I am a soup lover.
Bean soup, meat soup, potato soup, noodle soup, clear soup, vegetable soup, creamy soup, bread soup, rice soup, shrimp soup – I could go all Bubba from Forrest Gump on soup for hours. Except gazpacho. I HATE gazpacho with the fire of a thousand suns. I blame the cucumber, which has unfortunately seemed to survive natural selection.
… but I digress. SE Asia is a soup lover’s den of iniquity – its streets a figurative crack house of hot and pungent fumes of spices, herbs, and long-simmering cuts of meat, vendors pushing you to feed your addiction at every turn. Do it and join the rest of us soup fiends – especially if it’s khao soi.
Khao soi is the descendent of ohn no khao swè, a Shan dish from Myanmar consisting of wheat noodles and curried chicken in a coconut broth with various condiments and fun add-ons.
The Thai version consists of Chinese noodles and pork or chicken in a beautifully complex curry broth, topped with warm coconut cream and the same noodles, deep-fried. The dish is finished with raw shallots, lime, pickled mustard greens, and roasted chili paste – garnish as you wish. You can find it in northern Thailand, in particular Chiang Mai, as well as northern Laos, though the Laos version is made with rice noodles and omits the coconut cream, a grave mistake in my view.
The Chiang Mai version is Thai cooking at it’s finest: a perfect balance of texture (soft yet toothsome noodles, tender meat, and crunch from the shallots and fried noodles) as well as flavor (brightness and sourness from the lime, depth and umami from the pickled cabbage, heat from the chilies, and sweetness and richness from the coconut milk).
It is, quite simply, one of the best things I have ever eaten. It can be found on every street corner, in every market, and on the menus of both casual and fancy restaurants in Chiang Mai – my favorite bowl came from a shopping mall food court, and no, I am not going to tell you which one. If you have the good fortune of being in northern Thailand, embark on your own conquest, Games of Thrones style, to find your favorite in the city. Take no prisoners, and leave no bowl unfinished.
If you’re not headed to the Far East anytime soon, fear not: there are recipes online! The catch? Most of them are severely lacking, cutting corners on ingredients to appease the Western palate and dumbing down the cooking process for the sake of convenience.
But there is one recipe, courtesy of none other than Andy Ricker, a chef who’s OCD when it comes to eating and cooking real northern Thai food. Fair warning: this recipe is complex and time-consuming. You’re going to spend some time online hunting down very specific ingredients not currently in your pantry, and it’s going to be an all-day, if not multi-day, endeavor.
My advice? Pop on some good tunes, have plenty of beer on hand, and invite some friends over to share in the fun.