Thai Glass Noodle Soup

Kaeng jued with glass noodles, pork mince, egg tofu and watercress

Kaeng jued is comfort food.

I’ve written before about this type of dish, gaeng jued, a plain, clear soup that’s largely unspiced except for maybe a tiny bit of ground peppercorn (but not too much, or it might turn into a clear kuay jap). Plain isn’t necessarily boring, though–this deeply savoury broth is often filled with interesting bits to have with the rice.

Thai glass noodle soup

Common additions to gaeng jued are winter melon, Chinese cabbage, fresh or dried mushrooms, glass noodles, minced pork (plain, seasoned, stuffed into hollowed out melon or squid tubes), or various types of tofu. For this recipe I borrowed the fried egg tofu from kaeng jeud I had at VinCotto Restaurant in Khao Yai.

It might seem pointless to fry something til golden and crisp and then drop it in soup, but those appreciative of that sweet spot where pie crust meets filling, tortilla soup, or tempura udon will understand.

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I also wanted to tell you about celery leaves–yes, that which lurks in the middle of celery heads. It’s a struggle for me to use up the actual ribs but I love the leaves in soups and salads. The Thai word for celery is ‘kheun chai’ (ขึ้นฉ่าย); while it appears to be a general term for the plant, there’s also the loan word เซเลอรี่, which my parents use for the commonly found fatoff heads. Possibly (and I may be wrong), ขึ้นฉ่าย refers to the specific variety often used in Thai cooking,  Chinese celery. They’re slender, hollow-stemmed plants with large, flat leaves. Somewhere between a vegetable and a herb, Chinese celery is used in the same way as scallions and Chinese chives, adding its strong, unique fragrance to all kinds of dishes.

Ideally you’d use Chinese celery here, but for that you’ll almost certainly have to go to an Asian supermarket, look in the nearest Chinatown, or grow it yourself. Leaves plucked from the usual sort of celery will do. It adds a similar savouriness like celery seeds or celery salt does in, say, fried chicken breading, but if you utterly loathe the taste of celery then leave it out; it’s not essential.

This recipe assumes you’ve got some chicken or pork stock to hand, hopefully with no or only a little salt added. Simmering seasoned pork mince right in the stock makes it wonderfully rich, but make it to taste: dilute with water and add a tiny pinch of sugar if it’s too strong for you.

The stock I use is basically the one featured on Smitten Kitchen, similar to the one my parents used. They added as many bones as possible with whatever vegetables they had to hand, boiling and re-boiling to fortify their stock. The result was so rich that it would jelly upon cooling. While the stock was born of economy, it certainly didn’t taste of it.

I love slithery glass noodles. They’re pretty convenient–yes, you need to soak them, but they’re done within minutes and you don’t need to rinse them. It also means that they absorb the rich stock.

To tell you the truth, I often just make this recipe, dump over some ground chilli, and have it for lunch without any rice. I can’t say if this is normal but I certainly enjoy it.

GLASS NOODLE SOUP WITH PORK MINCE, EGG TOFU, AND WATERCRESS

serves 2 – 3 with rice and other dishes, or just 1 as a meal in a bowl

Egg tofu is usually sold in plastic tubes stashed in the chiller cabinet of Asian supermarkets. If you can’t find it, try any kind of tofu you like, but silken tofu is obviously the closest, just not as rich-tasting. The cooked egg tofu keeps for 2 days, chilled.

You can make this soup in advance but I’d recommend straining the bits out of the liquid for storage and only adding the watercress upon reheating. You want things tender but not waterlogged.

ingredients

fried egg tofu (for about 10 pieces):
145g – 150g egg tofu
1 tablespoon cornflour or rice flour
Vegetable oil

pork mince:
Approximately 1/4 lb (113.5g) pork mince (I eyeball this from a 454g pack of mince)
1/2 tsp cornflour
1/8 tsp ground white pepper
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce

rest of the soup:
40g dried glass noodles (again, I just eyeball this from a 80g pack)
300ml – 400ml chicken or pork stock
1 packed tablespoon roughly chopped celery leaves
1 whole scallion or spring onion, finely sliced, the light-coloured stalks in a separate pile from the green parts.
3 – 5 fried egg tofu pieces per person
1 – 2 big handfuls watercress, about 50g
Fish sauce and light soy sauce to taste
White pepper to taste
Fried garlic oil (recipe here)

instructions

Prepare the egg tofu. Cut the tofu into 1 cm thick slices, gently pat dry with kitchen paper, and lightly coat each cut face with the cornflour. Fill a frying pan with a good layer of oil, enough to come up halfway on the tofu pieces. Fry the tofu for 2 – 3 minutes on each side over a moderate heat until golden, turning carefully. Drain.

Make the seasoned pork mince by thoroughly mixing the mince, cornflour, white pepper, soy sauce and fish sauce together in a small bowl. Set aside for now.

Soak the dried glass noodles in cold water according to packet instructions (mine called for 7 minutes) before draining.

Meanwhile, bring 300ml stock to a boil in a large saucepan. Gradually fork out bite-size clumps of pork mince into the pan. Toss in the chopped celery leaves and the light parts of the chopped spring onion, too. Cover and simmer everything for 2 minutes or until the pork mince is completely cooked through and the herbs are softened and fragrant. If the fried tofu needs reheating, add it now and let it simmer for 1 minute. Remove pork, herbs, and tofu to a serving bowl with a slotted spoon.

Bring the stock to a boil again and add the soaked, drained glass noodles, simmering for a minute or two until the noodles are full and soft. Taste the stock, adding more light soy sauce or fish sauce to taste. Turn off the heat and add the watercress, gently tossing to just wilt the leaves in the residual heat.

Finally, pour the soup into the waiting serving bowl. If you didn’t reheat the fried tofu, add it to the soup now. Sprinkle over a few specks of fried garlic oil and white pepper, and maybe extra herbs for garnish if you like. Serve immediately before the noodles get soggy.

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