Rice Noodle Soup with Ham and Watercress + Garlic Oil

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Thai noodle soup is my favourite type of food in the entire world.

I say ‘type’ as this is a category of food rather than one single dish. There are so many variations in broth, noodles, and bits and pieces floating in and amongst the aforementioned, but the kind I usually want for my first meal on holidays in Thailand is simply rice noodles in clear broth. There was just something about the soup which was so strong and savoury. Yes, there was very likely a certain amount of MSG, but I was very sure it was something else, too.

Unlike, say, Japanese ramen, there isn’t yet much internet reading material in English on the subject of Thai noodles. Usually recipes tell you to use Gosto instant soup bases, but then I may as well just eat Mama (I will always love you, Mama, despite everything). In articles about ramen, the broth is the focus, and I have indeed eaten and enjoyed lots of good ramen so I thought this was the key to really good Thai noodle soup at home. So, when I, er, “borrowed” some Thai recipe booklets from my Dad, the chapter I homed in on was on how to make broth. But really, the key to making delicious Thai noodle soup at home isn’t just in the stock.

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L – R: ‘Noodles – Stir-Fried’, ‘Noodles – Egg noodles’, ‘Boldly Flavoured Food’

I read the middle booklet, which wasn’t completely about egg noodles–it was actually more about noodle soup. More specifically, it was mainly geared towards people aiming to set up their own noodle soup shops, though the author wrote that home cooks might also find the information useful. There were tips on how to set up the seating areas, tables, condiment caddies and cutlery, and all recipes given were in industrial quantities (60 litres of stock, anyone?). The home cook is an afterthought because people in Thailand generally go to noodle shops for their noodles, either grabbing a bowl or two of noodles for a sit-down meal or getting a takeaway:

Each element comes in a balloon-taut plastic bag: the stock, noodles, bits and pieces and seasonings. When you get home they will have deflated a bit but it’s alright because it’s all going to go into a bowl and then your mouth.

Diners season their individual bowl of noodle soup to their taste with the ever-present condiment caddy (or puffed plastic baglets of condiments). That’s how it’s done. My mother is sometimes horrified at the amount of sugar a friend puts in her noodles, and is similarly concerned at the chilli flakes in my noodles, but then my mother has more of a sour tooth and a lower heat tolerance.

You can’t really easily buy Thai noodle soup like that in London. There’s Taste of Siam in Camden, which is okay, and then Addie’s, which I’ve not tried and not sure I could bear such a place (high-so types are not my types and vice versa). I love noodle soup, so I’m more than willing to make it at home. Furthermore, even though this dish has got several components, each can be made in advance and stored away so it’s not quite as exhausting to make it all at once: you can just put it together when you want. As it happens I do want it very much and quite often, please and thank you.

So, desiring noodles at home, I scaled down the recipe for the noodle broth from the booklet, made it and ate the noodles. It was very good but not quite right. I’d actually been making noodle soup like that  for a little while, puzzling over what was missing; I was sure it was the broth, but when Leela posted her recipe and talked about the difference garlic oil made, it set off a distant memory of my mother making me simple noodle soup and saying, ‘I always put a little garlic oil in the noodles, that’s how your grandmother did it. It makes them fragrant.’

(I don’t have many charming anecdotes like this; I save them up. Aren’t you glad?)

(… Don’t answer that.)

So I tried making garlic oil. I tossed it with my usual noodles, a handful of watercress and a sprinkling herbs and topped it with leftover ham, finishing it off with a generous dusting of ground white pepper and some fresh sliced chillies and chilli powder. The stock was just a simple ham stock with a round of ham, a few garlic cloves, shallots, and whole black peppercorns, though you can use any basic stock you like. You season it at the table with fish sauce, vinegar, white sugar, ground dried chillies. The finished noodle soup really, truly hit the spot: it’s the garlic oil which adds just that extra bit of depth and complexity, a richness and pungency. If you make the stock really good, though, then the whole thing is  incredible.

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I thought I’d come clean and tell you how I eat half my meals: on the sofa, in front of laptop, bowl to face.

RICE NOODLE SOUP WITH HAM AND WATERCRESS + FRIED GARLIC OIL

Serves 1 generously as a main dish. For portions more like those you get in Thailand, halve the amount of dried noodles. Garlic oil can be kept in the fridge.

This is the perfect dish to use up leftover stock and such, though if you really love your noodle soup then you can of course make it from scratch. Simple stock just made from long-simmered bones or a joint and maybe some whole garlic cloves seasoned with fish sauce/salt would be sufficient. At this stage you don’t want it to be gravy-like in richness, but something savoury and soothing to be seasoned to taste later. You can also make your stock from a good liquid concentrate/powder/cube, like Marigold powder, but dilute carefully – you don’t want it too harsh and salty.

For the fried garlic oil
1 medium clove garlic
1 tablespoon neutral tasting oil (sunflower’s fine)

For the broth
About 250ml good stock
Salt and/or fish sauce
White granulated sugar

For the noodles
75g dried rice noodles of your choice (vermicelli, pho noodles, wide flat, etc)
Fried garlic oil

Bits and pieces
Handful of cold cooked ham, sliced or shredded
Big handful of watercress (around 100g)
Small palmful coriander leaves
1 spring onion, finely sliced

To season
White pepper
Fish sauce
White sugar
White vinegar
Chilli flakes/ground dried chillies

This takes some co-ordination, so make sure you’re ready!

Make the fried garlic oil: Have ready a small heat-proof bowl near the stove. Carefully pound the garlic in a pestle and mortar until it turns into small mostly even shards, stopping well before it turns into fine paste. Put the garlic bits into a cool frying pan with the oil. Heat them up together on a medium heat until the garlic begins sizzling, then turn the heat down a little and gently fry the garlic until just barely golden. Immediately pour into the bowl and leave to cool. Any dithering makes for bitter burnt garlic.

Cook the noodles and heat the stock: Have ready your noodle soup bowl. Put the stock into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Taste and season with salt/fish sauce and sugar, using salt to bring up salinity and fish sauce for savouriness, balancing it with sugar so it’s not unrelentingly pungent. Once you have something you would like to slurp up endlessly, cover the pot and keep warm.

Meanwhile, bring a medium unsalted pan of water to the boil and cook the noodles according to packet instructions. Stir occasionally. Generally, the very thin rice vermicelli takes mere minutes while wider ones can take nearly 10 minutes. You want them to be soft right through, not al dente but also not mushy. Taste bits of them at intervals to be sure.

Assemble the final dish:  Drain the noodles very well, rising them under hot water to get rid of excess starch. You may have to press on the noodles to get every bit of water out.

Put the drained noodles in the soup bowl and pour over 1 tablespoon fried garlic oil, including the garlic bits. Toss very well until each strand is glossily coated.

Bring the stock to the boil, add the cold cooked ham just to warm it through and lift up with a slotted spoon, adding the ham to the soup bowl. Quickly add the watercress, stir once or twice just to barely wilt the leaves, then pour the stock and watercress over the noodles and ham. Add the coriander leaves and spring onion and sprinkle over some white pepper. You’re almost done.

Before eating, toss the noodles together and taste the broth. Season to taste with white pepper, fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, and chilli flakes. There’s no right or wrong taste, here: make the noodle soup you want to eat.

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