Monday, October 26, 2015

Whack-A-Mole: Nyum Bai Pops Up Again, And I Hit It For The Cambodian Chicken Noodle Soup

A mere eight days after I had a chance to enjoy Nyum Bai's Cambodian fare at its Mission Pie debut, it popped up again, like a pesky mole in a whack-a-mole game, three blocks down the road at Wise Son's Deli.  My noodle hammer was at the ready, this time to hit  on the chicken noodle soup called Banh Ghan on the menu.

I have to admit I'm winging it here with my post portem on this chicken soup experience; I didn't get a chance to pick Nyum Bai owner Nite Yun's brain about the origins of this dish, and Googling "Banh Ghan" yields practically nothing with the same or similar spelling related to Cambodian food.  My sole "hit," interestingly enough, was for a dish at a fascinating diner-like restaurant in Stockton CA (where MS. Yun grew up) called  Lucky Star Grill. This place, which now tops my list should I ever hit Fat City again, serves a dish called "Thick noodle banh ghan" along with other Cambodian and Vietnamese- and Thai-tinged dishes (plus Mongolian beef, for good measure). My best guess is that "banh ghan" is related to the Vietnamese term banh canh, which denotes  a wide, thick rice noodle (which may or may not include tapioca flour) and can refer to a wide variety of soups using such noodles.

I've learned that there is a whole panoply of Southeast Asian chicken noodle soups using wide rice noodles, some with curry and/or coconut, some without. Nyum Bai's banh ghan has neither. It was described on the pop-up's menu as "homemade chicken broth, wide rice noodles, poached chicken, crispy garlic, cilantro, salted soy beans," with a footnote advising the use of shellfish in the broth.

With its lack of curry and the heft of its rice noodles, I found the banh ghan stylistically most similar to Lao khao piak sien, though comparisons could also be with North Vietnamese pho ga, which uses flat, though less substantial rice noodles. Compared to the Lao version, Nyum Bai's soup came with a less fatty richness and more vegetal complexity to the broth's flavor profile. (One could say a it's "healthier" taste, but what can be unhealthy about any chicken noodle soup?)

As I've noted elsewhere about khao pian sien, Nyum Bai's banh ghan relies primarily on the soul of chicken soup for its appeal.  It's pure comfort, and almost as familiar and un-exotic as something your Caucasian grandmother (if you have one) night make. Feels right in a Jewish deli, too.

With my soup I had a texture-rich Camodian tamarind salad, which was as tasty as it was photogenic.

Sometime, somewhere,  Nite Yun''s Nyum Bai will pop up again.

I'd hit that.

Where slurped: Nyum Bai at Wise Son's Deli, 3150 24th St., San Francisco

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Nite Of The Kuy Tio Phnom Penh: Nyum Bai Pops Up At Mission Pie

Ever since enjoying Ha Nam Ninh's vaunted #25 Hu Tieu Nam Vang in both "dry" and soup versions, I've been wanting to try the Cambodian dish that inspired it, Kuy Tio Phnom Penh. Last night I finally had the opportunity, thanks to a pop-restaurant in the heart of the Mission district, Nyum Bai, hosted by Mission Pie. "Nyum Bai at Mission Pie" has a nice ring to it, especially considering I love noodles as much as some people apparently love pie.

Nyum Bai literally means "eat rice" in Cambodian, but figuratively means "let's eat!" much like kin khao in Vietnamese or chi fan in Chinese.  It's the creation of Ms. Nite Yun, whose given name is pronounced as spelled (a gift to punsters like me; here's  hoping she opens a restaurant called "Nite Market). Kuy Tio Phnom Penh is a dish with a history as complex as the broth it features: inspired by Chinese  migrants in Cambodia, it became a breakfast staple there, and was further popularized and embellished in Viet Nam as Hu Tieu Nam Vang. Ms. Yun, as described in this Saveur profile, is on a mission to bring the foods she learned to cook from her mother to us fortunate Californians. She's also on a mission to bring us her father's passion for 1960s Khmer Rock and Roll; unfortunately Mission Pie's sound system (or management) wasn't quite up for it last night.

