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Thai Condiment Sets

Michael Babcock, Monday, January 24th, 2011

Something you’ll see in Thailand in any restaurant or shop that serves noodles is a standard, (4-container) Thai condiment set. I’d like to explain what’s in it and why it’s there. (I’ve already written a blog on one of the other things you will usually find on the table in Thai Salt and Pepper.)

Thai Condiment Set

Glass condiment set

Perhaps the most important thing to know about Thai cooking (I say this as a quasi-ignorant fahrang, or perhaps a fahrang who knows just enough to make what a Thai would consider to be a really dumb statement) is how to balance flavors, what Kasma talks about in her article Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors. For a practical exercise, see Balancing Flavors: An Exercise. If you know how to balance flavors to get a Thai taste, you are no longer dependent on recipes and you can fix recipes that don’t quite work right; see my blog Following Thai Recipes.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Metal Condiment Set

Metal condiment set

What does this have to do with Thai condiment sets? Well, every time a Thai orders noodles, they get an opportunity to harmonize flavors for themselves, using that condiment set.

Thai condiment sets come in many shapes and materials but whether they are made from metal, plastic, ceramic or glass, the basics are the same: usually 4 containers (sometimes 3 or 5) with spoons on a stand. The containers usually have a lid. In some noodle shops there won’t be a condiment set on each table: there will be 2 or 3 in the shop that are moved between tables as the noodles are served.

Although, what you will find in the 4 containers will vary slightly from place to place, here’s what you can expect to see:

Plastic Condiment Set

Plastic condiment set

  • One of the containers invariably is a source of sour flavor, either chillies in vinegar or a lime-based chilli sauce.
  • There will nearly always be sugar in one of them. Although westerners often think of sugar only as a source of sweet, it’s main importance comes as a way to balance and bring out the different flavors, as Kasma talks about in her blog Principles of Flavor Harmony
  • A source of spicy-hot, such as roasted, dried chillies or roasted chillies in oil
  • There may be a container devoted to fish sauce, for salty flavor, although in many places this will be available as a bottle of fish sauce (large or small) on the table. On occasion I’ve seen soy sauce instead of fish sauce.
  • There will often be chopped peanuts to add to the noodles for texture and flavor
Ceramic Condiment Set

Elegant ceramic condiment set

Certain noodle dishes are always accompanied by a specific condiment; such Pad Thai, served with a slice of lime, or Rahd Nah (Pan-Fried Fresh Rice Noodles 
Served with Sauce), which get green chilli rounds (in the States, Kasma uses green Serrano chillies) in vinegar. Duck Noodles are often served with their own special sauce; when Kasma makes her Anise-Cinnamon Duck Soup Noodles (Gkuay Dtiow Nahm Bped Dtoon) the sauce she makes to serve with it is made from two kinds of chilli peppers, garlic, lime, vinegar, fish sauce and sugar.

Plastic Condiment Set

Another plastic condiment set

Whatever is found in the set, the principle is the same: the diner flavors the noodles the way he or she likes them. Often in noodle shops I’ve been served noodles with very little added to the broth, which, tasting a bit bland,  calls for a bit more adjustment. On other occasions, the broth is sufficiently salty but lacking in spiciness or sourness. It always pays to taste the noodles first and then decide what you want to add. One time when I blithely added several spoons of  chilli flakes fried in oil to some Northern-Style Curried Noodles (Kao Soi) and found out that they were served plenty spicy to begin with. It can sometimes take several different additions followed by tastings before I get a dish exactly the way I like.

My own theory (I should run this by Kasma some time) is that Thais are generally in a better place to learn how to harmonize flavors in dishes because they’ve been doing it all their lives every time they order a noodle dish.

Condiment Set of Glasses

Condiment set of glasses

Glasses from the top

Set viewed from the top

The above condiment set has been made from drinking glasses on a tray and has two glasses with different sour-chilli sauce (at the top), one with peanuts, another with dried chillies and another with sugar. There’s a small bottle of fish sauce in the middle. It’s from a noodle shop on Sukhumvit Road just above Soi 55 (Thong Lo) serving noodles with fish balls.

The word for condiment set is “chood kreuang broong – ชุคเดรื่องปรุง. When asking for a set to flavor your noodles just ask for “kreaung broong” – เดรื่องปรุง – meaning flavorings.

Next time you’re in Thailand, look around for a condiment set to buy so you can serve noodles the Thai way in your  own home. Chatuchak market in Bangkok is a great place to find sets of all varieties. (See the picture of the ceramic set, above.)

Written by Michael Babcock, January 2011

Maleeya Restaurant at Pak Bara Pier

Michael Babcock, Sunday, November 14th, 2010

Note: Alas, alas. This restaurant is now (2017) a clothing store.

