Friday, 31 October 2014

Rocking The (Noodle) Boat

I probably should note that the photos were taken by my makan kaki that day, not me, but she didn't want to be identified by name. Maybe some day.

Rocking the (noodle) boat

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 31 October 2014

Like that prototype stealth ship the US wants to build, a new craze appears to have sneaked into the Klang River unnoticed ... at least, by me.

A quick search online revealed that this Thai noodle dish used to be served out of boats in Bangkok’s waterways: a small portion of flat rice noodles with pork balls, minced pork, herbs that includes lots of coriander (ugh) and a meat broth thickened with pork blood.

It came in small bowls because those boats — floating stalls, basically — had little room, and the rocking of waterborne vessels came with the risk of being scalded with hot broth. Nothing like the good old days.

Some of these boats were eventually forced on land, but the name stuck: boat noodles.

Boat Noodle co-founder Tony Lim, who has a Thai wife, said in a radio interview that he saw the potential in the dish and brought it to Malaysia.

At the time, the small-portion, bowl-stacking format is already fading in Bangkok (“Maybe they found it too troublesome” Lim said); many stalls over there serve bigger portions now. But he feels the time is ripe for the “Instagrammable” bowl-stacking experience here.

Some of the establishments that exclusively sell this dish include the Boat Noodle outlets in Subang’s Empire Shopping Gallery, Jaya One and Publika; Thaitanic (seriously?) at Scott Garden, along Old Klang Road; and another at Sea Park called The Porki Society, where one of the co-founders has a Thai girlfriend.

Bowl-tower rating: like a red cape to kiasu Malaysians (left); the
portions may be small enough to inhale, but the soups pack a punch

But it was at Zab Zab Boat Noodle at Kuchai Lama where makan kaki Melody and I got our feet wet on the whole boat noodle thing. This was the height of the mania and we had to wait for about 20 minutes for our turn.

Hungry and tired, I stewed outside, glaring at a table of three (a codger and his two sons) that ordered another eight bowls while several towers of empty bowls were still being built.

Hope the whole pile tilts and squashes you all flat, breaks into pieces and shreds you.

I nearly wept with relief when we finally got a table. However, even with three cooks the noodles took a long time to arrive. And the much-touted pandan coconut dessert had run out.

We got eight bowls each: four of the (supposedly) pork-blood broth and clear tom yam soup each. All bowls had the prerequisite pork balls, a little minced pork and some bean sprouts. Looking critically at the bowls, I spooned some oil-soaked chilli flakes into my first bowl of tom yam noodles.

At a boat noodle restaurant, this is average (for a table for two)

Which might have been a mistake. Because after that I couldn’t tell whether the blood-broth noodles were also spiked with chilli.

In spite of the heat, I found myself preferring the clear, citrusy and spicy(!) tom yam variant, which also had a sprinkling of crushed peanuts. I felt the thicker and heartier blood-tinged broth didn’t need the coriander.

Melody and I were assured the recipes are authentic. Considering the competition and the portion size, I don’t think the players would rock the boat too much. I vaguely recall the guy we spoke to, presumably the manager, say his wife was Thai (I see a pattern here).

The concept is minimalist and certainly Instagram-worthy, but I can understand why some might regard the dish as "not for human eats one."

Boat Noodle at Jaya One (with a real boat and a road sign) was singled out for minute servings of cool congealed noodles. I’d visited the place before and after the criticism and it looks like the owners were watching the social media channels.

Other complaints include the serving size. An option to lump multiple servings into one bowl is available at Zab Zab but I’m not sure about the others.

Things appear to have cooled down for boat noodles of late. All fads fade away, but I can’t help wondering how long the spicy, hearty flavours in the little bowls will stay afloat in our fast-changing culinary landscape.

Zab Zab Boat Noodle
43G, Jalan Kuchai Maju 7
Off Jalan Kuchai Lama
58200 Kuala Lumpur


Daily, 12pm-10pm

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