The Search For the Elusive Kai Kua aka (untranslatable Thai) aka Guay-Dtieow Kûa Gài aka Kway Teo aka Guay Tiew Kua of New England (and probably elsewhere) Abetted By a Visual Aid

November 4, 2009

Girlfriends, let’s dish:

The missus and I stopped for lunch at Ithaca, NY’s Taste of Thai Express Monday. Not wanting yet one more slightly varied permutation of ye olde staple pad thai, I ordered a dish called kai kua. I didn’t invest much hope in my straying from a well-trod path, but one bite showed me just what ol’ uncle bob (frost!) was talking about all those years ago. Oh babies. It was, how do you say in english, effing awesome? Probably the best noodle dish I have ever in my entire little life eaten ever! I vowed to have kai kua at least once a day for the rest of this trip.

However. This is not easily accomplished. The waiters at three restaurants wherein I have sought this treasure of noodly perfection have looked at me with a certain measure of puzzlement when, not seeing it on the menu, I asked if they made it, first by name, then by enumerating the ingredients.

Thai doesn’t translate very fluidly into the latin alphabet, so there are a great metric many variations of the words for the dish, the basic elements of which are: pan-fried wide noodles, chicken bits, egg, squiddy, and a savory garlic gravy.

If you want me to get all technical on your ass, it is really called something that, due to typographical limitations, wordpress will not print so I have to inelegantly post here as an image. What I now love to eat more than anything else is:

untranslatable

But if (unlike me) you have a hard time pronouncing that one, try one of its many nominal slurs: guay-dtieow kua gai; or kway teo; or kai kua; or guay tiew kua; or any number of other variations that you might discover eventually by visiting enough different thai restaurants. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn any of this nomenclature bidness until just now, so my attempts in the last two days to replicate my first experience fell a little flat.

The first of these attempts, Thai Corner in Amherst, MA, actually did know what I meant when I listed the ingredients, but it took a little tweaking. They call it Guay Tiew Kua, and after adding squid, it came out reasonably close (though a bit drier, and twice as expensive for less food) to my archetypal ideal.

The proprietrix of Thai Paradise in Portsmouth, NH last night just shook her head when I listed the ingredients. Instead I ordered a close approximation by removing the veggies and adding chx and sqd to Lad Nar aka Rad Na. And that’s what I did again today at Saeng Thai in Portland, ME. But both of these came with too much of and not the right kind of gravy.

Since they two out of three times have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ve made up a little note that I sent to my phone with all the variants of kai kua written out that I can show them when I don’t find it on the menu. Now that’s what I call a smart phone!

kai-kua-iphone

Kai kua look out: I’m comin’ a gitchoo.

Update: visual aid = total fail.  Thrice before a cock crowed I have asked for the elusive kai kua and thrice I have been denied. The first waiter squinted at my phone: mumble mumble chicken mumble mumble. No…… Try the pad see ew.  The second didn’t even look, just said no. The third squinted at it, his lips moving as he read, and said it’s just a list if condiments. What!? No, I said, this is supposed to be chicken, pointing at the “gai”, and this is supposed to be noodles, pointing at the “guay-dtieow” (I don’t know what the “kua” means). He shook his head. No recognition whatsoever.

I though this was going to be my ticket to comprehension but instead I was just as stuck. I though Thai was a language and Thai food had it’s conventions and with my dictionary in my hand I could order a dish in a Thai restaurant just like if I asked for spaghetti with meatballs in an Italian restaurant everyone knows what that means without me having to say spaghetti with marinara sauce and 1-inch diameter balls of breadcrumbs and meat or if I ordered a hamburger in a diner I wouldn’t just get a lonely hunk of ground beef in the middle of a plate.

Moreso, what dish is there in America that 1/4 of the people know exactly what it is and 3/4 just stare blankly at it named four slightly different ways? Even the most obscure of our dishes are enough a part of our collective food lore that if you said mountain oysters or chitterlings pretty much everyone would know what you were talking about. Okay souse. But anyone outside of New Orleans that eats pickled brains is a complete abnormality. And okay scrapple maybe, but is kai kua the Thai equivalent of all the nasty parts of a pig no one but a tiny minority of Dutch in Pennsylvania would ever eat? I’m thinking probably not.

So it can only follow that either kai kua is as regionally specific as souse and scrapple, or there is no such thing as a collective Thai food lore and that each province carries with it it’s own set of regional specialties that don’t carry over or blend into one another and are as mutually unintelligible as Chinese dialects. That kai kua originates and largely remains in some tiny Thai backwater, or, aside from a few staples (must be everyone there eats pad thai), you are pretty much shooting craps walking into a Thai restaurant looking for a particular dish. Either way kai kua remains as elusive as poutine south of the 49th parallel.

Am I wrong or am I wrong.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 If you are in LA November 30, 2009 at 6:15 am

If you are out in Los Angeles, this restaurant called Thai Boom on Venice serves amazing Kai Kua. I tried it for the first time last night with my friend who I wasn’t sure if she would like it. It sounds like the version you ate: flat rice noodles, bits of egg, chicken, squid, bean sprouts, and slamming sauce! We both inhaled the Kai Kua. It was EFFING AWESOME! The key to this dish is the high heat and the proper seasoned wok so the noodles are slightly blackened/burnt. Check out this Yelp pic of it I found: http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/vY4TursKL0fpZWd7SGhrrA?select=iflEFcU3QJMEB9YFAsv72Q

Thankfully I live 3 minutes from this place, I love pad thai, but Kai Kua is the real deal.

steve warrington 2 steve November 30, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Thank you for the tip. There is no limit to the distance I am willing to travel for the slamming kai kua.

And I agree, a nice char to the noodles keeps the whole thing from erring on the side of too soft/mushy.

You are obviously a connoisseur of the highest order.

3 Not as far as LA... February 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

I too know of the Kua Kai. We have it in Iowa at a restaraunt called Cool Basil. It is the chef recommended dish so naturally I had to try it. Its amazing. So, if you are ever in Iowa give this a try! I attached a picture of the actual dish from the restaurant…does this look like what you had?

http://iowagirleats.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/IMG_5988_thumb.jpg

steve warrington 4 steve February 9, 2011 at 12:50 am

Oh yeah. That’s the good stuff right there. LA, may be a bit distant, but Iowa? Just a joyride jaunt. Whereat in Iowa do you hail from? I want to go to there.

(I crammed two count’em two pop-culture references in that reply!)

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