This is a blog about a good restaurant for buying noodles at Pak Bara pier in Satun Province, Thailand. There’s really only one reason to go to Pak Bara pier: it’s to catch a boat to Tarutao National Park. And the reason we go to Tarutao is to snorkel. Ko Lipe, where we stay, used to be a pristine, uncluttered beach; now it is wall-to-wall resorts and bars. If it were not for the snorkeling, we would not go there.

Maleeya Restaurant

View from the street

Maleeya Sign

Sign for Maleeya

Maleeya Interior

Inside Maleeya Restaurant

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

(You can view some of Kasma’s pictures of Tarutao (above and below water) offsite, new window.)

We usually charter a boat to visit the islands and like to get moving reasonably early in the morning. So Kasma piles everyone into the vans and runs us over Pak Bara Pier, the departure point for the boat, and we stop to eat breakfast (or lunch, on our return trip from the islands) at a little restaurant called Maleeya.

Cooking Station

Cook station at Maleeya

As you drive towards the pier, Maleeya is on the left as you approach the end of the street. The first picture above shows the outside view and the second picture shows the bright yellow sign that you can look for.

Kasma always feeds us noodles here: Pad Thai (on the menu as “Padthai Noodles”) for breakfast and Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Noodles, not on the menu) for lunch on our return. Maleeya is a clean restaurant, run by a friendly Muslim couple. Everything is always cooked fresh to order and they do a very nice job. I’ll include photos of the menus at the bottom of the post — they also make fried rice, green curry, fried chicken and various other dishes.

Pad Thai

Pad Thai at Maleeya

Pad Thai Close-up

Pad Thai close-up

I took these pictures of Pad Thai the last time we ate at Maleeya in February 2010. As with all noodle dishes, this Pad Thai was served with a condiment sent containing dried chillies, fish sauce, sugar and green chillies in vinegar (the exact contents may differ slightly from place to place) so that you can further season the dish yourself.

Drunken Noodles

Drunken noodles

Drunken Noodle Close-up

Drunken Noodle Close-up

Directly above are the Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao). Although they are not on the menu, you can probably order them (as Kasma does) – just tell them you want Guay Dtiow Pad Kee Mao and add gkai for chicken or neua for beef.

Here’s the menu – some basic noodles, fried noodles, stir-fries and Thai dishes. Give the noodles a try. If you click on the menu you’ll see a larger version.

Menu, Page 1

Menu, Page 1

Menu, Page 2

Menu, Page 2

So next time you have occasion to catch a boat to Tarutao, give some noodles from Maleeya a try.

Written by Michael Babcock, October 2010. Updated May 2017.

Boat Noodles (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Boat Noodles at Damneon Saduak

Boat Noodle Vendor

Boat boodle vendor

Readers of this blog know that we do love our noodles. One of our favorites would have to be Boat Noodles, or Gkuay Tiow Reua. (See Kasma’s blog entry on Beef Noodle Soup.)

Damneon Saduak floating market is a popular tourist destination and for good reason. Kasma used to stop there on her off-the-beaten-track adventures but she always arrived at the market around 7:00 a.m., at least a couple hours before most of the tourists show up. After taking a boat trip around the surrounding canals she’ll invariably breakfast on Boat Noodles at the far end of the market. Although this gentleman has passed away, his children have taken over the operation.

Boat noodles are a particular type of noodle, usually with a very rich and tasty broth. Sometimes in the city you’ll see a storefront selling “boat noodles” that advertises the fact by having a boat out front to draw in customers.

Check out:

The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Thong Lo Duck Noodles (Closed, alas)

Michael Babcock, Thursday, March 18th, 2010

UPDATE: Alas, my favorite noodle shop is now closed (probably in 2013, actually). If you’re looking for another noodle shop in Thong Lo, Lee’s Noodles may still be there (as of May 2020).

I’ll leave this blog posted for historical reasons.

I have a particularly fond spot in my heart for duck noodles in Thailand; luckily they are available at in a little duck noodle shop at the Thong Lo neighborhood where I often stay.

Duck Noodle Shop

“Mandarin” Duck Noodle Shop

On my very first trip to Thailand (in 1992) I arrived in the early morning and by the time I got to my hotel in Thong Lo* it was past 3:00 a.m. I was hungry so Kasma took me across Sukhumvit Road to the night market on Soi 38. I was amazed! The street was all lit up, as bright as daytime, and there were maybe 20 different food stalls, many with patrons sitting in front. We went to a duck noodle stall and I still can taste those noodles. (A recent Wednesday Photo showed a night market vendor at the same market.)

