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Good northern Thai-style food is hard enough to find in Bangkok. Yet a decent bowl of khao soi, the curry noodle soup that’s quite possibly the region’s most famous dish, is probably the most elusive thing of all.
There are a few places in town that serve passable versions of khao soi. But most of Bangkok’s bowls are creamy, bland approximations of the stuff up north. Those that do the best versions tend to have a direct link with Chiang Mai, which is the case with Khao Soi Chiang Mai. The original owner is a native of eponymous city, who, more than 40 years ago, started selling the mild Muslim-style khao soi associated with her hometown.
Chiang Mai’s Muslim-style khao soi is not as spicy, rich or fragrant as the coconut milk curry-based broth served at the city’s more famous Thai-Buddhist-run restaurants. Instead, the dish is comprised of two parts: a thick, rich, meat-based (beef or chicken) ‘stew’ and heated coconut cream that are combined to order. The result is a mix that, when done properly (such as that served at Chiang Mai’s Khao Soi Prince), is pleasantly mild, but not bland, with a consistency somewhere between watery and creamy, and with a subtle, almost indistinguishable flavour of dried spice.
Khao Soi Chiang Mai’s is the closest I’ve come to this version of the dish in Bangkok. Again, it’s worth reiterating that those expecting heaps of chili and spice will be disappointed; both the beef and chicken versions here are very mild, the former being slightly less so. Admittedly, a bit of seasoning is required, but once done, it’s on par with versions served up in Chiang Mai. Also as in Chiang Mai, the noodles here are smooth and dense, and here are made in-house. And the khao soi is served with sides of slices of lime, thinly-sliced shallots and good-quality pickled cabbage.
They also serve the other northern Thai noodle staple, khanom jeen nam ngiaw, thin rice noodles served with a pork- and tomato-based broth:
Unfortunately the version here is neither particularly rich (as it is in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai) nor tart (as it is up in Mae Hong Son).
And like the Muslim-style khao soi restaurants up in Chiang Mai, they also do a few Thai-Muslim staples, including khao mok kai:
chicken biryani, served here very Thai-style, ie the rice appears to be seasoned with little more than turmeric, and comes accompanied with a very sweet dipping sauce; chicken satay; and ‘Muslim’ salad: lettuce, eggs and tofu served with a sweet peanut-based dressing. All OK, but the main reason to come is that rarest of things in Bangkok, a real-deal khao soi.
Khao Soi Chiang Mai
283 Th Samsen, Bangkok
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JJ Goode co-wrote Pok Pok with Andy Ricker. Bon Appétit’s recent nominee for a food-based Nobel Prize, JJ has worked on, both openly and clandestinely, several high-profile cookbooks. But I suspect that the Pok Pok book was, in many ways, not his usual assignment.
JJ flew to Thailand for the shoot — only his second time in the country — which was also seen an opportunity for him to get immersed in the food and observe the dishes being made firsthand. During our month up in Chiang Mai, he maintained a throne-like station in the corner of the kitchen:
where he sat for hours each day, furiously taking notes and asking questions. When Andy cooked something, JJ was also furiously taking photos, videotaping, asking more questions and prodding Andy to weigh even the most minute ingredient and to explain his reasoning behind every single step.
By the end of the month, I suspect that Andy’s desire to kill me was only overshadowed by his desire to kill JJ.
But his insistence paid off, and the result of their collaboration is a cookbook that is not only clear and patient, but one that’s eminently readable, with a distinct voice and an engaging narrative. With the book due to be released at the end of this month (it’s currently available for pre-order here or here), I asked JJ a few questions about the process of putting it together.
-You’ve worked on quite a few cookbooks spanning quite a few concepts and cuisines. What makes this book different?
The biggest difference was in writing the recipes. Most of the books I work on are with chefs who create food, who come with dishes or interesting takes on classic dishes. Andy, however, does not create dishes. He tries to replicate dishes that he’s had in Thailand. Not only that, the food is totally unfamiliar to most of us. It was really fun to try to figure out a way to introduce the food to readers that wasn’t too filled with facts and dates. So instead of acting as an all-knowing authority or expert (a role in which, to his credit, he’s not entirely comfortable), he acts as a sort of tour guide, one who understands where you’re coming from, because he was once just like us: new to the country and to the food.
-Some of the dishes profiled in Pok Pok are relatively unknown, even here in Thailand. What were the challenges in writing a book about such an obscure cuisine?
