In Thailand, Soup With Rules


Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

When the ancient Mercedes buses weren't grinding past and the lime-green fluorescents faded, you could slurp and gaze at the old photograph of Chiang Kai Shek and picture a restaurant somewhere else--in Chaozhou, China, before the revolution, beside a different sea.

Sawang's Cantonese soup noodles have that effect, and the owner knows it. And so if you want to eat them, you follow his rules: no smoking, no drinking, fast eating.

In Bangkok, soup noodles (ba mee) are the rough equivalent of New York's plain slice of pizza. Many are hastily thrown together in a dish where convenience comes first and craftsmanship a distant second. And they're available on every corner.

After finishing, I asked him what was in his stock. "That's top secret!" he said.

Your typical Bangkok dish consists of a tangle of yellow egg noodles. A flotilla of factory-made meatballs or purchased roast pork will bob on a yellow sea of stock. The meat stock is seasoned with salt, pepper, sugar, garlic, and often the faint tickle of MSG. Final touches are done by the customer (red chili flakes are popular, which also holds true for many pizza eaters).

Soup noodles are eaten for reasons of thrift, comfort, and convenience, but rarely greatness. But a few bowls do rise to the occasion--like the ones at Sawang, which were perfected by the owner at the tender age of 27. He cooks them in the same old shophouse he grew up in, but now it looks out onto an endless logjam of traffic. When the shop opened, these same noodles cost two baht ($.06) a bowl. Now, the noodles cost 100 baht ($2.93), and he is 78.

When I arrived to eat there for the second time this week, he growled that there were no seats. I pointed to a single empty table, and reluctantly he let my party sit. "No alcohol or smoking!" he said, with an uncharacteristic gruffness for this breezy city. "He's the Soup Nazi of Bangkok!" said the friend who'd introduced me to the restaurant, recalling the classic Seinfeld episode.


Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Fortunately, there was soup for me, and after I polished off two bowls of noodles the owner warmed up to us. One dish was served dry, with fresh egg noodles, shrimp dumplings that were dusted with white pepper, hand-picked crabmeat, house-roasted pork, crunchy fat cracklings, and a smattering of chives, and the other was just the same but swimming in a wonderful stock. The dumplings were light and fluffy, the wrappers perfectly paper-thin, and the peppery pork stock didn't overwhelm the delicate crabmeat. If you eat one bowl of soup noodles in Bangkok, this should probably be it.

The old ladies that gathered there on Sunday night were festooned in the pearls and ruffles and teased helmets of hair from a different era, and though we sat on metal stools I felt decidedly underdressed.

"There is no drinking because I don't like drunks," he explained as we ate, and then muttered something about foreigners in nearby guesthouses that we couldn't understand.

After finishing, I asked him what was in his stock. "That's top secret!" he said, and as I snapped a photo of him I realized that my welcome was wearing thin--after all, there were seats to fill.

The Bangkok Soup Nazi smiled and said thanks, and returned to his leather recliner at the front of the restaurant. From Tuesday to Sunday you'll find him there, from 5 p.m. until 11. He'll be watching from behind a gold statue of an angry crab--one that looks like it might pluck diners right off the sidewalk.

(Sawang is located at 336 Rama 4 Road, which is just after the entrance to the 2nd State Expressway on the left, and opposite Hua Lumphong Station. Thanks to Oliver and June for sharing this gem.)