Saturday 3 January 2015

Thai-Style Pork Ball Noodles

Trigger warning: chowing down on this may bring back memories of eating out of polystyrene bowls served by busy street-vendors while tuk-tuks whizz by. If you’ve ever been to Thailand.

My sense of memory is really closely linked to my sense of taste. I’ll get transported by a taste that reminds me of a crab dish served on the Seattle Space Needle, or a fresh piece of sushi from the side streets of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, or a sticky pork dumpling in a Guangzhou dim sum house. And although this particular recipe definitely ain’t the way this dish is made in Thailand, all the flavours are exactly where they should be. And it takes me right back.

It’s not even close to authentic. “Thai-esque” would be a more accurate description. The genuine article is made using stock and involves separate cooking of the ingredients in different pots of boiling water, only combining them as they’re served. But the vendors making it that way are serving hundreds of portions a day, and are using the most efficient way to work on that kind of scale. You’re making it in your kitchen for maybe just yourself. So… not exactly practical to go full metal jacket on this one.

You can of course use stock if you have it made, but what I love about this recipe is that it’s so easy to throw together, and is packed with flavour as it is. It also does a kick-ass job of stocking you up with the tools to fight off those winter sniffles. Garlic, ginger, lime, protein and fresh veggies in broth. Everything the body needs. (Well, not everything the body needs…)

I dunno… Meatballs are a close second!

1) Pour cold water into a pot and add finely chopped garlic, chilli, ginger and lemongrass. Heat to a simmer.

2) Mix a little egg with pork mince, chopped coriander, salt and pepper. Shape into small balls.

3) Add pork balls to the pot and cook until they float.

4) Add sliced broccoli and onion. Then noodles. Cook for 2-3 minutes.

5) Add sliced pak choi, sliced mushroom and beansprouts. Finally, throw in leftover egg.

6) Once noodles are cooked through, serve immediately with a dash of soy sauce and a squeeze of lime.

Pick up that bowl and start shlurpin’!

Wait, stop, hold on! Lemon is a grass now?

Not quite. But also, yes. Lemongrass is a herb that basically embodies the tastes and smells of Thailand. But granted, it’s not stocked in every convenience store or corner shop. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get your hands on though, especially if you have an asian foods store near you.

If all this is new to you, read on for a more in-depth look at the recipe, ‘kay?

Ingredients (serves 2-3 hefty portions)

  • 1200ml water
  • 1 chilli (fairly hot. Or not, if you don’t like spicy.)
  • 1 garlic clove
  • ~6cm lemongrass (chopstick thin)
  • ~1/2 thumb worth of ginger
  • 200g pork mince
  • a small bundle of fresh coriander leaf
  • 1 egg
  • 1 small onion
  • ~150g broccoli florets (the top parts, without the tougher stem)
  • 150g dried, medium noodles
  • 1 small pak choi (aka bok choi)
  • 1 large mushroom (shiitake, portobello, oyster, any will do)
  • a handful of beansprouts
  • 1 lime
  • a dash of soy sauce

Like I said, you can substitute the water for stock (chicken, pork or vegetable). But plain water still gives you a perfectly light, flavoursome broth. Remember, its not supposed to be farmhouse vegetable soup, thin is good.

Chopsticks will really come in handy. Not just for eating, but for stirring. A big spoon can accidentally break up the meatballs or bash the delicate vegetables.

    Start off by grabbing a large pot and pouring in the measured cold water. The amount is important, because too little and you can’t cook the noodles in it, too much and the broth is bland. It doesn’t have to be ice-cold or anything, just from the tap is fine. You’re starting with cold water for the same reason as when you’re making stock: certain nutrients (and flavours) dissolve more readily into cold water than hot. For the strong tasting ingredients, we want those flavours spread through the whole dish, not just concentrated into whenever you happen to take a bite of one of them.

    Those powerful ingredients are the garlic, the chilli, the ginger and the lemongrass. Peel the ginger and the garlic and trim the end off the chilli and lemongrass. Now chop them all as finely as you possibly can. When you’re done, you should be all “daaaaaamn, they fine!” Again, you want the flavours to mix evenly. And you really don’t want to bite into a big chunk of any of them. Toss them into the water and turn the heat on so it slowly gets brought to a simmer.

    While that’s happening, go ahead and make the pork balls. See how I didn’t go for that low-hanging fruit? I’m maturing. Chop up the fresh coriander into a bowl with the pork mince, a little salt and some black pepper. Separately, beat an egg then add about a third of it to the pork. Keep the rest of the egg for later. Combine your meatball mixture. Now rip off chunks and roll them in your hands into balls. Don’t make them too big. Try cupping a pair of balls in your palm. If they feel... right, they’re the perfect size. Okay, maybe not that mature after all. But come on! Meatballs, people! Just aim for about 10.

    When all of the mince has been rolled into meatballs, and the water in the pot is gently boiling, add them in. At first they’ll sink to the bottom. After a few minutes, when they’re cooked, they’ll rise and float to the top. Don’t change the heat, you want the broth to return back to that simmer after you add each ingredient. In the meantime, cut the broccoli, the onion and the mushroom into thin slices. Chop the leafy top part off the pak choi (but don’t throw it away) and slice the rest.

    When the meatballs are floating, add in the broccoli and onion, as these will take the longest to cook. After a minute, add the noodles and poke them around with a pair of chopsticks to get them fully submerged. Once the noodles are in the water, the clock really starts ticking. Most noodles are fully cooked in about 4-5 minutes, and if they’re let cook for longer they’ll continue to soften to the point of being unpalatable. Nobody likes a limp noodle with their balls. So keep an eye on the time and leave them for only 2-3 minutes.

    Now you can add the mushroom and pak choi slices, along with the beansprouts. The mushroom is actually a pretty crucial ingredient, as it'll add "body" (a flavour known as umami) to the broth. Gently stir everything around for a minute, then finally add the pak choi leaves (they need almost no cooking), and the rest of the beaten egg. Don’t ask me how, but egg in broth really works. What can I say, them Asians know what they’re doing! Also, waste not want not, right?

    Taste the noodles to see if they’re done. If they’re still too chewy and tough, let them cook for another minute or two, but keep checking regularly so they don’t overcook. As soon as they’re done (or even a little before) ladle everything into bowls. Drizzle a little light soy sauce and squeeze some lime juice into each serving. Eat immediately with chopsticks. No spoons allowed. Pick up the bowl and guzzle down the sauce that your chopsticks can’t get!

(I cannot stress enough how incredibly immediately this needs to be eaten. Do not set a bowl aside for a late friend. Do not keep some leftovers for tomorrow. The noodles (and the broccoli) will continue to cook and absorb the water they’re sitting in. The result… is not very appetising. So just do yourself a favour and eat it posthaste, while everything is perfect)

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