A version of khanom jeen nam ya: lightly creamy, gently hot and aromatic curry sauce with chicken served over rice noodles with plenty of vegetables on the side.
If you’re not familiar with khanom jeen nam ya, I’m sorry. Let’s fix that soon. You’ll want to get to know this versatile dish, particularly if you’re into noodles, especially those with boldly flavoured spicy sauces.
Khanom jeen nam ya is more a category of dishes centred around a template, rather than simply a single plate of something like khao man gai.
Similar in concept to a chilli relish set, khanom jeen nam ya is one of those do-it-yourself dishes where you put together your starch (rice noodles, khanom jeen) with a spicy, flavoursome sauce (nam ya), fresh vegetables and herbs according to your taste, which may or may not be shaped by regional cuisine. This can be a meal unto itself or eaten as part of a larger spread.
Khanom jeen (or khanom chin) are thin noodles eaten all over Southeast Asia. They’re not, despite how the name sounds in Thai, of Chinese origin. Chinese people did introduce a whole noodle family to Thailand, but this isn’t one of them. Its name and origins come from the Mon, one of the very earliest groups to settle in Southeast Asia, pre-dating the Tai in the region that would become the Thai lands. There are still thriving Thai-Mon communities today.
The name khanom jeen probably comes from ขฺนํจินฺ (kha-nom-jeen), meaning twice-cooked, referring to the method of making fresh khanom jeen. When my mother visited Khorat, she’d watch her first cousin make fresh khanom jeen with fermented rice dough extruded a little at a time over a pot of boiling water. Because it’s a fairly arduous process, dishes with khanom jeen were considered festival food. But nowadays, with the wide availability of dried noodles, it’s a common substitute for rice. You may have eaten green curry with khanom jeen at a restaurant, for example.
Khanom jeen nam ya is a whole category of food. The possibilities are endless and delicious. To begin with, khanom jeen noodles may be made from fresh or fermented dough. Some nam ya sauces take the form of a voluptuous sauce while others are broth-like. They may have varying amounts of coconut milk. And there’s essentially no end to the kinds of wonderful things you can have on the side – all sorts of raw or lightly boiled vegetables, fresh herbs, and (joyfully) fried chicken. Much depends on the taste of the cook.
If you’re outside Thailand, the version of nam ya you might have seen around is likely Central style with pounded fish adding body to the sauce, similar to good gaeng som. This nam ya is usually coconut based, and the main aromas are similar to red curry–only with the unique herbal addition of krachai (fingerroot, or Chinese keys).
But there’s much more to nam ya: take a look at Miranti’s utterly gorgeous recipe for Southern-style nam ya, made with crab meat and lots of fresh chilli, a dose of turmeric, and soured with som khaek (asam gelugur). That’s just one possible variation.
Let’s stick to only one for now–chicken nam ya. I keep it pretty straightforward by using chicken portions simmered in stock with aromatics. The tender chicken and soft aromatics are pounded or blended into paste to create a quick, easy curry base which is stirred into the stock with some coconut milk. I didn’t have lemongrass and galangal, but I did have some store-bought red curry paste to hand, so I added that to boost the curry base (PSA: bought curry paste from a good Thai brand is completely correct and true, thank you so much for this opportunity for clarification. Go forth and cook in peace).
The final dish is just rich enough, with the aromatics cutting through the creamy coconut with a little pungent heat and bright herbal flavours. Slurpable noodles are the perfect vehicle for such a sauce, while lightly cooked or raw vegetables and fragrant herbs add a wonderful contrast of textures. I really hope you’ll try this one.
RICE NOODLES WITH CHICKEN CURRY SAUCE
Adapted from Appon’s Thai Food
For 4 servings as a complete meal. The curry sauce keeps for at least 2 days, as do the cooked noodles.
Find pla ra, krachai, makrut leaves, and khanom jeen online or in brick and mortar Asian shops.
If you’re avoiding wheat, check the khanom jeen ingredients carefully: Nguan Soon/Hand brand noodles are made from wheat, while Star Lion brand noodles are made from rice. If you can eat wheat, somen are a completely acceptable substitute for khanom jeen.
