Australians may not have the street stalls of Bangkok or David Thompson's way with a wok, but the Australian-born chef at Bangkok's Nahm has swung open the doors of his kitchen to demystify one classic noodle dish he loves, gwi tio kua gai or chicken and squid rice noodles.
In the streets of Bangkok, “you can smell these noodles long before you see the stall where they are cooked, and you can hear the shuffling of the wok as this charred and fragrant dish is fried”, he says. Bangkok is home for the chef, and “it's a happy home indeed”.
The dish comes from the 1950s, Thompson says. “It's found everywhere in Bangkok now. It came about from cooks being cooks, a talented Thai cook making the noodles this way, which became very popular.”
Thompson himself rarely makes the dish; he will pop out and find it on the street. “Why bother when you can go down the street and it will cost you 50 baht [$1.70] and it has been prepared for you, you can eat it there, and you can walk away not having to worry about the clean-up.”
It's really important to have a well-tempered wok, says Thompson. “And to get a well-tempered wok you just have to burn the hell out of it until it goes white and then you scrape it clean, wipe it out and do it again.”
He says this gives the wok a smoky tang, which is “the sign of a good stir-fry”. It adds enormous dimension to this particular noodle dish.
“You burn the wok out and do it again, so there is this smooth sheen over the wok. You need a carbon steel wok, not a non-stick wok. You can still do the stir-fry of course but it won't have the same tang.”
The right ingredients
Thompson says he has seen versions of these charred noodles with duck and versions with prawns, and “both are a happy substitute if you wish”. But it is essential that the noodles are charred and cooked in a wok.
Chicken is the most popular meat to use for this dish, and squid is its companion. “On the streets in Bangkok it's cured squid. You're unlikely to come across it in Australia, but fresh makes a sprightly alternative.”
Tianjin preserved vegetable, called dtang chai in Thai, is usually made from dried cabbage and it can be found in small, brown glazed jars in most Asian shops. It can be very salty. If so, give it a quick rinse then leave it to drain and dry. Fresh cabbage is not much of a replacement, says Thompson. “Of course you could add fresh cabbage if you wanted to, but you wouldn't see it in Bangkok.”
Asian celery is easily found in Chinatown, says the chef, but if you can't get it, “don't worry about it, just use spring onion and coriander”.
You can use all three of the spring onions and herbs or just one or two, but Sriracha sauce is essential – it makes the dish. A relatively mild chilli sauce, this is understandably becoming very popular, and is widely available.
“It's absolutely delicious, absolutely delicious,” says Thompson. “There's the Cock brand [by Huy Fong Foods] and other brands. Awful name, but it's quite good.”
This dish demands fresh wide rice noodles, says the chef, dried noodles do not work.
If you use whole baby squid and gut them yourself, don't peel the squid, says Thompson. “Wash it, but leave that nice pink flesh on there that looks so colourful when it cooks.”
If you can't find Asian lettuce, which is usually available in Chinatown, use butter lettuce or a green coral lettuce, Thompson says. As for serving the dish: “The Thais sometimes place the lettuce leaf on the plate but that reminds me of RSLs from the 1960s, so I just fold it through at the last minute.”
Tips and tricks
Add the garlic and chicken, “which can go in with the skin on or off, it's up to you”. Add the chopped herbs and squid, and just as that is beginning to seal, lay the fresh rice noodles on top of everything. Leave them there for four or five minutes; “you want it to char”.
Thompson recommends only adding the tiniest bit of oil in this dish and none with the noodles. “If you add more, the noodles become tough and shrivelled and it's not attractive. You want those noodles charred and smoky.” Then add the egg, the fish sauce, and stir it through.
Finish it off with a little bit of rendered pork fat, if you can find it. This is something you find in older Thai cuisines; a lot of new places in Bangkok use oil. You can use sesame or white sesame oil, or rice bran oil. “This gives it a richness but the noodles don't become shrivelled and dry by adding it too soon,” says Thompson.
David Thompson's chicken and squid rice noodles (gwi tio kua gai)
Serves one generously
100g chicken thigh fillet, sliced into four or five pieces
Two generous tablespoons light soy sauce
A good handful (about 260g) fresh wide rice noodles
Two to three tablespoons vegetable oil
60g squid, finely sliced then scored
One tablespoon Tianjin preserved vegetable
Two garlic cloves, crushed to a paste with a pinch of salt
Two tablespoons chopped spring onions
Two tablespoons chopped coriander
Two tablespoons chopped Asian celery
A good pinch of white sugar
Freshly ground white pepper
Two to three leaves Chinese lettuce, torn
Sriracha sauce, to serve
Place the chicken in a bowl, drizzle with a teaspoon of the light soy sauce and leave to marinate for about five minutes.
If the rice noodles are not soft and tender, tease them apart and steam them for a minute or so, then allow to cool before separating the noodles once more.
Heat the wok over a high heat, then add the oil. Add the chicken and squid and stir-fry until coloured and almost cooked. Turn down the heat to low and add the preserved vegetable, garlic paste, and about half of each of the spring onions, coriander and Asian celery. Add the noodles and leave for a few moments to sear and colour.
Turn up the heat slightly and drizzle in the remaining soy sauce, then season with the sugar and a good pinch of pepper.
Cook for about two minutes to caramelise the noodles, stirring occasionally and carefully to avoid breaking up the noodles too much.
Add a little extra oil, if necessary, but not too much – otherwise the noodles will clump together. Shift the noodles to one side of the wok and add a little extra oil.
Turn up the heat, then crack in the egg and fry, trying to keep the yolk intact until just set. Fold the egg back into the noodles, along with most of the rest of the spring onions, coriander and Asian celery, another pinch of pepper and the Chinese lettuce.
Sprinkle with the remainder of the Asian celery, spring onions, coriander and white pepper.
Serve with a bowl of Sriracha sauce.