Once upon a time, I was vacationing in Thailand and, instead of staying in one spot, I took buses and trains all over the country. One of the places I stopped was Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand. I had my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to get around, and one of the restaurants recommended in the book served a dish described as a “Shan-Yunnanese concoction of chicken, spicy curried broth and flat, squiggly noodles”. I’d never heard of it, but it sounded interesting and seemed to be popular in the city.
As it turned out, khao soi is something of a regional specialty and has inspired a small cult following (including blogs like The Quest for Khao Soi) as the dish is rarely made outside of Northern Thailand. It’s a shame, really – outside of Chiang Mai, it is somewhat difficult to find this dish on a menu, despite it being very Western palate-friendly, visually appealing and relatively cheap and easy to make, not to mention addictive as hell. However, it may be obscure because its roots are as peculiar as its isolation – it was invented through the travels of Chinese Muslim spice traders through Northern Laos, Thailand and Burma. The curry’s spice is flavoured with imported Burmese and Indian spices such as cumin, coriander seed, turmeric, fenugreek and cinnamon. Then it’s grounded in more commonly Thai ingredients like cilantro, galangal, chilies, kaffir lime, coconut milk broth seasoned with fish sauce and perhaps a bit of palm sugar.
In addition to the noodles and meat in the curry broth, the dish is also typically flavoured with a mixture of fresh ingredients: sliced red shallot for bite, cilantro leaves for colour and freshness, chili oil for heat, fried noodles for a great contrasting crunch to the tender cooked noodles, acid from fresh-squeezed limes, and Chinese pickled mustard greens, all measured out according to individual tastes. I’m not a huge fan of pickled things, and my girlfriend hates them with abandon, so I have chosen to omit the greens from my recipe. Somewhere in Chiang Mai, there is an old Chinese-Thai woman shaking her head in disappointment. Sigh.
You’ll notice “yellow curry paste” on the ingredient list. You may be familiar with red and green Thai curry pastes, and yellow is the same concept – a ground paste of multiple spices, herbs and vegetables, ready for use. One day I will finally make my own from scratch but until I can locate a source of fresh galangal, I am stuck with pastes. Yellow curry paste is a bit harder to find, however, than its red and green cousins. Hua Long Market in Chinatown (253 Spadina, just south of Dundas, east side of the street) is where I found a large container of the paste. If you are looking for it, it can also be called “mussaman” or “massaman” curry paste, which is a regional variation of the word “Muslim”. Make no mistake, this is Muslim Food (says the sign of the place I ate at in Chiang Mai); no pork allowed.
Ingredients (serves 3-4):
- 1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 4 tbsp yellow curry paste
- 1 can (398 mL) of thick coconut milk (Gold Label Rooster brand, for example)
- 2/3 cup chicken (or beef, depending on the meat you use) stock or water
- 1 1/2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tbsp of palm sugar (or brown sugar)
- 2 chicken breasts (about 400g), thinly sliced, or an equivalent amount of stewing beef
- about 3 cups of egg noodles (Chinese Bah-mi/Bami noodles, or I have also used UFC-brand Pansit Kanton with very good results – basically any simple spaghetti-style egg noodle. It’s hard to measure dried noodles, but keep in mind you want about 1 cup of cooked noodles per bowl)
- 2/3 cup of thin fried noodles (I used packaged steam-fried Farkay-brand noodles)
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced (or about 1/4 of a small-medium sized red onion)
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped and loosely-packed cilantro
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- 2-4 dried chilies, fried briefly in a few tsp of oil, or 1-2 tbsp of chili-infused oil
What you will need: a wok with a lid, chef’s knife and cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, wooden spoon for stirring, large pot and pasta spoon, can opener, small bowls for organization and presentation, large individual bowls for serving, ladle, colander (optional)
- Prepare the additional ingredients: Slice the shallot, chop the cilantro and the lime, and measure out the fried noodles into small individual bowls (see photo above). If you want to fry chilies yourself, add a few tsp of oil into the wok, and heat on medium (5). Add the chilies and fry for a minute or two, then set aside both the chilies and the oil into a small bowl. Keep in mind that if you do add a chili into your noodles, the chili itself is not for consumption – it is there to add heat and flavour simply by soaking in the broth. Chewing on a dried chili is not the most pleasant thing to do in the world, trust me.
- More Prep: Now, slice the chicken and set aside. Open the can of coconut milk, and the stock or water and mix them both together in a large measuring cup. You should have a bit over 2 cups of liquid in the cup. Get out the curry paste, bottle of fish sauce, and measure out the sugar in a small bowl.
- Put the wok on a burner, add the oil and turn the heat to medium (5 on my dial).
- While the oil is heating up, fill the large pot with water, and put it on the burner over medium-high heat. We’re going to use this water to cook the noodles, so it needs to boil sometime around the mid-point of the curry’s cooking time. We might as well start it now, so it’s ready when we need it.
- When the oil is fairly hot, add the yellow curry paste and stir it into the oil the break it down a bit. We don’t want to burn the curry paste, so keep it moving in the wok, and let’s fry it for a minute or two at most. By this point the paste’s insanely delicious smells should be filling up your kitchen. Yeah. So good, I know, but focus: we’re not done yet.
- Add about 1/2 of the coconut milk/stock blend to the pan. If the pan is hot, it should almost immediately begin boiling (unless your stock was in the fridge). Let the liquid boil for a few minutes. Stir it well to mix the curry paste into the coconut milk.
- Add the other half of the coconut stock, and bring that up to the boiling point as well. This may take a minute or two.
- Add the chicken pieces now, and let the liquid return to boiling.
- Once the liquid is boiling, turn the burner’s heat down to simmer (about 2-3 on my dial), stir in the fish sauce and sugar, close the lid on the wok and simmer the meat for 5-10 minutes to cook the chicken through.
- While the chicken is cooking, your noodle water should be boiling. When it’s boiling, add the noodles and cook them for about 2-3 minutes. When they are done, spoon them out into your individual serving bowls. You’ll want around 1 cup of noodles per bowl.
- Check the curry. Stir the broth to make sure the sugar has dissolved and mixed into the broth. If the chicken is cooked through (and it should be by now) then it’s done. Turn the heat off. Ladle out a small handful of chicken and enough broth to cover most of the noodles.
- Once each bowl is portioned out, each diner should customize their bowl to their liking with the accompaniments. In my photos, I have added a tbsp of cilantro, a sprinkle of shallots, one squeezed wedge of lime, and a small handful of fried noodles. Delicious. Have fun and experiment with your own combination.