Duck Noodle Shop from Street

Duck Noodle Shop on Thong Lo

That very first year I discovered a duck noodle shop right around the corner from where we stay. It’s become a favorite place to eat ever since. It’s a fairly typical storefront eating place in Thailand, opening right up onto the street with the food assembled in the front and tables and chairs in back. The sign above the store says (in Thai) “Mandarin.”

Making Duck Noodles

Making duck noodles

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

It is on Thong Lo (Sukhumvit Soi 55) on the Soi 55 side somewhat more than a block in; so quite close to the Thong Lo Skytrain stop. It’s next to a Japanese bakery and on the other side it’s two buildings before a driveway for the Grand Tower Inn. (The bakery address is 25/15.) You’ll see the plump ducks hanging in the glass display case in front.

To my taste, the duck in Thailand tastes a whole lot better than what we get in the states. They seem plumper and tastier. There is somewhat less fat (it is a warm climate, presumably they don’t need it there) and the taste is just exquisite.

Duck Noodles

Duck Noodles at the Mandarin

Like most noodle shops, this one specializes in one type of noodle, in this case, duck, roast duck (such as you find hanging in Chinatown stores here in the U.S.); there are other shops that serve, instead, stewed duck noodles. This shop also sell pork dishes, and though the crispy pork looks very appetizing, the only thing I’ve ever ordered there is duck. On occasion with Kasma we’ll order a plate of the duck and some chinese kroccoli cooked with oyster sauce. The other 90% of the time, I’ll get “Dry Duck Noodles” – Ba Mee Bped Haeng. The cost is 55 baht. This might be considered somewhat pricey compared to street stalls but there is a substantial amount of duck and I think it’s well worth it.

Condiment Set

Condiment set for adding flavors

When you order noodles in Thailand you first specify the type of noodle; in this case it is ba mee, a thin wheat noodle. Next you specify the meat – bped, meaning duck. Then you specify whether you want soup noodles by saying nahm (water, meaning soup) or haeng, meaning dry.

Each bowl is made to order and will include some greens along with the noodles and duck. The noodles come largely without flavoring – you are expected to spice them up according to your taste preference. I have a theory that this learning to balance and harmonize flavors from an early age (whenever they eat noodles) helps Thais to be such excellent cooks. (See Kasma’s article, Balancing Flavors: An Exercise .)

Duck Noodle Shop Inside

Inside the Mandarin

To flavor your foods, you’ll use the condiment set on the table; although the exact contents vary slightly from place to place, here you have 4 containers with fish sauce or soy (for salty), chilies in vinegar (for sour), dried chillies and roasted chillies in oil. There’s also sugar available on the table, to add sweetness but also to balance the other flavors. (See Michael’s blog on Thai Condiment Sets.)

I like to add a fair amount of the chillies in oil (I take it to the edge of my heat tolerance) along with some sour, salty and a bit of sugar to balance. After the initial additions, I’ll take a taste and then adjust as needed until it’s just right.

Roast Duck To Go

Roast duck to go

They offer various soft drinks but I usually just get the tea in a glass; it’s free, but the ice is 3 baht. Some noodle shops have a plastic container of weak tea (or water) on the table.

We often get a half a duck to go when we leave. They package it up in a styrofoam container and give you a package of gravy, package of soy sauce based dipping sauce, and a package of pickles. We’ll eat it later, sharing with Kasma’s sister and mom.

* Note: I use the official spelling for Sukhumvit Soi 55, which is Thong Lo (though sometimes Thong Lor, or Thonglor). A more phonetic spelling for the soi would be “Tawng Law.” (See A Note on Thai Pronunciation and Spelling.)

Duck Noodle Close-up

Duck Noodles, spiced, ready to eat

Written by Michael Babcock, March 2010. Updated December 2014 & May 2020.

Lampang Noodle Shop

Michael Babcock, Thursday, January 7th, 2010

I thought I’d post an entry on one of my favorite stops. Kasma used to stop here on two of her trips to Thailand – it’s a noodle shop in Lampang called, in Thai, Raan Kao Soi, which translates as Kao Soi (Northern-style Curried Noodles)

Noodle Shop Sign

Noodle Shop Sign

Front of Noodle Shop

Front of Noodle Shop

The shop is found on the main road in between the beautiful wooden Lanna temple, Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, and the town of Lampang itself. Look for the sign (it’s the first image in the blog, to the upper left).

Dining area in back

Kasma in dining area in back

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

These noodles are already well-covered on our website. There’s:

It’s typical of most noodle shops in that they specialize in one type of noodle, in this case the curried noodles of Northern Thailand. You can order with beef, chicken or pork.

Noodles coming to the table

Noodles coming to the table

When you come in, you’ll see where they assemble the noodles at the front of the shop. It’s kind of fun to watch how they do it: it’s a very speedy operation! The best place to eat is in the back of the shop, outside, with a nice view of the river.

