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Now reading Khao Soi Kai

Khao Soi Kai

Northern Thai curry noodle soup with chicken.

My first taste of khao soi came a few days after May 17, 1992. I remember the date not only because of my great affection for this noodle dish, but because it was on the eve of Black May, when a government crackdown on protestors in Bangkok led to thousands arrested and dozens dead. This began my enduring habit of traveling to Thailand right when the shit hits the fan: protests, riots, coups, you name it. Even in Chiang Mai, where I was staying with my friends Chris and Lakhana, the mood was dark. Yet commerce in Thailand, I’ve noticed, never stops. Noodle shops were open and doing cracking business. Chris and Lakhana welcomed me home, I put down my bags, and we went in search of a bowl of khao soi, probably the most famous of all Northern Thai dishes and the most popular with the many foreigners who pass through the North’s cultural center, Chiang Mai.

Khao soi, I soon learned, is essentially just a bowl of noodles, which is a bit like saying the banh mi is just a sandwich. Tender wheat noodles and bone-in chicken swim in an orange-tinged coconut milk curry that’s incredibly rich and aromatic. On top, there’s a crown of those same wheat noodles, but they’re crunchy from a dunk in hot oil. On the side comes an assortment of embellishments that you use to season your one-bowl meal: a dark, tobacco-y paste of fried chiles, pickled mustard greens, hunks of raw shallot, and wedges of lime.

Yet for all the flavors in the dish that we Westerners recognize as “Thai,” the dish actually has its roots in, depending on who you talk to, either Burmese or Muslim Chinese cooking. Chiang Mai, having been a stop on ancient spice routes and under Burmese control for two centuries, is home to several such examples of glorious fusion. Along with typical Thai ingredients like lemongrass and galangal, the curry paste contains Chinese aromatics and spices (ginger and black cardamom) as well as those better associated with Burmese cooking (curry powder, coriander seeds, turmeric). It has long struck me as strange that such an iconic Northern Thai dish would contain coconut milk, a relatively modern induction into the region’s cuisine. It’s probably a Burmese thing, too.

As with so many Thai dishes, every restaurant serves its own rendition. I’ve eaten many dozens, all of which riff on the basic blueprint. The curry paste, amount of coconut milk and cream, sweetness, noodle style, and proteins vary widely. I’ve even eaten outliers, like one made with fish and another that paired cow’s milk with coconut. “Healthy,” the waiter said as he told us about the dairy addition.

There’s no shortage of khao soi revelations to be had in Chiang Mai. The version we serve at Pok Pok is a sort of composite of my favorites. One is the version at Khao Soi Lam Duan on Fa Ham Road. The owners claim that the seventy-plus-year-old shop is the oldest khao soi slinger in the city. The cluttered kitchen is out front, comprising a round wood butcher block with a cleaver, heaps of homemade noodles, and two vats of bubbling broth, one of beef and another of pork and chicken. (Regulars, I’ve heard, will come late in the day, when the broth has concentrated.) Young women assemble the dish, one grabbing melamine bowls from a precarious stack and adding a tangle of noodles, another ladling in broth and pieces of bone-in chicken, and another crowning the bowl with fried noodles and a small ladle of coconut cream.

But for me, nothing tops the decades-old Khao Soi Prince, where I had my first great bowl. The place is rarely openat least, it’s rarely open when I show up. Sometimes it’s closed for an Islamic holiday; most times, though, the reason isn’t clear. This has become a running joke among my friends in Chiang Mai. Andy wants to go to Khao Soi Prince. We might as well choose someplace else. The waitresses wear headscarves and the sign sports a star and crescent. The sign also advertises burgers and pizza. I do not recommend either. Instead, order their namesake dish. You get a deep bowl of pale, oil-slicked broth that looks innocuous and bland, but it is not. The curry is subtly spiced, its particularly pale color betraying the cook’s judicious hand with curry powder and dried chiles. It is slightly sweet from coconut milk and cream, rich but not painfully so. They make their own noodles, in this case an eggless wheat noodle that’s always deftly cooked.

Making khao soi at home takes a bit of work. There’s a paste to pound, a curry to simmer, noodles to fry and to boil. The good news is that the paste can be made in advance and so can the curry itself. And because khao soi is an example of aahaan jaan diaw, a one-plate meal, you don’t have to cook anything else to serve friends a lunch or dinner that tastes straight out of Chiang Mai.

This is excerpted from Pok Pok: Food and Stories From the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailandby Andy Ricker and JJ Goode.

 

 

Ingredients

Makes 6 bowls
  • + Curry
  • + vegetable oil, for deep-frying
  • 1 lb fresh or defrosted frozen uncooked thin, flat Chinese wheat noodles (sometimes called wonton noodles)
  • 1 1/2 C unsweetened coconut cream (preferably boxed), gently warmed
  • About 1 C drained, chopped (into bite-size pieces) Thai pickled mustard greens (stems preferred for their crunch), soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained well
  • About 1 C small (about 1/4-inch) wedges of peeled shallots, preferably Asian
  • 6 small lime wedges (preferably from Key limes)
  • About 1 C very coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed
  • + Naam Phrik Phao (Roasted chile paste)
  • + Thai fish sauce

CURRY PASTE

  • 1 pod black cardamom (often labeled cha koh, tsao-ko or thao qua)
  • 1 1/2 T coriander seeds
  • 1/2 t cumin seeds
  • 14 g dried Mexican puya chiles (about 8), slit open, seeded, and deveined
  • 1 t kosher salt
  • 7 g thinly sliced lemongrass (tender parts only), from about 1 large stalk
  • 1 (7-g) piece peeled fresh or frozen (not defrosted) galangal, thinly sliced against the grain
  • 1 (14-g) piece peeled ginger, thinly sliced against the grain
  • 1 oz peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
  • 4 oz peeled Asian shallots, thinly sliced against the grain
  • 1 T Kapi Kung (shrimp paste)