The recipes were the big challenge, for sure. Again, he’s not creating food. He’s replicating it. He works really hard to do it with ingredients available in the U.S. and he wants to do it faithfully, so shortcuts or substitutions that change the proper flavor profile are a no go. The recipes have to provide a lot of extra details, because so many of the techniques and ingredients are unfamiliar. Most cookbooks tell you to “peel carrots” or “blend until smooth”; all of us can do that, no problem. In this book, however, we had to consider that people might not just know how to, say, get at the tender heart of lemongrass or to properly pound green papaya in a mortar for som tam (aka much more gently than I initially assumed). Not only that, but once you get the recipes right, you also have to convince the reader of two seemingly contradictory things: that recreating real-deal Thai food is totally possible and doable at home, but that getting it right takes some real effort.
-Based on your experiences cooking Thai food at home in New York City, can someone in the US really expect to be able to make all of the dishes in the book?
One hundred percent yes. Some dishes take more work than others. But every ingredient he calls for is available here, and we offer advice on how to find it. For the rare ingredients, like makhwen [prickly ash; a type of dried spice], he provides substitutions that don’t sacrifice flavor.
I’ve done a lot of shopping while working on this book. And I’m always shocked at how much is available, at Chinese and Southeast Asian markets mostly but also at farmers markets and even major supermarkets. For instance, Whole Foods (at least the one on Houston Street in Manhattan) sells not just lemongrass but fresh Thai chiles and fresh turmeric root! Then there are awesome online sources like Temple of Thai, which will ship you ingredients, even fresh stuff like green papaya, chiles, galangal, and hot basil.
And once you build up a pantry, the shopping trips become less frequent and the cooking gets easier and easier. Right now, my pantry has palm sugar and tamarind pulp and black and thin soy sauces and other stuff that will last forever. In my freezer, there’s frozen galangal, kaffir lime leaf, pandan leaf, fresh chiles, and cilantro roots. I barely have to leave the house to make some of the dishes in the book.
-You chose khao soi as the recipe to feature here. Why? Any tips on making the dish?
It’s a dish I’ve made at home many times, even after the book was finished. It shocks me every time I cook it: I’m like, I can’t believe I made this! The key for the home cook is breaking the dish up into steps. You can pound the paste a few days before you want to serve it (or you can freeze it for months!). You can fry the noodles the day or two before. You can even make the curry a day or two before. So when your friends come over, all you really have to do is warm it up, boil the noodles, and accept the inevitable high-fives.
Khao Soi Kai/Northern Thai Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken
Reprinted with permission from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
Makes 6 bowls (each a one-plate meal)
1 pod black cardamom (often labeled cha koh, tsao-ko or thao qua)
1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
14 grams dried Mexican puya chilies (about 8), slit open, seeded and deveined
7 grams thinly sliced lemongrass (tender parts only), from about 1 large stalk
1 (7-gram) piece peeled fresh or frozen (not defrosted) galangal, thinly sliced against the grain
1 (14-gram) piece peeled ginger, thinly sliced against the grain
1 ounce peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
4 ounces peeled Asian shallots, thinly sliced against the grain
1 tablespoon Kapi Kung (Homemade shrimp paste)
1 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoons turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon mild Indian curry powder
2 tablespoons Thai thin soy sauce
3 ounces palm sugar, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
6 small skin-on chicken legs (about 2 1/2 pounds), separated into thighs and drumsticks
5 cups unsweetened coconut milk (preferably boxed)
To finish the dish
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
1 pound fresh or defrosted frozen uncooked thin, flat Chinese wheat noodles (sometimes called wonton noodles)
1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut cream (preferably boxed), gently warmed
To serve alongside
About 1 cup drained, chopped (into bite-sized pieces) Thai pickled mustard greens (stems preferred for their crunch), soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained well
About 1 cup small (about 1/4-inch) wedges of peeled shallots, preferably Asian
6 small lime wedges (preferably Key limes)
About 1 cup very coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed
Roasted chili paste
Thai fish sauce
Make the curry paste
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Finish the dish
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 to 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).
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 to 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.
I was sceptical, but in my opinion, justifiably so; khao soi, the northern-style dish of wheat noodles in a curry broth, should not be served with shrimp or fish:
I was also sceptical about the khao soi I ultimately ordered — the more traditional chicken version — as it arrived with chunks of boneless chicken meat rather than the standard drumstick.
But all this before I actually tasted it. The khao soi at Khao Soi Phor Jai, in Chiang Rai, may inspire scepticism in those familiar with the more traditional versions of the dish, but it turned out to be rather delicious: mild, pleasantly rich and oily, and surprisingly meaty.
It’s also practical. The curry broth here is essentially a combination of three things: a thin, watery broth; meat in a thick, oily curry paste; and coconut cream. These three ingredients are kept separately and are only combined to order. When asked why it was done this way, the vendor explained thusly: “Other vendors combine the curry and coconut milk in advance. If they don’t sell it all, they have to throw it away. This way I can use the curry paste later if I don’t sell it all.”
