In what seems like an eternity ago but was actually late January, I took a private cooking lesson in Bangkok. My mission was twofold: learn to make drunken noodles using the best possible local ingredients; then get advice about how to adapt the recipe back home, in Brooklyn.
The first part was easily accomplished under the tutelage of Angsana Andersson, who has taught cooking classes in her home for the past 16 years. At the On Nut Market, in the Upper Sukhumvit neighborhood, my husband and I accompanied her to the stalls that she frequents almost daily. There was one for straw mushrooms; another for fresh baby corn and red-hot bird chilis; and a separate vendor who sold nothing but the wide, flat rice noodles used in this recipe – freshly made that day.
When prepared with such premium ingredients, it was no surprise that these were the best drunken noodles we have ever eaten. But our experience with this traditional Thai street food is that there are no bad drunken noodles; there are only good ones and great ones.
Until recently, making Asian noodle dishes in our own kitchen has been another story, though. Something always seemed to go wrong with the noodles, which generally emerged from the wok as a big, sticky blob. We hoped Andersson could help us correct the problem.
After a trip to the market with her, we had another lament: Where we live, we just can’t get such aromatic vegetables and herbs. Some, like the stick of fresh green peppercorns that her recipe calls for, weren’t obtainable at all.
No worries, Andersson told us. Drunken noodles (or “drunk man noodles,” as they are sometimes called) are named for the apocryphal tipsy chef who throws everything into the pan. So while the noodles we cooked together drew from the best of the market, traditionally, you use whatever is on hand.
Little did we know that making do in the kitchen would soon become our way of life. As the Covid-19 threat that followed us through Southeast Asia turned into a pandemic, New York went on lockdown shortly after our early March return. And for the first couple of months, food shopping was extremely challenging.
While others hoarded chickpeas and bread flour, we stockpiled dry Taste of Thai wide rice noodle fettuccine – a reasonable substitute for the noodles we had cooked in Bangkok. Once New York began to reopen, my husband went on a mission to Chinatown and scored several bags of fresh, but uncut, rice noodles, in folded sheets.
Meanwhile, I had planted an urban garden to grow, among other things, another essential ingredient: basil. A two-person serving of drunken noodles requires a cup of holy basil – a spicy variety. I planted seedlings purchased from our local green market, seeds that I bought online, and three other kinds of basil in case we ran short and needed a backup. Because my space was limited, I rooted compatible companions together. By early July I had basil mingling with the petunias, bordering the cherry tomatoes and keeping company with the peppers.
Perfecting our drunken noodles was a welcome distraction from all the sobering news. Andersson had helped us solve the gloppy noodles problem, supplied the formula for a perfectly balanced sauce and taught us some crucial cooking techniques. (See recipe below.) After that, with any colorful assortment of seasonal vegetables, we really couldn’t go wrong. As is her practice, we cut up all the ingredients and arranged them attractively on a plate before we started to cook.
By the tenth rendition, this week, we had become creative, harvesting the first of my homegrown vegetables and adding them to the mix. One day it was yellow patty pan squash. Another, it was the first three cherry tomatoes to ripen, and a handful of bright orange blossoms from a vigorous nasturtium. (Both the leaves and flowers are edible.) Though I rarely had coriander root, which the recipe calls for, stems from the Vietnamese coriander growing on my deck were a respectable stand-in.
With a hat tip to Andersson and delicious memories of the time we spent in her kitchen, here’s our pandemic version of drunken noodles, from Brooklyn. It ought to hold us until we can get back to Bangkok.
200 grams wide rice noodles, fresh or dried
1/4 pound chicken cutlet, sliced thinly into bite-size pieces
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
2 coriander roots or stems of Vietnamese coriander, crushed (optional)
1 cup basil leaves (preferably holy basil)
2 small red chilis, seeded, or if not available, adapt sauce as indicated below
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon fish sauce (preferably Thai)
1 tablespoon Thai black soy sauce (Chinese “dark”)
1 tablespoon oyster sauce (preferably Thai)
If not using fresh chilis, 1 teaspoon chili sauce or sambal oelek or Sriracha sauce. If you can’t get any of these but happen to have chili-garlic paste, you can use that and omit the garlic called for above.
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon white pepper powder
THE VEGETABLE VARIABLES
1/3 cup carrot, washed and thinly sliced
1/3 cup green beans or snake beans, cut 2 inches long; or sugar snaps, strings removed
1/3 cup mushrooms, washed, stems removed and quartered
1/3 cup of one or two other seasonal vegetables of your choice, sliced thinly so they will cook quickly. (Baby bok choy and sweet red peppers work well.) A combination of colors will look pretty on the plate.
- If using dried noodles, soak them in hot water for about 45 minutes or until pliable. Then peel apart any that have stuck together and pile them on a plate. When using fresh noodles, let them get to room temperature, then peel them apart. If starting with uncut sheets of fresh noodles, cut them to a thickness of about 5/8-inch (if you have a pizza cutter, you can use that) and loosely pile them on a plate until ready to use.
- Whisk together sauce ingredients and set aside.
- Warm the wok on a low flame and add the oil. When it has heated, add the garlic, coriander root and chili, if using, and cook for about one minute or until aromatic.
- Add the chicken and cook, stirring, until it is done.
- Turn heat to high, add all the vegetables except the basil, and wok for one minute.
- Add the noodles and the sauce and stir everything together.
- Stir in the basil leaves, turn off the heat and serve immediately.
Feeds two. If cooking for a larger (socially distanced) crowd, make multiple batches, rather than doubling the recipe.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.