I want you to close your eyes and dream about Thailand with me. As I’ve mentioned before, during the 90s I owned an adventure travel business focused on Southeast and South Asia. I spent many months poking around the hidden corners of Laos, Burma, Vietnam, India, Nepal, Bhutan……but there is one place that I can truly call my home-away-from-home: Thailand.
As the gateway to Southeast Asia, Thailand is easy to navigate, has unbelievably friendly people, a great diversity of interesting sights, stunning countryside and, most importantly, the best food in Asia. Hands down. Sorry to you Indiaphiles or Vietnamists, I believe the Thais have it. Food is such an inextricable element of the culture in Thailand, much like in Italy it dominates much of the experience. Also like Italy, Thai food is quite regional: from seafood and spicy curry in the South, to grilled meats and papaya salad in the Northeast. They’ve borrowed the best influences from their neighbors, incorporating elements of Malay, Indian, Chinese and even Burmese traditions into their culinary fabric.
Today’s journey takes us to a Burmese influenced dish called Khao Soi. Let us start with our old friend Wikipedia:
Khao soi or Khao soy (Thai: ข้าวซอย) is a Burmese-influenced dish served in northern Laos and northern Thailand, especially Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, respectively. In northern Laos, this dish is a soup made with wide rice noodles, coarsely chopped pork, tomatoes, fermented soy beans, chillies, shallots, and garlic, then topped with pork rind, bean sprouts, chopped scallions, and chopped cilantro. In northern Thailand, it is a soup-like dish made with deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime, nam prik pao, and meat in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk. The curry is similar to that of yellow or Massaman curries but is thinner. Some recipes use Massaman curry in the dish. Though northern Lao people have a special way of preparing this dish, different versions of it can be found at Lao restaurants. It is popular as a street dish eaten by Thai people, though not frequently served in Western Thai restaurants.
So, let’s get on to the dream sequence. It’s a hot day in the Chiang Mai. Lunch time. (Khao Soi is a lunch dish, as are most noodle fare – so stop ordering Pad Thai for dinner – in fact, stop ordering Pad Thai at all, there are so many other better Thai noodle dishes – but that’s another post). We’re on a motorbike poking around the city, exhaust and dust kicks up from thousands of other motorbikes clogging the streets. Under a hot tin roof there is a gaggle of people seated on plastic chairs hovered over big bowls, slurping up noodles buried under hunks of stewed meat and crunchy, pickled veggies. The steam from a curry-rich, sweet and savory broth billows into their faces and all you can think about is the Thai word “Hom”, which means aromatic.We park our bike on the shoulder and take a seat. The sound of Thai people chattering can resemble crickets or cicadas in the jungle (if you’ve never heard this sound click here to listen) – it is cacophonous, yet soothing at the same time. We order startlingly cold Singha Beer. We wait for our Khao Soi. It can take a while, so maybe a few beers are in order. Our heads start to swim a little bit in anticipation of something exquisite and numbed by the Singha. Maybe it takes so long for the soup to arrive because you have to get mentally prepared. Khao Soi is best served relaxed.
At last the bowls arrive. Thai are big fans of self-seasoning. Khao Soi has a specific lineup: sour picked veggies, roasted chili paste, lime and raw shallots. We play with the seasoning, adjust for spiciness and begin to pray over the bowl. Crunchy noodles that sit on top and when mixed with the broth and the wet noodles, add a contrast that defines Khao Soi, to me. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender (chicken or beef or both) and has absorbed the flavor of this powerful broth. An occasional bite of a veggie or shallot adds another layer of texture an flavor that evokes a smile or a nod. We scoop the coconut broth with our spoons in tandem with our noodle and meat foraging. We start to sweat. Ahhhh.
Nothing follows a spicy, heady, noodle fest like a Thai massage. It is almost essential to unscramble your body and brain. In San Francisco, you can have them both, within a block of each other. Last week I received a text from the owner of Grand Pu Bah: “Hello! I have Northern-style spice curry noodle today. Cheer!!!”. I text back: “Khao Soi??!!!”. It’s a special that shows up on the menu rarely and is unlike any of their other ‘refined’ Thai dishes. It’s rustic and raunchy – just like you’ll find on the streets of Chiang Mai. If you have a chance to track this special down, don’t miss it! And…….Suchada Thai massage is 1/2 block down the street. Ahhhh.