Adventures in Khao Soi

Khao Soi at Huen Phen

The inspiration for attempting Khao Soi came from lunch at Huen Phen. It’s a few blocks away from Tai Pae gate inside the old city in Chiang Mai, but sufficiently outside the main tourist drag that most people miss it.

This year I’ve learned a lot of about Thai food by virtue of traveling in the south for the first time. It’s easy to see the culinary lines by eating your way towards the Malaysian border. Thai favorites like Red curry, Green curry, and Penang curry subtly shift depending on where you are. There’s also Massaman curry, which I contend gets infinitely better the further south you go and the dishes I tend to characterize Thai food with disappear. Things like Khao Soi are completely missing from menus and new dishes like Kua Kling (heavy with Kaffir lime leaves) take its place. After this last trip I started to suspect that while I love Thai food, what I really love is the Burmese-Thai food I’d been eating in Chiang Mai for all these years.

Khao Soi (Huen Phen) with the crispy noodles mixed in.

Khao soi is one of those hybrid dishes, and it’s probably the most famous dish in Chiang Mai. It’s coconut milk and curry over noodles with crispy noodles on the top. The $1.20 version I had at Huen Phen was served with picked mustard greens, chopped shallots and lime wedges. It had a pool of red oil floating on top of golden curry sauce that was fragrant and addictive.

Resolution: I have to learn how to make this dish.

Here’s the tricky part of this dish and probably anything coming out of Myanmar or Thailand. No one makes it the same way. That’s why you can have it 15 times at different restaurants and think “Hmm, good, that’s nice,” and then one day you get a random bowl of it, as the morning market is about to close, and bam, you’re dipping into the most heavenly mix of spices and curries, the kind of dish that you’re trying to taste harder, if that’s possible.

Khao Soi, my version

So I made it. I googled some recipes, and decided on the best one (from here) which also had the distinction of being copied and modified on the NY Times section (here, basically a less spicy version) so I got down to it.

It’s basically a regular curry dish, throw in your spices (red curry, curry powder, turmeric and cardamom) and coconut milk, toss in some meat, cook some noodles and add them to the pot. I made all of it with my rice cooker.

The dish before I topped with crispy noodles (includes optional toppings like cilantro, lime juice, and pickled mustard greens). Yum!

It looks beautiful. It tastes like Khao Soi. Is it Huen Phen worthy? Not even close. Did it cost me $1.20 to make? Heh. Not even close (try a lot more, but then again I had to buy all the spices).

So what I’m trying to say, is that one of Thailand’s dishes is, for now, out of my reach. I figured out Penang (it’s the kaffir leaves), Massaman (slow cook those potatoes into the curry), Red curry (a little ginger makes it), Green curry (with lemongrass? amazing) or Fried Basil Leaves with Chicken (Golden Mountain sauce, totally the secret ingredient). I can even whip up Chicken Satay while it’s not the same as night market’s (they cook over a charcoal grill) it does capture the exact chicken satay you’d get in a restaurant. I can do Tom Yum soup (easy if you have galanga) and even Papaya salad (must use fish sauce).

I was kind of proud of my nest of fried noodles though (for the Khao Soi topping):

Fried egg noodles for topping Khao Soi

I even found the pickled mustard greens (which are delicious and while it sounds strange it totally makes the dish).

Pickled Mustard Greens

I might dig around to see if I can find some Burmese curry (haven’t found it yet) or beg a recipe off an employee during a slow shift. Or baring that, I’ll just have to make this very good, but not-quite-perfect Khao Soi from home.

Until then, I’m eating as much of this as possible before I leave:

Oh, Khao Soi…

15 Comments

  1. Nice idea !

    I think Mustard greens you buy, It’s not same mustard greens for eating with Khao Soi ( That’s you buy, It’s salty mustard greens)

    But I love your idea. and I like Fried egg noodles for topping Khao Soi.

    Good idea, Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Perfect! I’ll be in Chiang Mai in a few days and can’t wait to try something new beyond the standard (and wonderful) menu I’ve found elsewhere in the country.

    Wouldn’t Khao Soi be translated as Road Park?

  3. Torture by soup porn – you’re killing me! And made slightly worse that it’s so hard to recreate! I agree, heading south in Thailand opens up the spectrum of Thai food so much, but Chiang Mai’s is the best!

    Kudos for attempting the khao soi!

  4. Speaking from a point of view of total ignorance, I think you gotta get into making your own curry by toasting and grinding your own whole spices.

    Or else cozy up to one of those ladies who make it on the street, and see if she’ll give you a lesson.

    Work the pregnant lady thing. How can they say no?

  5. $1.20 for a dish in a restaurant makes me cry, here in Norway I wouldn’t be able to even get any of the individual ingredients for that price! But that said, I’d love to try this dish if I could find at least some of the ingredients for it. I’ve never even been to Thailand, but I think it’s great to recreate exotic experiences at home when it’s snowing outside and the summer is far away… 🙂

  6. Earth Itinerant – khao soi translates as cut rice.

    I made khao soi once in the UK (based in Thailand now), though I did cheat with a pre-made soup base. Love the stuff though, and have a few favourite places up in Chiang Mai.

  7. I love khao soi! I’ve been eating it pretty much every second day since I got to Chiang Mai.

    I haven’t tried it at Huen Phen though… I had the set menu the one time I was there. Will have to give it a go.

  8. I was already suffering Chiang Mai withdrawal thinking about the elephants– now this tantalizing post about Khao Soi- the pain!

    Hope you’re enjoying every last bite- I’m sure baby #2 is 😉

  9. We ate khao soi (Lao version, which I understand is a bit different) almost every day for breakfast in northern Laos. Your post brought back great memories!!

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