Bowl after bowl after bowl of the iconic bloodstock noodles
Several major rivers like the Chao Phraya and the Mae Klong weave their way through the country and course south into the Gulf of Thailand, with dozens of tributaries and canals connecting along the way. These offshoot canals, called khlongs, are like mini neighbourhoods that run up and down the river, some behind private barriers and entry-blockers, others open to public boats and snooping tourists.
Accessible via the Chao Phraya, these khlongs have long served Bangkokians in quieter neighbourhoods, tucked away in corners far from the bright lights of the big city. Wooden boats pass through the narrow winding tributaries, transporting goods and selling their wares to locals.
The idea of a floating restaurant or supermarket may sound unusual to those of us who prefer our grub stationary, safe on terra firma, but you don’t have to go back that far to a time when this was a common sight and a practical way to feed families.
Up until today, people who live along the river and particularly those deep into the maze-like structures of the Chao Phraya’s khlongs, approach the river to choose their items from the incoming boats below, from which they can purchase everything from food to home appliances.
One of the most popular purchases remains noodle soup, assembled on board the boat with old ladies picking out pre-prepared ingredients from a bento box-like assembly of bowls. This iconic noodle soup dates back to around 1942 and the period of Plaek Phibunsongkhram, one of Thailand’s former Prime Ministers.
Consisting of egg noodles, pork, fermented bean curd and a dark red broth of pig’s blood, these soups became known as Kway Teow Rua (“Boat Noodles”) and continue to be served today.
Traditionally, serving sizes were small, making it easier for one person to paddle the boat and serve at the same time. Various toppings were added over the years, and I recently tried a version with pulled chicken, red chillies and coriander. Another I sampled at Victory Monument, in the northeast of the city, used thin, flank beef and solidified blood that broke down once the soup base was added into bobbing chunks of bulging blood and gore. I swallowed great visceral chugs—not quite as good as the real oozing liquid thing.
In and around Victory Monument you’ll find that almost all of the boat noodles are now sold via land stalls, each offering their own spin on the classic recipe. Students sit around tables, hunched over bowls, slurping the blood broth; and I see examples of the elderly, bent-double, a single bowl in their hand, gnawing at the meat and slurping the steaming remains.
Due to the variety of methods and the size of the bowl portions, it is recommended to choose between six and ten bowls, so I opt for twelve. All are piping hot broths of different consistencies, some filled with pork and crisp-crackling, others with beef, garlic, crab balls and offal cuts. The classic with ba mee (yellow egg noodles), strips of boiled beef and blood stock, remains my favourite, and at only 10-15 baht a bowl, I challenge you not to stack your table high.