at least most of your noodle basket to be submerged into. Fill the pot with water and bring to a rolling boil.
- Meanwhile heat the stock in another pan and keep it hot. If you are using meatballs you can cook them in this stock while getting everything else ready.
- Ready your serving bowl(s). You can pre-season with a splash of of soy sauce if you’d like. Or not.
- Grab a handful of bean sprouts and the morning glory stems and place them in the basket, followed by the noodles. If you have soaked enough noodles for multiple bowls, you can guestimate by grabbing a small handful. Guess how much you think you should add and then add a little less than that.
- Dunk the basket into the boiling water. Don’t worry if the basket doesn’t submerge all the way. You can turn the noodles with chopsticks in your dominant hand while holding the basket with the other, to ensure everything is cooked. The cooking time is fast, only a moment or two. The vegetables only need to be blanched and the noodles take only seconds to cook.
- Remove the basket and shake it at a slight angle to remove excess water. Tip the noodles/veggies into a bowl. Add 2-3 pieces tofu, 2-3 tablespoons mock pork, and the vegan meatballs, if using. Pour the stock over the noodles. Spoon a teaspoon of garlic oil (don’t forget to include bits of garlic too) on top, followed by the herbs.
- Serve with suggested condiments. You will definitely want to add some of the soy sauce. My personal preference is 4-6 teaspoons of soy sauce, with just a few of the chillies; 2-3 teaspoons chilli vinegar; about ¼ teaspoon sugar; and up to a teaspoon of toasted chilli powder. Experiment until you're happy with the flavour.
- Prik bon: roasted chilli powder
- Nam som prik dong / prik nam som: chilli vinegar
- Prik nam pla: vegan fish sauce soaked chillies