A note on the chicken: you can cleave some or all of the bone-in chicken into smaller pieces and cook them that way, as I did. Many Thai recipes also include chicken feet and cubes of chicken blood. Your choice.
This is a particularly good shared dish, with everyone assembling their own platefuls as they please, but you can have individual portions if you wish. In case you were wondering: eat this with a fork and spoon, unless you just… really love using chopsticks, I guess, in which case serve this in a bowl.
P.S. This pineapple coconut lime mocktail is a wonderful way of using up the leftover coconut milk.
For the curry sauce:
300g – 400g bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, drumsticks, or breasts
4 – 7 medium-large dried chillies (adjust according to taste)
6 whole garlic cloves, peeled
2 shallots, topped and tailed, peeled and halved
3 individual roots of fresh krachai (fingerroot), thinly sliced
2 tablespoons pla ra (also sold as ground preserved gourami or anchovy) or fish sauce
400 ml water (it’s strongly recommended to have good homemade chicken stock to hand, too)
2 tablespoons red curry paste, homemade or store-bought
1 teaspoon rock or coarse sea salt
225 ml coconut milk (a smooth mix of head and tail is ideal; add more coconut milk to taste if you like it creamier)
A little sugar, to taste
4 makrut lime leaves, roughly torn
4 spring onions, cut into 1 inch lengths
For the noodles:
400g dried khanom jeen or somen noodles (100g per serving; you can go down to 75g/serving if you’re having other substantial dishes alongside)
Choose what you like of the following:
– Handful of blanched fine green beans, sliced
– 1/2 sliced cucumber
– Handful of salad leaves, shredded or torn
– Handful of bean sprouts
– Handful of dill, or fennel fronds
– Handful of picked mint leaves
– Handful of good Thai sweet basil, picked (have a sniff of the leaves and only get some if it’s fragrant; I recommend dill or mint because, if you’re in the U.K, there’s a much higher likelihood of getting dill or mint which actually smells and tastes of something.)
– 1 medium or hard boiled egg per person
For the nam ya: Put the chicken portions, chillies, garlic, shallots, sliced krachai, pla ra, and 400 ml (scant 2 cups) water into a medium pot. Cover and gradually bring to a lively simmer; lower heat and gently cook for 30 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the pot and set aside on a plate or chopping board. Transfer the very well drained garlic, shallot, chillies, and krachai to mortar or processor. Pound/blend them with the red curry paste and rock salt until everything is thoroughly blended. Return this mixture to the pot.
For the chicken, remove and discard the skin and roughly shred meat from the bone, removing any unwanted fat and gristle. Pound the meat in the mortar (or cautiously pulse in processor) until it’s mostly broken down into a firm paste. (You can also finely shred the meat but it doesn’t quite meld into the sauce–pounding gives the best body.)
Add the pounded chicken to the stock along with the coconut milk. Cover and very gently simmer for 10 more minutes. Check on the sauce: if it’s too thick for your taste (which is the only thing which matters here), dilute with chicken stock or water. Stir in the sugar, makrut leaves, and spring onions.
Taste. It should be bold, salty and aromatically herbal, with a gentle heat and mild natural sweetness to soften and round out the complex flavours. If needed, season with fish sauce and sugar until it’s just a touch stronger than you can stand to eat alone, then keep warm while you prepare the rest of the dish.
For the rest: Cook the khanom jeen according to packet instructions. Drain, rinsing noodles well in hot water for a minute or two. Firmly press on the noodles to finish draining.
Working quickly, use your fingers or a fork to separate small handfuls of noodles into separate bundles, transferring the portions to a serving platter or individual plates/dishes, dividing as you wish. You can twirl the noodles prettily or just leave them in bundles. This makes the noodles easier to serve and eat–they can and will congeal into a huge noodlebeast unless covered in liquid; that’s how they’re supposed to be. Allow noodle bundles to cool slightly until sticky.
Arrange the vegetables, herbs, and eggs you wish on a large platter. Transfer nam ya to a serving bowl (or 4 smaller individual bowls).
At the table, take your portion of khanom jeen, ladle over enough nam ya to thoroughly dress as many bundles as you like, add any vegetables and herbs you like, toss well (khluk!) and eat. Repeat until satisfied.