If you find yourself dining at a Thai restaurant and are keen to impress your date, here’s a pro tip: don’t order the pad thai. Sure, it’s tasty, but you’ll get so much more street cred if you tell the server you’ll have pad mee korat, pad thai’s rustic, provincial cousin. Or kuaytiaw phat puu, perhaps mentioning casually that, huh, this is the first time you’ve seen this dish of rice noodles fried with crab outside of its birthplace in Chanthaburi. Or mee krob, crispy noodles, simply to show how aware you are that the dish is often eaten with rice.
There are so many ways to impress (or appear like an intolerable know-it-all) because there are so many fried noodle dishes in Thailand. They range from dishes that have changed little, if at all, since having been introduced from China, to examples of noodle fusion that could only have appeared in Thailand. And best of all, given the way that most are served—accompanied by a selection of optional seasonings and garnishes that include dried chili flakes, fish sauce and/or soy sauce, sliced mild chilies sliced in vinegar, and sugar—no two Thai fried noodle dishes will ever taste the same.
With this in mind, the following is a nearly comprehensive list of Thailand’s fried noodle dishes, ranging from the mainstream to the regional.
Jap Chai Haeng/Chap Chai Hai Lam
Jap chai is a hearty stew of southern Chinese origin that’s typically based around greens. Somewhere along the line, a cook made the soup into stir-fry, supplementing the standard cabbage and Brassica greens, tofu and mushrooms with glass noodles, bamboo, tofu, pork, or seafood.
Koi See Mee
One of relatively few dishes of Cantonese origin that has caught on in Thailand, koi see mee consists of wheat-and-egg noodles, fried pancake-style until smoky and crispy, topped with a rather viscous broth that combines tender chicken, toothsome dried mushrooms, and crunchy bamboo. It’s served with optional condiments that typically include soy sauce, sliced mild chilies in vinegar, and ground white pepper.
Kuay Tiaw Khua Kai
Why don’t more chefs combine chicken and eggs? I’m glad that Chinese cooks in Thailand often do so, frying them up—ideally in lard, over a coal fire—along with wide egg noodles, preserved squid, green onions, and soy sauce, serving the mixture on a bed of lettuce.
Kuay Tiaw Nuea Sap
Thai beef stroganoff via India and China? This all-over-the-map comfort staple combines flash-fried wide rice noodles served with a topping of minced beef sautéed with sliced onions, a generous pinch of curry powder, and sometimes diced tomatoes (or ketchup). Kuaytiaw nuea sap is typically served on lettuce leaves, occasionally garnished with a fried egg, and often sprinkled with white pepper.
Kuay Tiaw Phat Puu/Sen Jan Phat Puu
This dish of flat, thin rice noodles and crab hails from Chanthaburi, a province in southeastern Thailand with both ample rice fields and access to seafood. The unusual combo is fried in a slightly sweet curry-like dressing, and is served with sides of bean sprouts, garlic chives, cucumber, and a slice of lime for squeezing.
Mee kati combines thin, round rice noodles and a rich, slightly sweet, coconut milk–based dressing. The restaurant version, a grand affair which may have originated in Bangkok’s royal palace, sees the noodles topped with a thin omelet cut into strips, and the dressing served on the side, often bulked out with minced pork and firm tofu. When sold on the street or at markets, mee kati is stripped down, the dressing and noodles usually fried together in advance, the latter often boasting a bright pink hue (the result of food coloring). Both versions are served with a variety of bitter, astringent, and tart-tasting sides such as Asian pennywort, Chinese chives, pork blood, and lime.
With roots in central Thailand, this dish consists of thin, round rice noodles deep-fried until crispy tossed with a candy-like, aromatic dressing. The crispy, sticky noodles are typically supplemented with decadent ingredients such as chicken breast, shrimp, pickled garlic, or cashews, and are often garnished with garlic chives. Unlike most Thai fried noodle dishes, which are served as on their own as a one-dish meal, mee krob is usually eaten as a side, along with rice.
Kuay Tiaw Pad Kee Mao
So-called “drunken noodles” is one of Thailand’s most famous dishes abroad. It got its start via a dish called phat khi mao, the invention, if you choose to believe the tale, of a boozy fellow frying up whatever was in the fridge, in this case meat and/or seafood and a mish-mash of spicy, fragrant herbs. At some point, noodles entered the mix and the common perception of the dish became a noodle-starring affair—even among Thais. The most “traditional” version is probably that made with sen yai, wide, flat rice noodles, but just about any noodle is fair play, and spaghetti is, oddly enough, on track to becoming the standard.
Phat Bamii Lueang
This stir-fry of thick, round, bright yellow wheat-and-egg noodles can take two different forms depending on which Chinese ethnic group is making it. The more common Teochew version revolves around meat or tofu supplemented with hearty slices of vegetables such as choy sum, carrots, cabbage, and mushrooms; the elusive Hakka version typically includes pork and dried squid, the vegetable component being little more than a sprinkling of garlic chives.
In Thailand, chilies are ubiquitous. But there’s also an entire repertoire of mild dishes for children, and this stir-fry of macaroni and ketchup is a staple of the genre. Soft noodles and sweet flavors define the dish, which is typically based around chicken, shrimp, egg, or sliced hot dogs, supplemented with ingredients including chopped tomatoes, sliced onions, diced carrots or bell pepper, and/or tinned peas. In addition to sweet Thai-style ketchup, the dish is seasoned with even more sugar and salt and/or soy sauce. It’s sometimes served on a bed of lettuce.
