Long before there were food delivery services that could bring meals from your favorite restaurant to your phone with just a few taps, there were mobile food vendors. These traders traversed the many residential areas of Bangkok on pedal cargo tricycles, bringing all kinds of groceries home in the city’s labyrinthine side streets.
Many neighborhoods had several, so each of these lonely cooks developed their own sound and rhythm to let customers know they were around. Some hit two sticks together; some would use a cowbell-like instrument; others had an ice cream van-style song. To get her attention, you would stick your head out your front gate and point her down. The kitchen on wheels would park right outside the gate and the cook would freshly prepare your lunch while you wait.
Of all the traveling salespeople I can remember from my childhood, none was better than the salesman who told us to call him Ah Pae (a Teochew Chinese term for uncle). While many vendors sourced their mass-produced noodles, fishballs, meatballs, and roasts from the same factory, Ah Pae came from the generation of true artisan street vendors who made their own ingredients. His tricycle was equipped not only with a large soup pot, which was divided into two areas – one for blanching the pasta and one for the simmering bone broth – but also with a small shelf for a freezer with marinated meat and a small charcoal grill for the meat grill on site. I loved everything about Ah Pae’s tricycle. I was sure that I wanted to become a salesman just like him. And even now – decades later – I’m still hungry for his signature dish: a ball of garlic egg noodles with smoky grilled chicken legs.
Bami Haeng, literally “dry egg noodle,” is essentially a noodle salad, although it is not viewed or referred to as such in Thailand. Instead, it’s generally viewed as the broth-free option every noodle cart and shop offers alongside its soupy counterpart bami nam, literally “water (broth) egg noodles”. The bowl of blanched egg noodles lubricated with garlic oil is served with blanched or fresh vegetables and thin slices of Chinese-style grilled pork – or sometimes crab meat. It comes on the table almost completely unseasoned, with the expectation that you will season your own pasta to taste with fish sauce, granulated sugar, vinegar with sliced fresh chilies, dried red pepper flakes and coarsely ground roasted peanuts. The fact that you have a lot of control over how your noodles taste, and can play around with different spice ratios depending on your mood, makes eating at casual noodle shops in Thailand fun. Even a quick outdoor lunch in the middle of the work day feels more like a fun event than an everyday routine.
Whenever I entertain friends at my home in the Chicago area, Bami Haeng is a hit. I turn my kitchen island into a salad bar with a large bowl of blanched egg noodles with garlic oil, a platter of sliced roasted or grilled meat and three or four rows of bowls with various side dishes and spices. It may look like a lot of work, but it isn’t. And people love it! They go crazy experimenting with different combinations of add-ins. It’s a great way to serve a dish but make your guests feel like they’re trying multiple options.
This pasta salad is also great for grilling, but not without modification. Egg noodles are the traditional noodle choice for a reason; freshly made and enjoyed they are fantastic. However, when cooked egg noodles sit for a while, they tend to clump together despite generously pouring garlic oil over them, and no matter how carefully you try to separate them into individual strands to make a salad with other ingredients, they will break. The delicate, chewy texture that made them a popular choice no longer exists. Rice sticks, also known as pad thai noodles, behave the same way, so they’re not an appropriate choice.
Instant ramen noodles stay tender, chewy, wobbly, and bouncy for hours.
Enter our unlikely hero: Instant ramen noodles– the option for less than a dollar a package found in almost every supermarket and gas station convenience store. Instant ramen noodles are not as starchy as fresh egg noodles, so they don’t clump together as easily; they stay tender, tough, wobbly and bouncy for hours. They are easy to cook and transport in advance; And they’re just as tasty as they are hot at room temperature – or even cold out of the fridge.
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