These days in Bangkok, some of the city’s best boat noodles are served in Victory Monument’s ‘boat noodle alley’, a cluster of kuay tiaw ruea (boat noodle) restaurants around the nearby canal, khlong Samsen. But from the 12th–16th centuries, when the Kingdom was run from the ancient city of Ayutthaya (now Central Thailand), boat noodles were prepared on canoes by vendors paddling along the city’s intricate waterways.
The first canals were dug as protective moats, but the system expanded, and as the capital moved south along the Chao Praya river to Bangkok in 1782, canals connected to the river were opened up to become major marketplace hubs and transport thoroughfares.
“Vendors would paddle up to a bridge or wherever people were congregating. They'd make the noodles in the boat, they'd serve them in the boat and people would and eat on the banks of the canal,” says Thai-food expert, chef David Thompson, who’s spent the last 30 years living in Bangkok on and off.
As Bangkok grew into a busy metropolitan city, the 20th century saw most of the canals drained or filled in to make way for roads, and most boat noodle vendors were forced into bricks-and-mortar shops in the 1970s. “You don't get that many [boat noodles] anymore, not the really authentic ones,” says Thompson. “Bangkok is a much more fast-paced city now and people don't stop to sit on the bank of canals.”
Boat noodles are traditionally served with chewy rice noodles, and in tiny portions selling for just 15 baht (30 cents) a bowl. “Most people eat smaller sized meals throughout the day. It's a snack, it's not meant to be a full meal – but they can order two or three bowls if they’re hungry,” explains Thompson. In Bangkok, this is still very much the case – customers in boat noodle alley stack up empty bowls like towering plates in sushi trains. Scoff down 20 and you’ll score the ultimate prize: a free Pepsi.
Like most Thai soups, the stock is a punchy tangle of herbs, spices and aromatics, resulting in a sweet and sour broth full of complexities. Ingredients include a mix of galangal, ginger lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, pepper, cinnamon, coriander and – the most important addition – cow’s blood.
“It was custom to serve boat noodles with beef, and, in particular, a touch of blood,” says Thompson. Known as a nam tok broth, blood is used as a natural thickener and flavour enhancer. “It’s added at the end to enrich the soup, and often boiled so it coagulates somewhat – it just looks like dust,” he says. However, Thompson isn’t a fan of the blood, and chef Vherachid "Top" Kijthavee, from Melbourne Thai restaurant Soi 38, also chooses not to include it in his recipe because it’s harder to source the traditional liquid form, which would involve a trip to the slaughterhouse every day to ensure the blood was fresh and not mishandled.
“Our recipe is a mixture of my grandmother’s traditional recipe and my own research,” says Top. “One of our challenges is to make the soup without blood but have it taste equal to, or better than, the version with blood.” Top and co-owner Andy Buchan believe they’ve achieved this, simmering their beef bones for up to 16 hours to make a rich, authentic stock.
But Thompson says he’d consider bringing boat noodles to Long Chim, his most recent group of restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Singapore. “I would certainly put it on Long Chim's menu. However, we have several noodle soups on our menu in Sydney, and they don't sell anywhere near as well as I hoped they would, or as well as they should because they are absolutely delicious!”
Short of heading to Bangkok for an immediate boat noodle fix, Sydney’s Chon Siam in Thai Town is a place you can still try authentic pork boat noodles, blood and all.