We’re lining up our favorite plates of Thai noodles to discuss their origin, ingredients, and sometimes complicated names. This list includes the best noodles that you’ll find stir fried, or served in curry or gravy broth at restaurants in Bangkok or around the country. If you’re a fan of Thai food, read on to learn all about the noodle dishes you should be ordering!
1. Pad Thai ผัดไทย
First, let’s talk vocabulary. The Thai word pad, pronounced ‘phat’, means to vigorously mix over heat. You’ll see this word often in the rest of this article, and when you see it on the menu at your favorite Thai place, you’ll know instantly which dishes are the stir fries. At the top of the list of Thailand’s most popular noodle stir fries is pad thai. Pad thai is easily the most well known Thai dish outside of Asia, but like the flavors of the dish, the history behind these tamarind tinted noodles is complicated.
The second word, thai, referring to the Thainess of the dish is equally is telling. For all the hoopla about authenticity, it turns out pad thai is a fairly recent addition to the Thai food canon. The dish came to fame thanks to a nationalism push, and is seasoned with anti-Chinese sentiment. Long story short, the invented dish may have served to get more Thais cooking their own street food, but isn’t as popular today, as you might imagine.
Not the traditional Thai dish you thought? There’s no shame in finding out you’ve been loving a propaganda plate, most of us have! To make matters worse, finding a delicious plate of pad thai in Bangkok is indeed a challenge. The number of ingredients makes it prohibitive to cook with rising food costs, and there are few deterrents to using recipe shortcuts, like ketchup, to improve the taste, color, and shelf life of the renown dish. Add on top disappearing street food culture, and you’ll begin to understand why the quality of the dish varies so widely in Thailand.
Thais don’t eat pad thai on a regular basis. For their regular lunch and dinner choice, the nation-state turns to a curry noodle dish called ‘kanom jin’ (often written as khanom chin). These noodles lack the international glory many of the others on this list enjoy, but they are by far the most popular domestically.
To enjoy the noodles, simply pour your choice of curry over the top. The most common options include green curry, and the less well known, extremely spicy yellow curry called ‘nam ya kati’. After picking a curry, you top the noodles with the fresh condiments you prefer, often situated on a communal table. The condiments are a mix of ingredients intended either to enhance the flavor, such as lemon basil, or more commonly to aid in the digestion of the oft spicy dish, such as bean sprouts or bitter melon.
KJ noodles aren’t devoid of geopolitical implications either. The dish is often mistakenly translated directly as ‘Chinese snack’. The irony of this lazy translation is that it implies these ethnic noodles originate elsewhere. Only the opposite is true, the noodle made of fermented rice, may be the oldest of those eaten widely by people in South East Asia.
3. Mama Noodles มาม่า
We would be remiss not to mention, that a close runner up for the most popular domestic noodle is one that you may not expect— instant noodles! Much of the popularity of these ubiquitous noodles is due to their price and availability. With the second highest number of 7-11 convenience stores in the world, Thailand’s convenience addiction makes finding a wide variety of instant noodle brands, types, and flavors easy all over the country. The most popular of those choices being the brand named ‘Mama’ noodles.
The brand is so popular that in the context of food, ‘mama’ is almost always a reference to those iconic crinkly noodles, paired with a seasoning pack. There are restaurants in Bangkok popular for serving suped up versions of the noodles with every topping you can imagine— including jumbo seafood. But the noodles also appear in popular Thai dishes made in a hurry at street food stalls.
Since they’re so easy to cook, some Thai street food stalls’ entire existence is customizing instant noodle dishes for customers with bonus protein items like hot dogs, poached eggs, minced pork, or the seafood of your choice! You won’t find them often on the menu in fancier restaurants, but you can be assured of their popularity among the Thai populace, whether they be school children, working class, or hungry party goers.
