I’m halfway through my third khao soi of the day when it hits me: How are these noodles not served at every last Thai restaurant in the United States? I’m in Chiang Mai with Andy Ricker, the white guy from Vermont who introduced Americans to northern Thai food through his mini-empire of Pok Pok restaurants in Portland, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles.
Ricker, who has been eating khao soi for more than two decades, is leading three of his employees, shipped over for a week of intense eating, on a tour of the city’s best bowls. At each restaurant, he takes his crew through the dish like a sommelier describing different vintages of Chassagne-Montrachet. One version starts “spicier out of the gate.” Another evinces “more dried spices.” The third is “mild at first,” he says, “but by the time you reach the bottom of the bowl, it has really opened up.”
While Ricker’s experienced palate picks up nuances, my amateur one is simply besieged by deliciousness. Even though each bowl is different, they all share the allure of rich coconut milk and savory noodles, as well as the wonderfully disorienting addition of dried black cardamom and coriander, the acidic burst of pickled mustard greens, the crunch of a fried-noodle crown, and the smokiness and heat of a paste made from dried chilies fried to the edge of burnt. Delicious, yes. Recognizably Thai? Not to me.
As we eat, hunched on too-small plastic stools at Khaw-Soi Mrs. Sriphan—a space with a grimy cement floor and a clutter of old fridges, colorful crates, and ancient speakers that feels more like a hoarder’s garage than a restaurant—Ricker explains why. Most of us in the States are familiar with only a sliver of Thailand’s vast and highly regional cuisine. “American Thai restaurants generally serve central Thai food,” says Ricker. “In fact, there’s not much in the way of good northern Thai food available outside of northern Thailand, let alone in L.A. or New York.”
Central Thai food features the sweet, sour, spicy flavors that dilettantes like me consider the encapsulation of the entire country’s cuisine. The food of the north, however, is a blur of salty, funky, bitter, and herbaceous flavors. Khao soi is a strange bird: resolutely northern but with endearingly familiar elements—sweetness, richness, noodles—that appeal to those of us who associate Thai food with green curry and pad thai.
And, like so many iconic Thai dishes, khao soi came from elsewhere, just as papaya salad came from Laos and nearly everything made in a hot wok or with noodles originated in China. Most khao soi vendors attribute the dish to the Jeen Haw people, Muslims from Yunnan, China, who passed through Chiang Mai on a trading route. Some believe that the Jeen Haw traders picked up the dish on their way through Burma; a Burmese dish called hkauk-hswe—pronounced a lot like “khao soi”—is almost identical to the one found in Chiang Mai.
Today, khao soi is perhaps the most famous dish in the northern Thai repertoire. But despite Ricker’s efforts at Pok Pok, northern Thai food is unlikely to become the stuff of any-corner-USA takeout joints. At restaurants in Chiang Mai and the nearby countryside, you might find yourself downing tangy fermented pork, swiping sticky rice through a dense, deep-fried paste of dried chilies and fish, or staring down a bowl of herb-bombed frog soup. My prediction is that most Americans will never trade their comfortably exotic rainbow curries for such challenging food. Yet with khao soi as its ambassador, even frog soup stands a chance.
Ready to slurp? Here are Andy Ricker’s four favorite bowls in Chiang Mai.
Khao Soi Kai: Northern Thai curry noodle soup with chicken
Flavor Profile Rich and complex, slightly sweet, slightly spicy and salty
Makes 6 bowls (each a one-plate meal)
Up to a few months in advance: Make the chile paste
Up to 1 week in advance: Make the curry paste
Up to a few days in advance: Make the curry
Up to 2 days in advance: Fry the noodles
A Thai granite mortar and pestle
1 pod black cardamom (often labeled cha koh, tsao-ko or thao qua)
11/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
14 grams dried Mexican puya chiles (about 8), slit open, seeded, and deveined
1 teaspoon kosher salt
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), see recipe below
2 cups jarred Korean salted shrimp (look for the Choripdong brand in Korean grocery stores)
2 tablespoons Thai shrimp paste (called gapi or kapi)
Briefly rinse the salted shrimp, then put them in a double layer of cheesecloth and gently squeeze out most of the liquid.
Mix the salted shrimp and shrimp paste together in the mortar and pound, stirring occasionally with a spoon, until you have a coarse paste that’s a more or less even light brown color, 3 to 5 minutes. It’s fine if there are very small pieces of salted shrimp.
The paste keeps in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 6 months.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon mild Indian curry powder
1/4 cup Thai fish sauce
2 tablespoons Thai thin soy sauce
3 ounces palm sugar, coarsely chopped
11/2 teaspoons kosher salt
6 small skin-on chicken legs (about 21/2 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)
11/2 cups unsweetened coconut cream (preferably boxed), gently warmed
TO SERVE ALONGSIDE
About 1 cup 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 cup small (about 1/4-inch) wedges of peeled shallots, preferably Asian
6 small lime wedges (preferably from Key limes)
About 1 cup very coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed
Naam Phrik Phao (Roasted chile 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.
This appeared in the August/September 2015 issue.
Photos by Ériver Hijano
© 2016 AFAR Media