There are many things that I like about kao soi. First, the curry sauce tastes divine. Second, it’s loaded with different textures, from the crunchy fried noodles to the fresh shallots pickled cabbage that you add yourself. Finally, there’s the addition of roasted chilli oil, which adds a divine, spicy flavor and gives the dish a delightful kick that convinces you that there is something in red chillies that truly does get the endorphins flowing!

It’s also a fun food to eat, participatory. You get to add your own vegetables and chilli oil and mix together. Do be careful adding the fiery, hot chilli oil – although it’s very delicious the noodles start out with a fair amount of heat; one at least one occasion I regretted the addition of so much extra spice!

Noodles (left) with additions

Noodles (left) with additions

Noodles, mixed, ready to eat

Noodles, mixed, ready to eat

The cook, happy you enjoyed your meal

Noodle shop cook

Noodle shop cook

Written by Michael Babcock, January 2010

Beef Noodle Soup

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Fragrant Beef Noodle Soup Warms the Tummy and Home on Cold Days

Now that cold weather has descended upon us, devouring a steaming bowl of fragrant, stewed beef noodle soup is especially satisfying. Not that I stay away from such delicious comfort food other times of year, it is a favorite one-dish meal and snack even in the tropical heat of Asia.

Beef noodle soup

Beef noodle soup

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Each Southeast Asian culture has its favorite noodle dishes. The Vietnamese are fond of their pho, the Thai of their gkuay dtiow reua (“boat noodles”), and the Malaysians their laksa. These noodle dishes share similar roots – they are Chinese in origin, introduced by immigrants from different parts of China who settled in the region several generations ago. Their descendants continue to run the noodle shops that abound in many Southeast Asian cities, or hawk countless bowls from push-cart stalls and paddle boats, adding color and aroma to the sidewalks and canals of the Orient.

Removing the beef from the pot

Removing the beef from the pot

The common origin explains why many noodle dishes of different Southeast Asian cultures are suspiciously similar in look and taste. This certainly is true of beef noodle soup. The Vietnamese pho is not much different from the Thai gkuay dtiow reua, or the Cantonese beef noodles you get in Chinatown noodle shops.

There are essentially two kinds of beef noodle soup – one with clearer broth and a cleaner taste and the other with a darker, richer and heartier broth. The latter is what I prefer for the colder seasons of the year because of its warming qualities.

Beef tendon

Beef tendon

I like to stew the beef for my noodle soup with a multitude of herbs and spices, adding a fragrant aroma that is not only inviting to the appetite but turns the concoction into something of a preventative medicinal broth. And because a good, hearty broth is produced by simmering the beef over very low heat for a number of hours, the making of it warms and perfumes the home just as much as the finished soup is warming to the tummy and the soul.

Asians like a variety of textures in their food and prefer to stew beef that is laced with tendons. Well-tenderized tendons give a contrasting gelatinous texture to the chewier meat. Many westerners are leery about eating tendon; they often mistake it for fat and think it is bad for their health. Yet, they do not realize that this same tendon is the basic stuff that jello is made out of, and it certainly is not fatty.

Preparing the beef

Preparing the beef

For my stewed beef soup, I like to use a whole shank because it is attached by large tendons to the muscles and bone. It is readily available from Asian markets with a meat counter. I simmer it whole until the entire shank is tender. This takes about three to four hours. The slower the cooking, the sweeter and more flavorful the broth.

For further contrast of texture and flavor, tripe may be added to the stewing pot. Fresh steak slices, lightly cooked to medium rare, and beef meat balls also frequently accompany the stewed beef on the noodles. The latter is available in the refrigerated compartments of Asian markets. They have a similar elastic texture to fish balls, but are a darker grayish color.

Beef noodle soup, bowl #2

Beef noodle soup, bowl #2

The favorite noodles served in beef soup is fresh rice noodles – the same kind used for Chinese “chow fun”. Available in most Asian markets, they come in dense two-pound packages. Be sure to separate the noodles into individual strands before using, or else you will have one big lump in your soup.

The soup is served with bean sprouts and lettuce either already wilted in the broth, or separately on a side dish for dunking into the soup as each person wishes. The Vietnamese like to add sprigs of mint and basil to the side dish for bites of refreshing herbal flavors.

Finally, each partaker at a noodle meal can spice the soup any way he or she wishes with chile sauces, fish sauce and other condiments laid out on the table. Bottled sauces, such as Chinese chile sauce with garlic or Sriracha hot sauce, are available from most Asian stores. I prefer to make my own with fresh chiles as in the recipe that follows.

Check out Kasma’s recipe for:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2009.