I didn’t ask her why she chose to sell khao soi with shrimp, but suspect the answer would be equally practical.
If you can’t get past the oddities of the khao soi here, they also do a short menu of northern Thai standards, including sai ua (ไส้อ่ัว):
the herb-and-pork sausage, served here, Bangkok-style, with thin slices of ginger and sprigs of coriander.
naem (แหนม), tart fermented pork, here wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled over coals:
and nam phrik num (น้ำพริกหนุ่ม):
Fresh, green chilies that, along with garlic and shallots, have been grilled then pounded to a spicy, stringy paste.
Khao Soi Phor Jai
Th Jetyod, Chiang Rai
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Back in 2008, Andy Ricker, chef/owner of Portland, Oregon restaurant Pok Pok, was kind enough to share with me his favourite khao soi restaurants in Chiang Mai, which later became the basis of a magazine article I did. During our ‘research’, we made a couple attempts to visit Khao Soi Prince, one of his top places and a restaurant I’d heard about but had never eaten at. Unfortunately Prince was closed for Ramadan, and on subsequent solo visits to Chiang Mai, the restaurant was always closed for one reason or another.
Well it’s unfortunate that it took me so long to get here, because even after my first and only visit last week, Khao Soi Prince is now one of my favourite places to get a bowl.
Named after the nearby Prince Royals College, Prince is a longstanding Muslim restaurant that also does biryani and some rich-looking curries. The khao soi kai, chicken khao soi, is a bit unusual in that rather than the single chicken leg that most places use, Prince uses seemingly marinated chunks of breast meat, a bit of brown meat, and what appeared to be some very tender liver and/or blood. Despite its somewhat thin and watery appearance, the curry broth here is actually very rich and fragrant with the taste and smell of dried spices. And to top it off, they even use the good-quality pickled mustard greens topping.
And speaking of Andy, news just came in as I was about to post this that Ricker won Best Chef Northwest in the 2011 James Beard Foundation awards! Congrats, Andy – looking forward to celebrating over a bowl at Prince next week!
Khao Soi Prince
105-109 Th Kaew Nawarat, Chiang Mai
053 242 446
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I’m currently on the road in northern Thailand doing research for Lonely Planet’s Thailand guide. I’d love to blog on the food up here as often as I did during my previous tour of duty back in 2009, but am really pressed for time and will most likely have to keep it to a handful of standout dishes and restaurants.
Alerted by EatingAsia as to the presence of a previously unknown noodle dish in Chiang Khong, I kept my eyes peeled while recently in the riverside town.
While most Thais associate khao soi with squiggly egg noodles and a curry broth, the residents of Chiang Khong have an altogether different idea of the dish. Referred to locally as khao soi nam naa, the dish combines rice noodles served with a clear pork broth, the whole lot topped with a dollop of a thick tomato and minced pork mixture. This dish has become so synonymous with khao soi in Chiang Khong that the other version is called khao soi kathi, ‘khao soi with coconut milk’.
Following EatingAsia’s lead, I sought out a stall selling the dish in one of the town’s side streets. Upon seeing it, I realised that I’d actually encountered khao soi nam naa (or something very similar to it) previously, in Mae Hong Son, Laos and Myanmar. In Mae Hong Son and Myanmar, I seem to recall that the noodles took the form of round toothsome strands possibly made from tapioca flour, but here the dish was served with a flat rice noodle. The minced pork itself was dry and almost crumbly, and was held together by the paste-like mixture of chili, tomatoes and other spices and herbs. The dish was salty even for my taste, but otherwise was balanced and tasty.
A couple streets over at a flashier restaurant, Pa Orn continues to make and sell khao soi nam naa as her mother did more than 40 years ago:
She claims that her mother, an ethnic Dai/Tai from Xishuanbanna, southern China, brought the recipe from her homeland, suggesting in my mind a pan-Tai link for this dish.
Served in huge bowls, I really enjoyed Pa Orn’s version of the dish, particularly because it was served with a side of some of my favourite veggies. Again, the minced pork was almost dry and crumbly, but was held together by a similar red sauce, which in this case was less tomatoey and salty, but spicier than the previous bowl. Like the previous one, the dish was served with a spicy/salty condiment that was very similar in form and taste to the thick red chili paste one finds at Korean restaurants.