4. Pad See Ew ผัดซีอิ๊ว
Next up is a stir fry dish, iconic for the color of the wide rice noodles used. Pad see ew gets it’s brown tinted noodles from ‘see ew’, which is Thai for soy sauce. But to get your noodles the correct distinctive color, you can’t use just any run of the mill soy sauce. You’ll need to find what Thais refer to as ‘see ew dam’, or dark soy sauce. This particular sauce stands out because of its bitter taste and deep black color. In fact, the sauce is mostly molasses and only a small percentage soy, so be careful when throwing it into your wok, as it’s potent enough to really alter the flavor of a dish.
Pad see ew is the stir fry on this list with the strongest link to Chinese influence. The dark soy sauce, the use of Chinese kale, and the stir fry (aka Chinese wok hei style cooking) cooking method are a sure thumbprint of the migration of centuries of Chinese cooks to Thailand. This means you can find the dish being served in Bangkok street food stalls, which almost pre-date the existence of pad thai. Around the region, you can even find similar dishes in other countries, like Malaysia’s char gway teeo noodles (often spelled char kway teow).
Our favorite part of this popular Thai dish are the noodles themselves. Thais typically make the dish by flash stir frying fresh rice noodles, which begin to meld together from the intense heat, as well as absorbing the stir fry sauces and smoke from the wok. After emerging from the hot wok the plate of noodles is dusted with chili flakes and black pepper, but it may surprise you that this isn’t a spicy dish. The relative mild amount of spice heat makes it an approachable dish for newcomers to Thai cuisine, and a common runner up to pad thai for popularity outside of Thailand.
5. Pad Kee Mow ผัดขี้เมา
You can’t really talk about pad see ew without bringing up the spicier Thai cousin, pad kee mow. In English these noodles can often be referred to as ‘drunken noodles’, a direct translation from the Thai term ‘kee mow’, meaning someone who is regularly drunk. Alternatively, this could be a reference to dousing the noodles in dark soy sauce, but that isn’t nearly as fun an explanation.
This hangover busting dish is a favorite of mine, because it is a Thai spice lover’s departure from the humble, mildly flavored grand-cestor pad see ew. While you can find similar dishes to pad see ew around the region, this chili fueled plate of noodles is uniquely Thai. So while many will overlook ‘kee mow’ for a calm and delicious pad thai or pad see ew plates, hot headed spice lovers will come to Thailand, and make the version found at Bangkok’s street food vendors their new favorite Thai noodle dish.
What makes pad kee mow so spicy? This heat level doesn’t come from fresh chili alone, but layers of different types of spice. In addition to Thai birds’ eye chili, you have the larger Thai chilis added for color and their mild flavor. But what stands out most is the addition of fingerroot, a gangly root that is more intense than the galangal that flavors your favorite tom yum soup. The fingerroot is paired with intensely peppery, mildly bitter young peppercorn, and together they give the dish a mouth and face numbing type of spice that makes it perfect for the ailing drunk!
Visitors to Chiang Mai need no introduction to khao soi noodles. Enjoying the creamy curry noodles has become synonymous with visiting the city itself, because a delicious bowl can be troublesome to find or make elsewhere. This is because the noodles are often misunderstood, and have been reinvented several times based on the influx of people in the highlands of south east asia.
Whether you credit the Burmese, Chinese muslims, or some other group with khao soi, a quick taste or glance at the ingredient list is enough to tell you the origin isn’t Thai. The name comes from the Burmese word for noodles, but the current version most popular with tourists looks little like the dishes of the past. Many of the oldest recipes call for the richly spiced curry, reminiscent of Indian or middle eastern curries, and pair the flavor with red meat.
There may be great debate about the origin of khao soi, but the popularity of the dish is undeniably. The mild amount of hot chilies and meaty broth make it appealing to foreigners who fall in love with the dish in their stints in Thailand’s largest northern city. Today you’ll find the most celebrated versions served with chicken, and garnished with fried noodles, pickled shallots, lime, and mustard greens.
7. Khao Piak ข้าวเปียก
The least well known of our favorite noodle dishes is surely ‘khao piak‘ (pronounced KOW bie-ek). Even the wikipedia page on this hearty bowl of rice noodles looks skinny on info! But that doesn’t mean you should be in the dark about these tasty, usually handmade noodles. If you translate the name literally, khao means rice and piak (BIE-ek) means wet. Now wet rice doesn’t sound too appetizing unless you know it’s a reference to the noodles being made of rice flour and tapioca starch, and served in a gravy like broth.