CURRY

  • 5 T curry paste
  • 2 T vegetable oil
  • 1 T turmeric powder
  • 1/2 t mild Indian curry powder
  • 1/4 C Thai fish sauce
  • 2 T Thai thin soy sauce
  • 3 oz palm sugar, coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/2 t kosher salt
  • 6 small skin-on chicken legs (about 2 1/2 lbs), separated into thighs and drumsticks
  • 5 C unsweetened coconut milk (preferably boxed)

Preparation

Make the Curry Paste

CURRY PASTE
  • 1 pod black cardamom (often labeled cha koh, tsao-ko or thao qua)
  • 1 1/2 T coriander seeds
  • 1/2 t cumin seeds
  • 14 g dried Mexican puya chiles (about 8), slit open, seeded, and deveined
  • 1 t kosher salt
  • 7 g thinly sliced lemongrass (tender parts only), from about 1 large stalk
  • 1 (7-g) piece peeled fresh or frozen (not defrosted) galangal, thinly sliced against the grain
  • 1 (14-g) piece peeled ginger, thinly sliced against the grain
  • 1 oz peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
  • 4 oz peeled Asian shallots, thinly sliced against the grain
  • 1 T Kapi Kung (shrimp paste)
  1. Use a pestle or heavy pan to lightly whack the cardamom pod to break the shell. Pry it open, take out the seeds, and discard the shell. Combine the cardamom seeds in a small pan with the coriander and cumin, set the pan over low heat, and cook, stirring and tossing often, until the spices are very fragrant and the coriander seeds turn a shade or two darker, about 8 minutes. Let the spices cool slightly and pound them in a granite mortar (or grind them in a spice grinder) to a coarse powder. Scoop the powder into a bowl and set aside.

  2. Combine the dried chiles in the mortar with the salt and pound firmly, scraping the mortar and stirring the mixture after about 3 minutes, until you have a fairly fine powder, about 5 minutes. Add the lemongrass and pound until you have a fairly smooth, slightly fibrous paste, about 2 minutes. Do the same with the galangal, then the ginger, then the garlic, and then half of the shallots, fully pounding each ingredient before moving on to the next. Pound in the dried spice mixture, then the rest of the shallots. Finally, pound in the shrimp paste until it’s fully incorporated, about 1 minute.

  3. You’ll have about 10 tablespoons of paste. You can use it right away, or store in an airtight container in
    the fridge for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months. You’ll need 5 tablespoons of paste for 6 bowls of khao soi.

Make the Curry

CURRY
  • 5 T curry paste
  • 2 T vegetable oil
  • 1 T turmeric powder
  • 1/2 t mild Indian curry powder
  • 1/4 C Thai fish sauce
  • 2 T Thai thin soy sauce
  • 3 oz palm sugar, coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/2 t kosher salt
  • 6 small skin-on chicken legs (about 2 1/2 lbs), separated into thighs and drumsticks
  • 5 C unsweetened coconut milk (preferably boxed)
  1. Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot until it shimmers, add 5 tablespoons of the curry paste and the turmeric powder and curry powder, and cook, breaking up the paste, then stirring frequently, until the paste smells very fragrant and loses the smell of raw garlic and shallots, about 8 minutes. Knowing when it’s done takes experience, but as long as you’re cooking at a low sizzle, the curry will taste great. Some of the paste might brown and stick to the pot, so occasionally scrape it to make sure it doesn’t burn.

  2. Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, and salt to the pot, increase the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often and breaking up the sugar once it softens, until the sugar has more or less fully melted, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken, tossing to coat the meat in the liquid. Cook for about 2 minutes so the chicken can absorb the flavors a bit, then stir in the coconut milk.

  3. Increase the heat to medium high. Bring the liquid to a simmer (don’t let it boil), then decrease the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the meat comes easily from the bone but isn’t falling off, about 45 minutes. You’ll see droplets or even a layer of red oil on the surface. This is good. The broth will taste fairly salty and intense. Keep in mind that it will dilute slightly after you add the coconut cream later. You can keep the curry warm on the stove for up to 3 hours or in the fridge for up to 3 days. (It’ll get even better as the flavors meld and the meat soaks up some of the curry.) Bring it to a very gentle simmer right before serving to make sure the chicken is heated through.

Assemble the Dish

  1. Pour enough oil into a wide medium pot to reach a depth of 2 inches and set the pot over medium-high heat. Heat the oil to 350°F (or test the temperature by dropping a piece of noodle into the oil; it should turn golden brown in about 20 seconds). Put 3 ounces of the noodles on a plate and gently toss them so there are no clumps. Fry them in 6 portions, turning over the nest of noodles once, just until the noodles are golden brown and crunchy, 20–45 seconds per batch. Transfer them to paper towels to drain. You can let them cool and store them for a day or two in an airtight container kept in a dry, cool place (not in the fridge).

  2. When you’re nearly ready to serve the curry, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the remaining noodles and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the noodles are fully tender (you’re not going for al dente here, but not mushy either), 2–3 minutes. Drain them well and divide them equally among 6 bowls. To each bowl, add a thigh and drumstick, ladle on about 1 cup of the curry, spoon on 1/4 cup of the warm coconut cream, and top with a nest of fried noodles. Serve the bowls with a plate of pickled mustard greens,  shallots, lime wedges, and cilantro; a bowl of the chile paste; and a bottle of fish sauce. Season your bowl and stir well before you dig in.