Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Thai Comfort: Rice Noodles with Chicken and Green Vegetable

One of the favorite meals at our house, especially with sons-in-law and my student friends, is fast and easy rice noodles stir-fried in the Thai-Chinese manner with meat or shrimp and vegetables. Pronounced in Thailand "guoey tio" (and in Malaysia, where we once lived, more like "kwei teow") the quickly fixed and satisfying noodle dishes are typically cooked fresh to order by street vendors and in small shops, each cook with his (or more typically her) own special touches. The most recognized example to Americans is probably "pad thai" (literally "fried in the Thai manner"), but there are many ways of fixing these delightful noodles.

The noodles are assumed by many to be Thai (and I've even heard "Pad Thai", a creation several generations ago, referred to -- not by Thai people of course -- as the Thai national dish). But, in fact the soft rice noodles are of southern Chinese origin, and were popularized in Thailand by Chinese and Chinese-descended sidewalk vendors and restaurant cooks. And many of the preparations seem Chinese, most particularly "pad sie yu" ("fried with soy sauce") and "rad na" which is sort of a soft noodle counterpart to Cantonese fried noodles with the meat and vegetable and thickened sauce served on top of the noodles. Inevitably some preparations have incorporated more typically Thai ingredients -- like palm sugar and tamarind juice in pad thai, and Thai and even Indian curry spices and coconut milk.

The basic method is to cook together in a wok the additions to the noodles, then add the noodles, which are dry rice "sticks" soaked until softened or if you are lucky (as we are in Atlanta) fresh, soft rice noodles from the market. The noodles then cook in the juices and seasonings, get plattered out and garnished, and the noodles consumed hot. This is one of the rare situations where Thai people actually may eat with chop sticks (other than when they go to a Chinese restaurant), but then rice noodles are derived from Chinese cooking.

The recipe below is the most common one I fix at home and is quick and easy. It shows the basic method, which is usable for many variants, but it also makes a very tasty lunch or supper. Either choy sum (Chinese mustard greens) or broccoli (nappa is less flavorful and colorful, but acceptable, as well) can be used as the vegetable. This recipe serves six for a snack or light meal. Accompany it with lime wedges and an Asian chili-garlic sauce.

Thai-Chinese Rice Noodles Tim

1/2 pound (1/4-inch-wide) dry Thai rice noodles (available at Asian groceries)
1 chicken breast (2 halves), boneless and skinless (or 1 pound ground chicken or pork)
1/2 pound choy sum (Chinese mustard greens) or broccoli
1 large clove garlic
1/4-inch piece fresh ginger
2 scallions (green onions)
2 tablespoons canola oil, plus extra as needed
2 tablespoons Asian oyster sauce (available at Asian groceries)
2 teaspoons Thai fish sauce (available at Asian groceries)
Salt
Dash of white (or black) pepper
1/4 cup plucked cilantro (coriander) leaves
2 red chili peppers, seeded and sliced thinly on the diagonal
2 limes, cut in wedges

Soak the noodles in hot water 20 minutes, or until softened. Drain before cooking.

Trim any fat or tough parts off the chicken and slice the meat 1/8-inch thick. Rinse the choy sum well, drain, and slice stems and leaves 1-inch wide on the diagonal. Or if using broccoli, rinse and drain it, peel the tough skin off the stem, and cut into thin flowerets of similar size, each having a long strip of stem. Finely mince the garlic. Slice the ginger paper-thin (it’s not necessary to peel the ginger unless the skin is tough). Then stack the slices and shred finely. Cut the scallions, green parts and all, into 1/4-inch lengths.

Ten minutes before serving, heat a large frying pan or wok. Add the oil, garlic, and ginger. Stir and fry a few seconds, just until fragrant, then add the sliced chicken (or the ground chicken or pork). Stir-fry until the meat has lost most of its raw color. Add a little more oil to the pan and stir-fry the vegetable 30 seconds. Add several tablespoons water and continue to stir-fry until the color has turned dark green, 1-2 minutes. Add the oyster and fish sauces and 1/2 cup of water, and stir. Add the drained noodles and stir with a spatula, scraping the bottom of the pan so they do not stick. Add water little by little as it is absorbed by the noodles. (The mixture should look slightly soupy, since the noodles will absorb more by the time they are eaten.) Bite a noodle to test for tenderness and salt. Add a little salt, if necessary. When noodles are tender, stir in the scallions for 10 to 15 seconds, and spoon the noodles onto a serving platter. Sprinkle with white (or black) pepper. Garnish generously with cilantro leaves and sliced red chilies.

Accompany with lime wedges to squeeze onto the noodles. If desired, offer a small dish of Asian chili or chili-garlic sauce as a condiment.

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