Lately, the little known noodles are having a resurgence, thanks to the increasing popularity of Laotian food, where the dish is often referred to as ‘khao piak sen‘. The country of Laos shares a border with Thailand, and a long history of trade, war, and blending of language, culture, and cuisine. As Thailand has become one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the region, often the influence of Laotian cuisine get left out of the explanation of dishes that people may assume are authentic Thai recipes, such as papaya salad.
Whether you’ve had them on the Thai or Lao side of the border no matter, this is a special, extra satisfying meal. They’ll make you nostalgic for a hot bowl of chicken noodle soup, except they’re better. When the rice noodles are added to a richly seasoned pork or chicken broth, the starch in them thickens the soup into a flavorful gravy. Since they’re so filling, even families with few resources can stretch this dish into a meal!
Thai Noodle Vocabulary Review
pad – ‘phat’ – stir fry
kee mow – a drunkard
pad kee mow – drunken noodles
kanom jin (pronounced ‘ka-nom jeen’) – fermented rice noodles
see ew – soy sauce
see ew dam – dark soy sauce
sen yai – wide rice noodles
khao piak – literally wet rice, a reference to making the noodles by adding boiling water to rice flour
We’re proud to announce our Bangkok cooking classes have banned the use of single use plastic. Thailand is among the worst plastic polluters in the world, and we hope being the first cooking class to go plastic free will challenge other businesses and people to do the same.
The signs of global climate change can be felt in Bangkok. The temperatures are rising, the city is sinking, and flooding becomes worse every year. The climate crisis is just the backdrop to a culture wide preference for cheap plastics used for on the go food, especially street food, of which Bangkok is known world wide. In fact, we’re still recovering from our cooking class space being flooded last month. This is a problem that can feel overwhelming, so the key is making small changes that can empower us to rethink our impact, and inspire others at the same time.
It started with straws…
We have been weening off of single use plastic for the past year. If you’ve attended our class then you know, we’ve never served plastic straws since our cooking classes started in 2017. Instead guests drink their cooling herbal teas through morning glory (a water spinach that has mostly hollow stems) straws that we provide. They’re not only a better alternative than plastic straws, but have a better mouthfeel than the metal ones, and can be stir fried or thrown in a soup in a pinch. The edible straws have gotten good feedback from our guests as well, and we’ve been building off of this enthusiasm in our war on plastic. We’ve even been bringing our green straws to teach about sustainability in Bangkok’s international schools.
From straws we moved to bowls, probably the most important plate-ware in a Thai household. Here we use a variety of solutions from plain ol’ regular bowls to biodegradable palm wood bowls, and as often as possible plating your food in a natural bowl. This means that pineapple fried rice is served in, well, a pineapple. Your pomelo salad? Dished up in the beautiful carved pomelo bowl. From everything we’ve observed, Thai culture already has the local knowledge to use less plastic. Part of our job is recognizing this wisdom, and turning back the clock to bring some of these trends, such as cooking and packaging food in banana leaves, to our classes and outreach.
There are challenges to going green…
One misconception is about what we mean by refusing to use single use plastic products. We don’t want anyone to think you’ll come to our class and won’t see any plastic present. We do still use reusable plastic containers and plates, as many of the alternatives are considerably more expensive. This is something we want to be transparent about, because ‘plastic free’ seems to mean different things to different people. We’re anti single use plastic and strive not to even accept plastic or styrofoam from vendors in the local market. This means even on our street food tour in Bangkok, you’ll catch our staff bringing our own containers and silverware for you to use to eat!
Also, for many restaurants and food providers like us, there are real food safety concerns when switching from plastic. For example, how do you naturally clean your morning glory straws before giving them to people? These are real challenges we have to spend energy on remedying, and training our staff as we abandon plastic. The hardest thing to give up? Plastic wrap and plastic gloves! We don’t want not using them to increase the chances someone will become sick from what we’re serving. This means being thoughtful about preparing for each class, and making sure our entire team is cognizant about food safety concerns that come along with these changes.
