In the States we don’t generally think about eating flowers, but flowers have long been culinary tradition in many parts of the world. Mainland Southeast Asia is particularly fond of including flowers in meals, whether they are used as a fried accompaniment to a pungent dip, or as a hearty addition to a soup or stew.
Today’s unique ingredient are of the latter variety, dried ngiu flowers ดอกงิ้ว (also known as dokngiao in Thai ดอกเงี้ยว and kapok flowers or red cotton tree flowers in English). The tree, bombax ceiba, is common in East and Southeast Asia, and its dried flowers are a key component of a popular Northern Thai noodle dish, khanom jiin nam ngiao ขนมจีนน้ำเงี้ยว, or “ngiao soup noodles”.
Click here for a Google image search of what these flowers look like when they are blooming. The cores of the flowers are dried, and this becomes the part used in the cooking of the noodle dish. The flavor of the ngiu flower is mild, but the flower absorbs flavors in the broth and provides a satisfying texture component that reminds me of stewed stringy beef.
Recently I found these rare dried flowers at the amazing “Thai Thai” shop in Queens, NY. I have yet to find this ingredient in Philly.
Kanom jiin noodles
The noodles often used for this soup are a common staple in Southeast Asia, from Yunnan to Myanmar, Vietnam to Thailand. They are extruded fermented rice noodles. In Thai, the name is literally khanom jiin “Chinese snack”, but the etymology of this food item is more likely found in the ancient Mon language of Southeast Asia, meaning “kneaded” or “double-boiled” noodle.
The noodles really deserve a post of their own, and I could not do better than the outstanding post on this essential Thai ingredient at Thaifoodmaster. In addition to historical background, you can also find a useful step-by-step of how these noodles are made.
I use dried Chinese Guilin mifen 桂林米粉 noodles in place of fresh khanom jiin. The flavor of the dried variety may be less complex and nutty than the fresh fermented kind, but they work well for a home pantry item. The boiling process is simple, and they generally need more time than spaghetti, for example, to reach al dente. The traditional way to serve the cooked and drained noodle, is in the shape of a little nest (pick up a small handful and wind them around a few fingers). For today’s bowl I didn’t do that.
Nam ngiao น้ำเงี้ยว ngiao-style soup
The soup used for this noodle dish has a distinctive flavor that comes from several staple ingredients of the Thai/Myanmar/Lao border region. In particular, “rotten bean sheets” (see here for a prior post on this item) are used to provide a nutty depth that is reminiscent of miso. Sour tomatoes are also used for the soup base, and the final bowl staging is completed with complementary items such as pickled mustard green and fried garlic mince. If you have ever eaten khao soi noodles, those will be familiar.
We didn’t have one classic ingredient in this dish, boiled coagulated chicken or pork blood, on hand and decided to leave out today.
We also used a ready-made paste (also obtainable from specialty Thai markets in Queens). The paste itself is not hard to make, though it takes some time to pound. Most of the ingredients are relatively easy to obtain (except for “rotten bean sheets”, which I’ve only seen at Friendly Market in South Philly), and you can see the making of the paste in this very useful Thai video on the noodle dish from FoodTravelTV.
The paste ingredients can be seen in the 6 dishes at the bottom left of the video at about the 1 minute mark: 10 Large dried chiles (seeds removed and roughly chopped), sea salt, 2 Tbsp finely sliced lemongrass bottoms, Tbsp finely chopped galangal root, 1 Tbsp cilantro roots, Tbsp fresh finely chopped turmeric, 1/4 cup chopped Asian shallots, 3 Tbsp chopped garlic, 2 Tbsp “rotten bean sheets”. See the chef pound these ingredients in the above order, into a paste between minutes 2:25-4:30.
From there on, the process for making the soup is simple, but you need some time:
- Parboil pork bones. Rinse and bring back to the boil in fresh water. Add ngiu flowers.
- Fry your soup paste in some oil. Some recipes mix minced pork in at this step. We made large meatballs instead. Dump fried soup paste into the soup pot, along with ground pork. Add tomatoes.
- Prepare ingredients to eat with the noodles, fresh or lightly blanched mung bean sprouts, limes, chopped cilantro and green onion, fried garlic, and coarsely chopped mustard greens.
- Assemble this all on top of the boiled khanom jiin noodles, adjust to your liking, and mix and eat.
The flavor profile of the soup is spicy and sour. The “rotten bean sheets” also add a level of earthiness.
There are also useful pictorial step-by-step posts on this dish at the Lanna Food project of Chiangmai University here, and from at Bloggang blog here, for a good comparison to what we did at home today.