Nite's traditional interpretation of Kuy Tio, which has many variants, as described in a Wikipedia entry, consists of pho-style rice noodles in an exquisitely savory pork and shellfish broth, topped by slices of fresh pork and ground pork. The noodles were cooked just right, remaining firm to the end, and with no "clumping." The broth is nicely described in the Saveur article: "The pork broth is brightened by kroeung, a pounded paste of lemongrass, Makrut lime leaf and zest, galangal, shallots, garlic and fresh turmeric....[and] garnished with crispy garlic, sprouted mung beans and a splash of her mother’s hot sauces."

The house-made hot sauce actually came in a jar on the side.  As is my habit, I savored the broth as it came from from the chef until I had eaten all the solids, then sexed up the remaining broth with a generous dollop. My soup also came with a side dish of slices of the fried dough stick known in Chinese as youtiao. (TIL in Australia, Cambodian Chinese refer to it as "chopstick cake.)  These I also reserved until there was only broth left; adding the youtiao along with the chili oils made a "second course" of the soup, so to speak.

It was a very satisfying beginning to my traditional Cambodian street food learning experience, and I will be following Nite's pop-up as devoutly as a 60s Cambodian teenager might follow Khmer rock and roll. Next time please play it LOUDER.

Where Slurped: Nyum Bai pop-up at Mission Pie, 2901 Mission St., SF

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

M.Y. China's Vegetarian Longevity Noodle Soup Is One (Noodle) For The Aged, If Not One For The Ages

I've been spinning my wheels on getting my new blog going, and today is National Noodle Day, so I feel I owe the cosmos a noodle report before another day goes by. The subject was easy enough to come by; I was just reminded, by a discussion in the essential new foodie forum,, that a soup featuring yi gen mian, a noodle form I had yet to experience on this side of the Pacific, was on the menu at Martin Yan's M.Y. China. I'd forgotten that I knew this already, probably because the dish in question had "Vegetarian" in its name: Vegetarian Longevity Noodle Soup. It's described on M.Y. China's menu as having "wild seasonal mushrooms, braised tofu" and the tipoff is in its Chinese name, sù yī gēn tāng miàn.

Yi gen mian translates roughly "single strand noodle" and refers to a very long noodle made by continuously pulling from a thicker  noodle "rope" until it yields a single noodle long enough to fill a bowl (of whatever size) of soup.  There's a description and a short video of the process at a Singapore noodle shop in the excellent but sadly no longer active blog La Mian World.

In Chinese culture, noodles symbolize long life because they are, well, long, and consequently have a close association with birthdays. By the same logic, a very long noodle promises extra longevity mojo, a fact not wasted on me in the run-up to my 74th birthday later this month. It's always wise to hedge one's bets.

I ordered my Vegetarian Longevity Noodle Soup along with a side of pork and cabbage pot stickers (probably because I didn't want to me mistaken for a vegetarian) and a pot of pu'er tea. My noodles, or noodle, when they/it came were of a pale green color, for reasons not specified on the menu (the dreaded spinach, no doubt). It did appear to be one noodle; I found one end, but not the other. It was  udon-like in girth, but lacking in firmness,  like the dish described in the Singapore blog.  The broth was mild and of course vegetal, inhabited as it was by a menagerie of wild fungi, thin tiles of aged tofu, and a bit of carrot for color.

My pot stickers were tasty, if not exceptional, but the dipping sauce they came with provided an unexpected bonus. It was nicely spicy, and dumping the excess into my soup broth transformed something bland into something I was happy to drain from my bowl. (At M.Y. China you will not find condiments at the ready, and I did not think to bring my own chili sauce.)

The Vegetarian Longevity Noodle Soup was the least satisfying of the noodle dishes I have had at M.Y. China to date, in the consistency of the noodles as well as in the broth and toppings. It's their  least expensive dish, however, and perhaps something a vegetarian would write home about.

Where slurped: M.Y. China, Westfield San Francisco Centre, 865 Market Street