Our mission to be more environmentally friendly isn’t over. We’re learning, growing more of our own food, and doing our best to share what we learn as well. Let’s all strive to do better together!
Thai noodle lovers rejoice! We’ve got a brand new cooking class in Bangkok we’re hoping you’ll love.
Are you ready to deepen your knowledge of how to cook Thai food at home?
Are you looking forward to move beyond pad thai, to other delicious noodle dishes?
How about needing a delicious, but vegetarian, vegan, or gluten free Asian dish to wow your friends?
We’re excited to announce our brand new class to teach you how to make your own Thai rice noodles. This isn’t your average cooking class in Bangkok, where a tour company squeezes as many tourists into the kitchen as possible. Instead we’re aiming to deepen your knowledge of Thai food, and boost your kitchen confidence, by focusing in on one of Thailand’s most beloved ingredients, rice noodles!
You’ll learn to master mixing a rice flour batter for your noodles, and steaming the batter to create the noodles with us. Once your noodles are looking good, we’ll let them cool before cutting them to your preference. We prefer wide noodles that aren’t overly thick, making them perfect for stir frying into a steamy plate of pad see ew.
To help you replicate the delicious Thai rice noodles at home, we’ll share our tips for making them with as little hassle and mess afterwards. This includes making a versatile stir fry sauce that you can use with any noodle you make. This is a must do course for Thai food fans who love wok fried noodle dishes like pad see ew!
If you’re not already familiar with pad see ew, this Thai Chinese dish combines wide ‘sen yai’ noodles with soft scrambled egg and Chinese kale. You can find the full recipe for this dish in our mini cookbook (you can download it for free or give a small donation), and when you take our class, our team we will walk you through exactly how to make them. After returning home from your adventures in Thailand, we’re confident you’ll be able to put on a tasting the whole family will enjoy.
Unlike egg noodles, Thai rice noodles are gluten free and vegan. This makes it easy to customize your noodle dishes for anyone with special dietary preferences. The mild tasting, slippery texture, also makes these homemade noodles the perfect backdrop for your favorite Thai flavors. You can even mention to our team that you love spice, and we’ll help you make the spicier pad kee mow (drunken noodles), as long as you’re sure you can handle the heat. The versatility of these rice noodles is unmatched!
We’re pumped to welcome you to Courageous Kitchen for our new noodle class. As with all of our food experiences, proceeds from your participation will help our efforts to reach and teach marginalized youth in Bangkok. So we’re looking forward to sharing a plate of noodles and making a difference with you soon!
Most of you know Alina as your favorite Thai cooking teacher who’s greeted you, and taken you to the market in our Bangkok cooking class. In the nearly 3 years she’s worked with us, we’ve seen her transition from shy rice farmer, to a fiery force in the kitchen.
Here are 10 quick questions to help you get to know this ambitious young woman, who we believe is a natural born leader.
What’s your favorite dish to eat?
Cheeseburgers and tom yum goong, but it depends on the cheese. I like the fake kind!
What’s your favorite dish to make?
Thai curries I think. Because I like making the curry paste from scratch.
What’s the best part of working at Courageous Kitchen?
Teaching tourists how to cook Thai food. It helps me improve my English, meet new people, and gain cool opportunities.
What has been the highlight of your time here?
I met my idol, Chef Ian Kittichai, and cooked Massaman curry with him. I learned new techniques that I use to make my curry now.
What are you most proud of?
I like discovering new recipes and creating cooking videos to teach kids. I can’t believe I can make my own videos, it’s really hard!
When you’re not cooking, what do you like to do?
I like to garden, go out to eat, and love going to the movies!
If you could travel anywhere where would it be?
New York City. I’ve always heard about it, and it looks beautiful.
What do you like to teach?
I like to teach cooking. My passion is cooking so it makes me happy every time I share my recipes.