Pa Orn also does some more standard northern Thai dishes, including a meaty khao kan jin, rice steamed with blood:
Soi 6, Chiang Khong
Khao soi nam naa vendor
Soi 8, Chiang Khong
Breakfast & lunch
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Khao soi, a northern-style curry noodle dish, is quite possibly the Thai dish that I get the most inquiries about. Foreigners in particular seem to love it, and understandably; with khao soi you’ve got meaty, rich, oily spicy, crunchy, soft, salty and sour all in one bowl. Unfortunately, given its northern origins, khao soi is relatively hard to come by in Bangkok, and I suspect that Pantip, the IT mall in central Bangkok, was for a long time one of the handful of places here where the dish was available. People had been mentioning this vendor’s khao soi to me for years, but I’d never investigated until today.
The khao soi is served from a stall at Pantip’s nondescript food court, and despite all the signs indicating otherwise — pre-cooked noodles, scant and ragged-looking condiments, not to mention the fact that you’re dining in what is probably the most unpleasant shopping centre in Bangkok (your noodles are accompanied by a constant and irritating soundtrack of vendors hissing ‘DVD sex? DVD sex?’) — I have to admit that I found the Pantip food court’s khao soi OK. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly isn’t amazing; the broth lacks the dried spice complexity of a solid northern-style bowl of khao soi, and was served with huge chicken thighs, which basically overwhelmed the dish. But it was spicy and even somewhat rich, unlike the bland and gloopy bowls one normally encounters in Bangkok. It’s definitely not worth going out of your way for, but if you find yourself at Pantip, buy a bowl.
Pantip’s khao soi
3rd fl, Pantip Plaza, Th Phetchaburi, Bangkok
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As if I haven’t been going on about it enough already, I have more exciting khao soi-related news. I was lucky enough to meet up with Andy Ricker of Pok Pok fame in Chiang Mai, where together we visited six of his favourite khao soi joints. The above pic was somewhere into our third bowl at the famous Samoe Jai Fah Ham. I’d love to reveal more, but the results will run in a magazine article next year. More to follow then. For now I’d just like to say that six bowls may not seem like a lot, but I reckon it will be a good while before I gain back the desire to eat khao soi…
The bowl above is, for now at least, the final entry in my gratuitous khao soi series. I had eaten at this same khao soi shop nearly a decade ago when a friend and I were doing some exploring in Doi Phu Kha National Park in Nan. After a few days in the jungle, we eventually emerged at Ban Bo Klua, and at what appeared to be the town’s only restaurant found both food and accommodation. I don’t recall what we thought of the khao soi then, but I was sure I wanted to eat it again this time, the opportunity being a perfect nostalgic bookend to my seven-part epic khao soi feature.
Richard and I arrived at the shop at an early hour and I asked the vendor (the same woman from 10 years ago) if it was open. ‘Of course, open, yes, yes, we’re open. Sit down,’ she replied in an exceedingly enthusiastic, confident manner. Her attitude immediately made me suspicious; in Thailand if someone zealously confirms something, it most likely means it’s untrue.
After a minute or two she brought out our bowls, and Richard and I dug into what would be the worst bowls of khao soi either of us have ever encountered. For starters, the broth was just a step above lukewarm, and appeared to be little more than coconut milk with a pinch of curry powder. The chicken, which along with the broth appeared to be left over from the previous day, was nonetheless severely undercooked and alarmingly pink in parts. But the worst thing about the khao soi confirmed my initial suspicion; as I stirred the contents, I discovered that this bowl of noodles had no noodles.
‘There are no noodles in this khao soi,’ I told the woman.
‘Oh yes,’ she replied without hesitating, ‘the water hasn’t boiled yet so I can’t cook the noodles. I just used the deep-fried crispy noodles instead.’
As anybody who’s eaten khao soi knows, this is not an acceptable substitute.
‘When I asked you if you were open, you said that you were ready to go,’ I argued.
‘I am ready. Do you like the khao soi?’
I was not getting through. Clearly this woman just wanted to sell at any cost. When we told her, quite frankly, that the chicken was undercooked and that we did not like the khao soi, she asked, without a hint of irony, if we wanted to buy another two bowls.
Don’t eat here. I’m providing the map below more as a warning than a recommendation.
Ban Bo Klua, Nan
Phayao, a small town that most Thais aren’t even aware exists, turned about to be one of the more pleasant destinations of my trip. The town’s setting at the edge of a vast swamp is a lot more interesting than it sounds, and the city also had some very tasty food
The khao soi at Phayao’s Khao Soi Saeng Phian was both rich in flavour and vast in size. I generally don’t like big bowls of khao soi – it’s so much more fun and satisfying to eat two small bowls (which is generally how the dish is served in Chiang Mai) than one large one – but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The broth was tasty and they employed good quality pickled mustard cabbage. And better yet, for those of us who like northern-style noodles, there were at least four other places within a block radius serving khao soi, khanom jeen nam ngiaw, or both.
Khao Soi Saeng Phian
Th Tha Kwan, Phayao