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