What is your superpower?
What does courage mean to you?
To be beautiful, to have confidence, and to fight for your life.
A special invite has our US based team hanging out in the Bay area recently, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to share how we brought Courageous Kitchen vibes to employees at Airbnb headquarters!
One of the most important ways we raise funds is by hosting tourists for food related experiences in Bangkok and San Diego. Much of this entrepreneurial arm of our charity is possible because of programs like Airbnb Experiences, where Courageous Kitchen is featured as a Social Impact activity. The designation refers to recognized charities who host on the platform to bolster their causes, and has all commission fees waived by Airbnb. Not only is Courageous Kitchen one of only 400 such experiences worldwide, we are the first and only social impact experience in Bangkok.
We’re proud to be working with Airbnb, and most recently Christy was invited to teach a Thai food workshop at their renowned headquarters in San Francisco’s hip SoMa district. Along with longtime volunteer, Beatriz, they taught members of the Airbnb Experiences team how to make traditional Thai iced tea, papaya salad (aka somtam), and a Lao style minced meat salad full of herbs and chilies (aka larb). If you’re unfamiliar with these dishes, lovers of Thai food can tell you that along with some sticky rice, they quickly become one of the most sought after meals you can get in Thailand.
To start off their class, Beatriz showed the group of nearly 30 guests how to make their own Thai tea. She then shared her story of how she became involved with Courageous Kitchen, stemming mostly from her own familial ties to refugees. Her grandparents were spies for the United States Army, and fled Indonesia sometime in the 1950s to avoid being caught by the local government. Next, Christy demonstrated two of her favorite Thai and Lao salads which are staples in her Laotian household. Christy’s background not only provides the cultural context to work with our students, but her own story resonates with theirs deeply. Her parents, who escaped Laos in the early 1980’s lived and worked in a refugee camp in Thailand before resettling to the US where she was born.
The narratives of the people behind the food, are just as important as the food we serve, in helping others understand our mission and vision. By sharing our personal stories with our guests, we realize just how much our own paths are connected with those of our Courageous Kitchen families as well. As Social Impact hosts on Airbnb, we want the customers in our cooking classes and street food tours to understand where their dollars are being spent, and be able to walk away with both satisfied bellies and hearts, knowing they helped a noble cause.
In our short time taking over the jumbo kitchen in Airbnb Headquarters, we attempted to give employees who visited, a mini taste of what we offer each and every guest. That’s a quick serving of friendship paired with cold drinks, spicy bites, and a bold brand of courage that leads us to fight for the most marginalized.
Our team is grateful for the continued support from Airbnb and the entire Experiences community. We’ve met and partnered with some amazing entrepreneurs in California and hope to forge more friendships with likeminded organizations in the future.
We look forward to sharing our story in a kitchen near you!
Special Thanks and hugs to Stephanie H. of Airbnb, for the invite and support every step of the way!
Sustainability has becoming a much larger global conversation, and we’ve been thoughtful about how to be more friendly to the environment in our cooking classes, reduce waste, and encourage others to do the same. Bangkok’s International Schools have also been a part of pushing discourse and action to protect the environment, and we’re proud to be in partnership with schools encouraging students to make a difference. Most recently we have been doing workshops and demos in schools to teach youth practical ways they can reduce waste in and around the kitchen.
Thailand is one of the world’s worst plastic polluting countries, creating about 2 million tons of plastic and growing each year. The single-use plastic is especially egregious and has been the focus of many of the awareness campaigns in the past few years. This has been encouraging people to use last plastic, especially plastic bags, straws and other utensils, and even hygiene items such as toothbrushes.
When we have an opportunity to do outreach with students, generating discussion is usually our first task. The majority of students we meet in international schools have already seen the viral videos of animals suffering or dead from swallowing too much plastic. In fact some of the current initiatives to influence retailers to use less plastic, have been started by the students themselves. This makes getting students to speak up about how to make changes easy.
