Why It Works
- Simmering aromatics and fish in coconut milk creates a flavorful base for the curry.
- Blending the simmered aromatics rather than pounding them by hand in a mortar and pestle saves time without sacrificing flavor.
- Cooked fish thickens the blended curry to a saucy consistency, perfect for coating noodles.
If you walk around for a little bit in any of the open-air markets in Thailand, you’ll start to notice that shophouses and street vendors all have very specific setups that serve as clues for what they serve to their customers. Finding kanom jeen vendors is easy: their beautiful coils of rice noodles are all laid out next to large pots of curries and piles of vegetables, ready to be tossed together at a moment’s notice. Ordering can be a little overwhelming, as you get to pick from both the curry selection to eat with your noodles and what seems like an endless variety of add-ons—vegetables like cabbage, bean sprouts, long beans, and banana blossoms; fruit like green mango and pineapple; and various pickled or coconut-braised vegetables.
One of the most popular curries served with kanom jeen is nam ya style curry, a coconut-based fish curry that’s made by cooking aromatic ingredients along with fish in coconut milk and then blending them, which produces a thick, noodle-coating sauce. There are two main versions of nam ya curry, one from the central plains region of Thailand and another from the southern part of the country. The central plains version uses moderately spicy dried spur chile (prik cheefa), freshwater fish like snakehead fish (pla chaawn), a salted fish (pla goo lao), and includes copious amounts of grachai—a rhizome that’s also known as fingerroot, Chinese keys, and wild ginger—to temper the curry’s fishy flavor (in Thai they say, “dap khao pla,” which translates loosely to, “kill the fishy odor”). The southern version is more fiery and has a more vibrant yellow hue due to the inclusion of smaller, spicier chiles, black pepper, and fresh turmeric, and uses saltwater fish like mackerel (pla thuu) or barracuda (pla saak) to thicken the curry. The southern version also omits grachai.
The recipe below is based on the central plains version of nam ya, and so grachai is its dominant flavor. However, it isn’t uncommon to see a blending of the two versions of the curry in modern-day Thai cooking, and while I try to cook Thai food with respect for its history and traditions, I’ve borrowed a little from the southern version, most notably by using a saltwater fish (Spanish mackerel) and omitting salted fish, because of its limited availability. That being said, I believe there’s no substitute for grachai, which has a peppery, slightly medicinal aroma. And while there’s nothing quite like fresh grachai, frozen or brined grachai is widely available at Southeast Asian groceries and online. If you end up using brined grachai, make sure to soak it in fresh water for at least an hour, changing the water every 10 minutes, to remove some of the brininess.
Unlike other curries you may be familiar with, nam ya doesn’t start with creating a paste from fresh ingredients in a mortar and pestle. Instead, the ingredients are roughly chopped up and then simmered with fresh fish in coconut milk that has been thinned out with water to approximate the consistency of hang gati, the “tail,” or second or third pressing of coconut milk, which is much lighter and subtly flavored compared to the rich and thick hua gati, or “head” of coconut milk. After simmering, the fish and the aromatic ingredients are removed and pounded separately in a mortar and pestle, so that the fish takes on a crumbly texture and the aromatics are reduced to a paste, after which they’re combined with the simmering liquid, more coconut milk, and fish sauce to produce the final curry. I’ve streamlined and modernized the process a little by using a food processor to pulse the fish to a crumbly texture and to blend the aromatics into their simmering liquid.
Nam ya isn’t nam ya unless it’s paired with rice noodles. Traditionally, kanom jeen noodles are made from rice that’s fermented before being extruded into a spaghetti-like noodle, but due to the amount of labor involved and the noodles’ short shelf life, it’s more common to find kanom jeen noodles that are freshly made from unfermented rice. The best substitute for these noodles is fine vermicelli noodles. After boiling them, rinse them in cold water to remove excess starch and then wrap them into individual coils. They can be left at room temperature up to 3 hours before serving.
You can’t have kanom jeen without an assortment of vegetables, herbs, and other accompaniments like soft-boiled eggs, all of which provide pops of freshness and textural contrast to the saucy curry and chewy noodles. Banana blossoms, pickled mustard greens, pennywort, Thai sweet basil, bean sprouts, cabbage, long beans, mung bean sprouts, and cucumbers are all traditional, but feel free to use whatever is in season and available to you.
This is a great warm weather dish, and one that can be made in advance, as the curry is eaten at room temperature and poured over room temperature noodles. Pass the vegetables and garnishes at the table, giving people the option to mix them in with the noodles and curry or eat the curry over the noodles, taking bites of vegetables in between.