Making Kanom Jeen Noodles Is a Full Body Workout
In southern Thailand, I found out how the traditional rice noodles are kneaded as dough, squeezed through a mold, boiled, strained, and dyed.
In Trang Province in southern Thailand, rainstorms don't prevent you from cooking. When there are noodles to be eaten, finding yourself knee-deep in water is no reason to stop.
Having just turned off one of the many jolty countryside roads that span the Province, I find myself at Life Arts Center, an education facility where local school kids come to learn about the region's lost culinary rituals. Only today, the sky is crying its eyes out and the place is bare—more sodden shack than suave demonstration space.
It's not immediately clear why my guide has brought me here, past squatting men pondering flooded roads and stray dogs scowling at passers-by. But then I see a lady in the middle of the hut, pummelling a ball of lilac dough, her hands stained from the purple dye of butterfly flower petals. She pulls out fist-sized balls and places them inside a cylindrical brass noodle mould.
For the next phase of the noodle-making process, the woman gestures for a volunteer. Saiphin Moore, who grew up in Thailand and runs London's mini chain of Rosa's Thai Cafes, steps forward. She hasn't done this since she was a little girl.
Carrying the mould to where a jumbo pan of water is being heated by a raging fire, Moore hoists it onto a frame, secures it with a lid, then begins to heave it round and round with a stick. Long strands begin to drop into the sweltering liquid. These are Kanom Jeen noodles.
The effort of squeezing them makes her groan.
"It's a big workout!" she squirms. "Kanom Jeen noodles are very special to us. Today most people eat dry ones. But as children, we would have them at summer weddings and special events. They're not easy to make—we would always plan it in advance."
Outside the centre, the weather is still dismal. A water buffalo with a rope through his nose glares at us all before plunging into an unexpected river bath. Inside the hut, we stand awkwardly around the pot.
"My family own the land here and has always grown rice. But people are forgetting about how to use it," Sumrith, the artist who founded the Center, tells my translator. He wanted people to understand "that it is the product that drives Thailand."
"To show that the life cycle of rice, even from starting in paddies where people grow it, to being picked and ground down," he continues. "It's not just for curries but also for noodles like these, and desserts."
In this first year of business, 40,000 Thais came to visit the centre. "Which was a total surprise," says Sumrith.
A bubbling sound tells us the noodles are ready. Moore is there immediately, swirling an enormous basket-shaped strainer around the cauldron to scoop up the strands. Throwing the noodles into a bowl, she then washes them three times.
"We have to get rid of the starch. It's hard work," she pants.
Finally, she begins to haul out the noodles, wrapping them around her fingers in figure-of-eight shapes, before displaying them on banana leaves.
My stomach growls. But there is more. Making Kanom Jeen noodles is an intensive operation.
"To make dried noodles, you'd ferment the dough for a few days to preserve it—but here, you can't smell the ferment as they're fresh," Moore says as another woman spoons Tango-coloured turmeric into a stew of water and rice flour before boiling it all.
Next, the real labour starts. Placing the stained wet dough into a deep V-shape that has been cut out of a tree stump, Moore and the two women take up metre-long rolling pins and begin to bash the lump until it congeals into a ball. It resembles a huge marshmallow.
After the same familiar squeezing process—only it's bright yellow strands this time—we are now ready to eat, and everybody is kneeling on bamboo mats around dishes filled with colourful ingredients. Moore ladles sauce onto stacks of yellow, purple, and plain white noodles.
"There are different noodles to have with every dish," she explains. "But these are really amazing to have fresh with vegetables and fish curry sauce because you only eat fish curry in this part of Thailand."
As I am new to fresh noodles, I am struck by their peculiarly pleasant character—cold, yet light and springy on my tongue, the yellow ones slightly earthy.
We eat and eat, and then catch our breath.
Outside the safety of the hut, there are puddles everywhere. The air is fresh and the thick forest around us heavy with water.
But here, crucially, noodles are made and they are cherished.
"People live slowly here," murmurs Moore. "They cook and then they go home."