Just like the students, we can all acknowledge we need to use less plastic, but can’t always imagine what that may mean. We have to remind students that plastic, as much as it’s a regular part of life today, wasn’t always around. What then, did people do before they were given 3 straws and two plastic bags for every drink purchase they make? We believe that asking these questions can provoke students to realize that many of the solutions they desire may already be in hand.
Using Natural Straws
One fun way to get the discussion going is to make natural straws with the students. To their shock, we grab what seems like an unimportant vase of long stemmed light green plants, and assign them to make their own straws. The plant is morning glory and the students set up cutting, pithing, and cleaning them, while discussing how they’ll use them at lunch later in the day.
We find most students know very little about the morning glory plant, whose name in English can be used to refer to a large family of plants. In Thailand however, most discussion revolves around two edible varieties used commonly in Thai cooking. The most famous is referred to as a Chinese breed (pak boong jin or ผักบุ้งจีน), and is flash stir fried with chili and garlic. This version has skinny stems, and if you purchase it, intending to make a natural straw you will be sorely disappointed. Or maybe not, because you can still make a stellar stir fry.
The other common variety (pak boong thai or ผักบุ้งไทย) is native to Thailand and grows much larger. Since the stems are mostly hollow on the inside, the plant can float on the water above competing species. However, the strong stems can also make the plant less desirable to eat, so this version doesn’t yet enjoy the culinary popularity of its Chinese counterpart. While tasty, the dishes you would make with this quick growing water vegetable, for example gaeng taepo (แกงเทโพ), are seldom well known by people outside of Thailand. This is because the local variety of morning glory is more likely to be cooked at home than in a restaurant.
Already the students, who are a mix of Thai and expat kids, have learned more about this native ingredient, and especially how to use it to reduce plastic waste. The plant is plentiful in the region and easy to grow. We can imagine the surprise of Thai farmers, if suddenly this ‘water weed’ becomes as valuable as other vegetables. The key is to remind the students that there are some drawbacks to using natural ingredients. The most important issue to be weary, is the ability of the plant to spread disease when not washed or cooked properly.
Making Banana Leaf Bowls
Thais still recognize the value of the banana leaf. You can find everything from steamed seafood, to sweet snacks being wrapped in banana in strong, sturdy banana leaves for cooking. Chefs who want to give their dish a more natural look, may even use a banana leaf at the bottom of their plate to improve aesthetics. However, the banana leaf has slipped somewhat in importance due to the cheap price and ease of use of plastics and styrofoam. We think the time has come to remind everyone how spectacular these large leaves can be for culinary purposes.
Once you have your hands on some banana leaves, it’s important to know Thai cooks will toast them, before using them with food. This can be done by quickly holding the leaf over fire, or dipping them a few seconds in boiling water. This helps with the hygiene of the leaf, but is also widely down to improve the strength of the leaf, making it tear less easily. Dry and cool the leaves, and they’re ready to be manipulated into all sorts of shapes. Toothpicks can be used to hold them together, but if you’re new to banana leaf origami, you may want to start by simply stapling the leaf to help it hold shape.
Cutting the banana leaves into spheres and putting them on plates alone, can help us reduce water usage and how much work needs to be done to wash the dishes. This is really big selling point with teenagers, and we use their sudden enthusiasm to pivot into making a snack together. The snack of choice is Thai crispy cup, filled with a mildly spicy chicken salad (with younger students we will make a Thai coconut pancake with the kids). The students mix their salad to their liking, some adding more fish sauce and palm sugar than recipe really requires. We don’t scold them much, we’re thankful they’re walking away excited about their banana leaf bowls, morning glory straws, and the tasty snack they learned to make.
We all have a role to play in caring for the environment and caring for people in need. Sharing this mission with kids, whether in slums or Bangkok’s fancy international schools, has been rewarding for our Courageous Kitchen team. To take our commitment to the next level this year, we’re on path to become Bangkok’s first plastic free cooking class, and hope to more cooking demos with students around the city.
Thank you for your support, and hold on to your aprons, we’ve got more to say about sustainability and making a difference in Thailand. If you have other tips for being sustainable in the kitchen please leave a comment below!