One of Northern Thailand’s favourite street foods
Spicy, salty, sour, sweet – nowhere in the world is the hypnotic taste of a perfectly balanced Four S’s more important than in Thailand. Not long off the plane and excited to be in Chiang Mai again, we decided to sample a dish that showcases the flavour equilibrium synonymous with Thai cuisine particularly well: khao soi.
A robust soup brimming with texture, khao soi is thought to have originated just over the border in Myanmar’s Shan State before Northern Thais tweaked it a little and made it their own. It’s not typical to see khao soi on a Thai menu in the West – we only know of one or two restaurants back home in Brisbane that serve it – but here in Chiang Mai, there are dozens of eateries dedicated to perfecting this dish alone. Khao Soi Mae Sai is one of them. A tip-off from a travel blog led us to this no-frills, open-air restaurant on Ratchaphuek Road, just a short walk north-west of the Old City and the hotel room where I’d been bunkered down for the previous 48 hours with the flu. In fact, I may have Khao Soi Mae Sai to thank for my recovery.
What is khao soi?
Described by chef Mrs Kawichai as a ‘noodle curry soup’, khao soi lands somewhere between Vietnamese pho, Massaman curry and Spaghetti Bolognese. The dish begins with a fiery paste of chilli, galangal and shallots that is cooked off and thinned out with a mellow broth, inflected with a squeeze of fresh citrus. Brewed in huge vats – the contents of which predate the lunch rush by at least several hours – the steaming, oily, freckled liquid is ladled over a nest of noodles to order.
Traditionally made with vermicelli that are hand-cut from steamed dough, it’s the noodles that give khao soi (literally ‘cut rice’) its name. In Northern Thailand, thick, yolk-coloured egg noodles have taken the place of rice noodles, which are still used in Northern Laos. On top of the noodles goes the protein – traditionally pieces of pork, chicken, beef or, erm, water snake. Khao Soi Mae Sai actually specialises in a recipe endemic to the Mae Sai District of northern Chiang Rai Province, which makes the wholesome addition of gelatinous cubes of curdled blood.
Since we are in the land of moo (pig – the protein of choice here in the North), we both opt for the Khao Soi Moo. The pork is cut two ways (thinly sliced and minced, the latter giving the soup a Bolognese feel). To add to the cacophony of textures, half the egg noodles are cooked, swimming around the bottom of the bowl, while the other half have been deep fried and arranged on top. Threaded with coconut milk, the soup itself has a creamy finish and a chilli blow that is definitely softer than I was expecting (although my partial loss of smell and taste may have something to do with how smooth it goes down).
Reserve your mai pets for another time – there’s honestly no point trying to tamper with a classic. Think of the vibrant bowl Mrs Kawichai slides in front of you as a base – the real beauty of a dish like khao soi is that you can adjust the notes to your personal taste with the addition of condiments. Served in tall glasses on a polished steel tray, the condiments might be the real stars of the meal. For our two humble bowls of khao soi we’re presented with eight wet, dry, crunchy, slurpy and tangy additives: four varieties of chilli (flaked, sauced, pasted and fresh green), granulated palm sugar (a heap of this takes the edge off the heat), pickled mustard greens, fresh lime and shallots, and my absolute favourite – crushed peanuts. As each person adds a little bit of this and a little bit of that, no two bowls of khao soi end up tasting exactly alike.
And at 40 baht a bowl, there’s no reason not to come back and try a slightly different concoction. That same moorish balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy will still be there tomorrow.
Make khao soi at home. I haven’t tried this recipe from Bon Appetit, but from the pictures, it looks pretty spot-on. Substitute egg noodles for rice noodles for a traditional Lao version.