Noodling around khanom jiin

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Making khanom jiin used to be a norm during festive periods in Mr. P’s home village when he was young. The process of making these thin, capellini-like strands was rather labourious (as illustrated by this post and the other), hence it was not an activity that the villagers engaged in on a regular basis but reserved for bigger occasions.

Like any other kid, the khanom jiin preparations would thrill Mr. P to no end; he liked to tag along female relatives who would join other ladies to make the noodles. Uncooked rice is first soaked in water to ferment for over three days, and the soggy batter that results will be vigorously pounded in big wooden krok (mortar). The dough is then pushed through a tin can with holes, which will be moved in a circular motion to collect the strands in a pot of simmering water; once the strands float to the water surface, they will be scooped up and shocked in cold baths. Sometimes, during the process, the adults would pinch a bit of the dough and grill it for kids to savour as a slightly sourish snack first, Mr. P recalls.

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Not every household possessed a huge wooden krok though, and any family with one would be guaranteed reservations from neighbours prior to the festivals. Several families would often come together to pool resources to make khanom jiin, awaiting their turns to use the rice flour pounder. Owners who rented out their krok would get a batch of fresh noodles in return.

But alas, as “modernisation” marches across Thailand—and any other village on earth—such food-making practices are increasingly rarer as machines and vehicles make inroads into villages and younger folks head to urban areas for work, according to Mr. P. Along the way, the art of making khanom jiin also fell into disfavour as mass-produced or commercially made versions become readily available.

A staple in many Thai dishes—from being a carb alternative to sticky rice to tam sua (rice noodle papaya salad)—these fermented rice noodles shine brightest in khanom jiin naam ya, which pairs these soft strands with various Thai curries. At such stalls, vendors will place the accompaniments—typically hard-boiled eggs, shredded cabbage, raw beansprouts, pickled mustard, lemon basil and long beans—on a communal table. Once your order arrives, add the desired sides (tongs are usually provided) on top of your bed of noodles, mix them up and tuck into the noodles. (Note: the greens are usually free, but eggs will be charged separately.)

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Whenever we head to the fresh market at Ramkhamhaeng 2, a suburban neighbourhood Mr. P used to stay in when he first moved to Bangkok, we will hit the khanom jiin store at the adjacent open-air food market too. This stall serves various naamyaa, from kati (coconut milk) and kaeng khiaow waan (green curry)—popular versions in central Thailand—to naam ngiaow—favoured among the northerners. Of late, I’m starting to develop a fondness for khanom jiin kaeng tai plaa, the southern version (below) served in a pungent and robust curry made from fermented fish entails.

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But when it comes to home cooking, I would opt for green curry to pair with khanom jiin since the former can be easily whipped up with ready-made paste. (After trying a few brands, my favorite is Roi Thai.) Prepare the green curry as per package instructions, but make sure to have vital vegetables such as galangal, lemongrass, eggplant, pea aubergines, kaffir lime leaves and bird’s eye chillies to yield a more authentic taste.

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However, the dish name khanom jiin is kind of a misnomer in Thai. Khanom usually means snack or dessert and jiin means Chinese, but khanom jiin is neither a dessert nor Chinese in origin. In fact, khanom jiin is believed to originate from the Mon people—an ethnic group from Myanmar—with its name meaning twice-boiled in the Mon language.