In Thailand, the brand name MaMa has become synonymous with instant noodles. And on those days when a DIY steaming paper cup just won’t cut it, simply head to a street-side stall where the noodles will be fried up for you, usually with pork or seafood, egg, and perhaps some cabbage—basically whatever’s around. If Thailand had a stoner food, this would be it.
Mee Phat Krachet
Although somewhat hard to find, this Chinese-influenced dish is worth seeking out. The defining elements are the fine, round rice noodles known as sen mii and phak krachet (Neptunia oleracea), a crunchy, pungent aquatic vegetable known in English as water mimosa. These are flash-fried with shrimp, thick rings of squid, and/or other proteins, then seasoned with fish sauce, plus a coarse, spicy paste of garlic and chili, resulting in a spicy, salty, and smoky tangle. Served with nam pla prik, sliced chilies in fish sauce, sometimes supplemented with lime and/or sliced shallots.
Pad Mee Korat
Quite possibly a precursor to phat thai, pad mee korat is the signature dish of the city of Nakhon Ratchasima, also known as Korat. It takes the form of dried flat rice noodles—typically from Korat—fried with slightly fatty slices of pork and often an egg, then generously seasoned with palm sugar, tamarind pulp, soy sauce, and a bit of chili, and supplemented with bean sprouts and garlic. Pad mee korat is usually served with a slice of lime and optional astringent-tasting sides such as garlic chives, as well as the standard noodle condiments.
Pad Mee Sua/Pad Mee Hong Kong
This dish of Cantonese origin is a staple in Bangkok’s Chinatown, where it’s often sold from the same stalls and restaurants that serve bird’s nest and shark-fin soup. It takes the form of thin, round dried wheat noodles wok-fried with dried shiitake mushrooms, strips of cabbage, shrimp, crab, chicken breast, and green onion. Superior versions emerge from the wok smoky and salty, but compared to many other Thai dishes, pad mee sua is still a bit on the bland side. Make use of the condiments.
Pad See Ew
It’s not hard to understand how this stir-fried noodle of Chinese origin emerged as one of the most famous dishes of the Thai repertoire: taste- and texture-wise, it’s got just about everything going for it. Pad see ew consists of chewy rice noodles—either wide, flat sen yai or fine, round sen mii—flash-fried with tender, marinated slices of pork, crunchy par-boiled Chinese broccoli, and egg. The dish is seasoned with two types of soy sauce (sii iw, or see ew), and occasionally oyster sauce. If done right, it should also emerge from the wok boasting a pleasant smoky flavor. Pad see ew is typically garnished with a dusting of white pepper and if you require sweet, spicy or tart, it’s served with the standard Thai optional noodle condiments.
If you can only name one Thai food item, it’s probably pad thai. Yet the dish as we know it today is a relative newcomer, allegedly invented (or perhaps derived from other similar fried noodle dishes) during the 1930s. Yet despite the nationalistic-sounding name, it’s actually a blend of Chinese ingredients and techniques (stir-frying, tofu, preserved radish, noodles) and domestic ingredients (tamarind pulp, dried shrimp, fish sauce). At its most basic, pad thai is thin, flat rice noodles fried with diced tofu, preserved radish, dried shrimp, and lightly seasoned with dried chili, tamarind pulp (or vinegar), sugar, and fish sauce; egg is also standard, fried along with the noodles or, increasingly, wrapped around them in the form of a thin omelet. These days, versions including ground pork or seafood are common, and in the north the dish is often garnished with deep-fried pork rinds. And if the rice noodles from Chanthaburi—a nearly standard ingredient—sound too heavy, consider the version that revolves around woon sen, clear noodles made from mung bean starch. Pad thai is served with the usual noodle condiments, as well as wedges of lime for squeezing, bean sprouts, an extra sprig or two of garlic chives, and a slightly bitter/astringent-tasting side, be it banana blossom, Asian pennywort, or even star fruit.
Pad Woon Sen
Pad woon sen typically takes the form of glass noodles fried with egg, tomato, pork, and soy sauce. But there’s no real set recipe for the dish, which can also include Chinese-influenced ingredients such as wood ear mushrooms or green onions, or even decadent items such as pickled garlic. Like mee krob, it’s one of a scant handful of fried Thai noodles that is usually served as a side dish, eaten alongside rice.
It’s one of the most popular fried noodles in the country, but those of us who didn’t grow up in Thailand tend to struggle with the viscous gravy that is the defining characteristic of this dish. With origins in southern China, rat na (“poured on top”) combines wide or fine rice noodles flash-fried with sweet soy sauce and topped with that gravy, made thick via tapioca starch or cornstarch, seasoned with soy sauce and fermented soybeans, and supplemented with tender pork and Chinese broccoli (a variant revolving around wheat-and-egg noodles, deep-fried until crispy, often but not exclusively features seafood).
One of the more convoluted and delicious examples of Thai fusion is this unique stir-fry, the result of Chinese chefs in Thailand riffing on a Japanese staple. “Dry sukiyaki” is one of the few dishes that exclusively revolves around glass noodles, in this case flash-fried with protein (egg, pork, beef, seafood, or all of the above), napa cabbage, green onion, and phak bung, a crunchy, semi-aquatic vegetable known colloquially in English as morning glory or water spinach. The dish is invariably served with a mild, savory dipping sauce that combines several ingredients including fermented tofu, vinegar, bottled chili sauce, sesame oil, and garlic, among others.