Boat noodles: the secrets to Thai dish’s great taste and five places to eat them in Hong Kong
More expensive versions use wagyu beef and imported pig’s blood but the signature rich, dark broth flavoured with garlic and coriander in bowls of Thai rice noodles can also feature pork and fermented bean curd
Boat noodles aren’t new in Hong Kong: they’ve been on the menus at Thai restaurants in the city – especially the more casual places – for a long time, although not always known by that name.
The small bowls of noodles are recognisable by the intense, thick dark broth and toppings of sliced meat, meatballs, fresh herbs such as coriander and Thai basil, and fried pork crackling.
The name boat noodle has been around since the 1940s, says Lonuchit Suphasit, of Boat Noodle in Tsim Sha Tsui. The dish was originally served off boats in the Thai capital, Bangkok.
Suphasit says the traditional version of the dish in Thailand is small because only the bottom of the bowl is covered by broth and noodles, making it easier for one person to paddle the boat and serve at the same time. “If the bowl is too full, the soup will spill,” he says.
Restaurants in Hong Kong usually offer a larger portion, although Nittaya Bistro in Tai Kok Tsui offers the traditional tiny bowl from 3pm to 10.30pm. Boat Noodle in Tsim Sha Tsui gives customers the option of adding a larger portion of noodles.
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The defining ingredient is fresh pig’s blood, chefs told the Post, but it’s not easy to get because Hong Kong does not allow the sale of liquid animal blood. Samsen in Wan Chai imports it from Thailand while Boat Noodle uses solidified blood, breaking up the pudding-like chunks before adding it to the soup base.
“If you don’t like blood, choose another [bowl],” says Adam Cliff, chef and co-founder of Samsen in Wan Chai. Born and raised in Australia, Cliff started his career as a chef when he was 16. He worked at restaurants in Bangkok for five years before moving to Hong Kong. Last year, he quit his job at Chachawan in Sheung Wan and opened his tiny restaurant specialising in Thai street food.
Cliff’s version of boat noodles is sumptuous and delicious, incorporating tender pieces of wagyu, beef known for its high amount of marbling, while the rice noodles – imported from Thailand – are better than at many other restaurants. At HK$128, it’s also more expensive than others.
“We are trying to create the best boat noodles we can. And to do that, we believe you need to first be using quality ingredients,” Cliff says. “This is the reason we go to great effort and expense to import over 80 per cent of our fruit and vegetables from Thailand.
“You can see why the beef is so important – [meat from] poorer quality cattle could potentially be dried and less tender to eat because it is less marbled, and impart an unpleasant gamey smell into our soup.”
The imported Thai fresh rice noodles are springier and more elastic than those found in Hong Kong.
Boat Noodle sells its versions for an average of HK$60, offering two toppings: pork or Angus beef, with the crushed pig blood in the broth.
“To be honest, fresh blood is better,” says chef Suphasit, known by the nickname Tiger. “It gives a stronger, richer taste than the solid blood.”
Originally from Thailand, he has been in Hong Kong since he was 13 and started cooking when he was 16. Now chef of Boat Noodle, which opened in June, the 28-year-old is a fan of Thai street food.
Before the opening, he had been flying between Hong Kong and Bangkok 10 times a month to choose the ingredients to import, concentrating especially on the noodles.
“Thai rice noodle is the most common in many Thai dishes such as pad Thai,” he says. “It offers a chewy and sticky taste, while [Hong Kong] rice noodles are softer. Rice vermicelli is [like] the traditional Cantonese thin noodle and yellow noodle mixes egg and [wheat] flour. Different noodles go with different toppings: Angus beef tastes best with Thai rice noodles and duck leg with yellow noodles. Ask if you are not sure.”
Another signature ingredient in boat noodles is fermented bean curd, sometimes called “soy cheese”, which gives the broth a salty, pungent and slightly sweet flavour. The traditional Chinese seasoning is made from tofu and rice wine, and pickled for around one month which turns it into a firm, smooth paste. “It adds a level of richness to the broth,” Cliff says.
Nittaya Bistro in Tai Kok Tsui was opened about a month by Simon Wu, who was born in Thailand. He runs a company that imports ingredients from his home country, and his restaurant specialises in Thai street food.
Wu’s 24-year-old daughter, Momo, is the chef and their boat noodles don’t contain blood. “People in Hong Kong don’t like blood [in the broth]”, Momo says. “They prefer tofu-like [blood] jelly in stir-fried dishes and soup.”
Like the other chefs, though, she does use fermented bean curd. “Most important are the ingredients and their combinations,” she says. “Coriander offers a refreshing aroma, garlic adds spice, and Thai soy sauce gives the salty broth a sweeter touch.”
Momo says the most popular booth at her restaurant has an umbrella – a reminder for customers of the spirit of Thai street food.
Five places to eat boat noodles in Hong Kong
Samsen, 68 Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai, tel: 2234 0001
Boat Noodle, Rose Mansion, 1 Prat Avenue, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2788 3060
Nittaya Bistro, Pak Sing Building, 27-41 Tong Mi Road, Tai Kok Tsui, tel: 2380 4221
666 Boat Noodle, Chung Ah Mansion, 366 Des Voeux Road West, Western District, tel: 3618 4544
Cheong Fat Thai Food, 25-27 South Wall Road, Kowloon City, tel: 2382 5998