Unless you live in northern Thailand where dok ngiao (dok ngio in central Thai dialect), the dried stamens of the flowers of the cotton tree (Bombax ceiba L.), are readily available, you may be thinking that you can’t make this recipe. Well, it’s true that without this ingredient, the ngiao in khanom jin nam ngiao, this classic northern Thai dish won’t be what it is. Dok ngiao stamens lend not only their earthy scent and flavor to the soup but also the texture that people familiar with them seem to unanimously describe as similar to that of slow-cooked pulled beef.
But here’s the thing: you can make this dish without dok ngiao. It may seem a questionable compromise. However, you’ll find out that the broth packs so much flavor—deep, deep flavor from not just the bone-in spareribs but also the ground pork and the fermented soybeans. In other words, culturally speaking, your dish may blush and fidget out of insecurity for not containing its namesake ingredient. Culinarily speaking, however, it stands tall and proud for the exceptionally high umami content.
The recipe is written to reflect how this dish is traditionally made in its birthplace in case you can find all of the ingredients and want to stay as close to tradition as possible. For those who may have a hard time securing some of the ingredients, this recipe is not out of your reach—I make it in Chicago all the time! Simply follow the substitution recommendations.
Northern Thai Rice Noodle Soup with Pork Ribs, Dried Cotton Flowers, and Tomatoes (Khanom Jin Nam Ngiao ขนมจีนน้ำเงี้ยว)
Serves 4 generously or 6
- 2 pounds pork spareribs (choose meaty ones), separated lengthwise into single ribs and cut crosswise into 2.5-inch pieces
- 2 teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning
- 1 small head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 4-6 dried small red Thai chilies (or chiles de árbol)
- 4 dried large red Thai chiles (or guajillo chiles), stemmed, cut into 1-inch pieces, deseeded, soaked for 15 minutes in hot water, and squeezed dry
- 1 1/2 ounces shallot, peeled and cut into cubes
- 3 cilantro roots, sliced thinly crosswise (or 3 tablespoons cilantro stems)
- 2 teaspoons packed Thai shrimp paste
- 8 clusters of dried cotton flower stamens (or omit them)
- 3 disks northern Thai-style dried fermented soybeans (thua nao, available in some Thai grocery stores), crumbled or pulverized (or ⅓ cup of Chinese-style salted soybeans, or ½ cup of Japanese fermented soybeans, natto, which has been mashed into a smooth paste, or ½ cup of the darkest Japanese soybean miso paste you can find, or ½ cup of the Korean fermented soybean paste, doenjang)
- 6 ounces pork blood cakes (lueat mu, packed in water in plastic tubs in the refrigerated section of large Asian stores), cut into 1x1/2x1/2-inch pieces (or omit them)
- ½ pound ground pork
- 6 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved, or 2 large plum tomatoes, quartered
- 1 ¾ pounds fresh khanom jin noodles, kept covered at room temperature (or one 14-ounce dried Guilin rice noodles, cooked as described here
- 8 ounces pickled mustard greens, rinsed, blotted dry, and cut into ½-inch cubes
- 2 limes, trimmed of the core and halved lengthwise
- 2 cups bean sprouts, refreshed in cold water and blotted dry
Put the ribs in a heavy 4-quart saucepan. Add water to cover them by an inch. Bring to a boil over high heat. Place a heatproof colander in the sink. Boil one minute. You’ll see a lot of gray foam and sediments. Remove from the heat and drain in a colander. Rinse thoroughly with cold tap water. Give the pan a quick rinse as well.
Put the ribs back in the pan. Add water to cover them by an inch. Bring to a boil. Stir in 2 teaspoons of the salt and simmer, covered, 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, chop the largest 4 cloves of the garlic into tiny pieces, the size of a match head, and put in a 8-inch skillet with the oil. Put on medium heat and cook, stirring often to prevent uneven browning, until the garlic is golden brown. Transfer the garlic from the oil with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate. Leave the garlic to cool. While the oil is hot, add the dried small chiles and fry them off the heat just until they’re crisp and darker in color. Transfer the chiles to the garlic plate to drain. Leave the oil in the skillet.
Use a mortar or a small chopper to grind the remaining garlic, the chiles, the shallot, the cilantro roots, and the shrimp paste into a smooth paste (if you use a chopper, add just enough water to get the blades going). Set aside.
Check on the ribs. Replenish the water, if necessary, to bring it back to the original volume. When the 45-minute mark approaches, add the dried flowers, the fermented soybeans, and the blood cakes.
Put the skillet with the oil in it on medium-high heat. Before the oil gets too hot and the sediments from the previous round of cooking burn, stir in the prepared paste and fry until fragrant, about one minute. Stir in the ground pork and fry, chopping it up into small pieces as you go, until the pork is no longer pink. Scrape every bit of the mixture into the rib pan. Continue to simmer the ribs for another 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes about 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
Check on the soup. If there are chunks of fermented soybeans that have not dissolved fully into the broth, use the back of a spoon to mash them against the side of the pan and stir it back into the broth. Taste the broth to see if it needs more salt (account for the bland noodles!). When the tomatoes have softened, turn off the heat.
While the soup is still boiling hot, quickly divide the noodles between 4 large bowls or 6 medium bowls (if the cooled noodles clump up, give them a quick rinse under hot tap water and shake them hard to drain). Ladle the soup over the noodles. Top with the green onions, the cilantro, and the prepared crispy garlic. Serve with the fried chiles (to be crumbled into the soup as desired), the pickled mustard greens, and the bean sprouts on the side. If you like it tart (and this noodle soup should be a bit tart), that’s what the limes are for.
Excerpted from Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand. Copyright © 2019 by Leela Punyaratabandhu. Used with permission from Ten Speed Press.