Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dreaming of Khao Soi (Northern Thai Chicken Curry Noodle Soup)

I tried khao soi for the first time several years ago when one of my oldest and dearest friends, Victor Magsaysay, made it for me. An acclaimed installation artist at the time, Victor shifted directions and is now executive chef of SakeBar, a small but highly successful restaurant in Paris that serves stylized French food with an Asian twist.
Khao soi, a specialty of northern Thailand, is a hearty chicken curry noodle soup served over soft egg noodles. It’s garnished with noodles, shallots and chilies all fried to a crisp, and then served with lime wedges and pickled mustard greens on the side.
Khao soi is a popular street dish in Chiang Mai and the rest of Northern Thailand but it’s not as commonplace in Bangkok or, for that matter, in most Thai restaurants.
Victor lived in Thailand for a while where he learned to make khao soi by taking notes from (and even videotaping!) his favorite street vendor in action.  Now, I wish I’d done the same when he made it for me, because I’ve been hounding him for the recipe for years. Unfortunately, Victor doesn’t use recipes, preferring to work as he goes based purely on sight, smell and taste. You know how annoying those gifted ones can get.

Desperately craving khao soi, I tried ordering it in a couple of restaurants that had it on their menu, but none of them came even remotely close to Victor’s. I then realized that I would have to take matters into my own hands, and subsequently, found a great recipe on Chez Pim.

I was originally going to just link to the recipe, but I decided to reprint it below so I could walk you through my own modifications. That being said, however, you should know that the original recipe is excellent as is, and most of my workarounds were based on my own personal preferences and the ingredients I had on hand.
Khao Soi, façon Pim (Northern Chicken Curry Noodle)

For the chicken curry:
3 pounds chicken (I used chicken thighs.)
3-5 tablespoons red curry paste (Her recipe calls for 4-5 tablespoons. My curry paste was really spicy, so I went with 4 and then still had to add another cup of coconut milk, so if your curry paste is super spicy, or your tolerance for heat is low, stick to 3.)
2 tablespoons oil
3 cups coconut milk
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon cardamom
1-1 ½ cups chicken stock (you can use water)
1 tablespoon sugar (Her recipe calls for a pinch. I added a little bit more to further tone down the heat.)
Fish sauce to taste

For the noodles and garnishes:
About 6-7 (loosely packed) cups of Chinese bah-mi egg noodle
5 shallots, (very) thinly sliced
1 package of Chinese pickled mustard greens, rinsed and thinly sliced (I couldn’t find this in nearby stores and was unwilling to drive to Chinatown, so I made my own using this recipe from Saveur).
3-4 cups oil for frying
3 limes, quartered
6 green finger chilies (siling pangsigang), chopped
a handful of cilantro, chopped

To make the curry:

1. Into a heavy bottom pot over medium-high heat, add the oil and then brown the chicken on both sides, in several batches if necessary. People say 5-10 minutes, but this usually takes me considerably longer. In this case, working in batches, it took me about half an hour.

Feel free to skip this step. Pim’s recipe doesn’t call for browning, and Victor didn’t brown his either. But I think browning adds another dimension of flavor, and as I mentioned in my last post, I can’t stand to eat white, goosepimply chicken skin. Shudder.

2. Remove chicken from pot and set aside. Adjust heat to medium, then add the red curry paste, curry powder, turmeric and cardamom (if using) and cook, stirring vigorously, for a few minutes until the curry paste is fragrant. 

Be very careful when you sauté your curry paste and spices. Make sure that your heat isn’t too high and that you have enough oil.  After browning my chicken, my pan was pretty damned hot. And while I didn’t burn my spices, the fumes from the curry had me coughing and then sounding like Harvey Fierstein for the next couple of hours.

3. Add one cup of coconut milk, stir to blend and let the pan come back to a boil. Let it bubble for a few minutes over high heat, stirring often, until you see the red oil separating from the coconut milk mixture. Add the second cup of coconut milk, and again wait until the oil separates.

4. Add the chicken pieces to the pan, with the stock and the rest of the coconut milk. Let the pan come back to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer.

5. Add the fish sauce, starting with two tablespoons. Close the lid and let it simmer until the chicken is done. Check the seasonings; you might need to add more fish sauce. The flavor of the curry should be salty, spicy, and with a very slight aftertaste of sweetness. When you taste the curry at this stage, it should be a bit saltier than what you would like the final dish to taste like. If it is under-salted now, the addition of the other ingredients at serving time will make it even more insipid.

Don’t you just love Pim’s use of the word “insipid” to describe what you don’t want in a dish? No? It’s just me being a geek, you say?  Fine. 

To make the noodles and garnish:

1. While your curry is simmering, heat your frying oil to around 350F. Take half your noodles and fry a little bit at a time in a pan until golden, around 2-3 minutes. You will need to flip to noodle once in the pan to get the same color on both sides. Set aside.

2. Use the oil to fry up the chilies very quickly, be careful not to let them burn. Set aside. Do the same with the shallots.

Clockwise: Fried shallots, fried chilies and pickled mustard greens

To serve:

1. When curry is done and you’re ready to serve, heat up a large pot of water to a full boil. Rinse the rest of your noodles in cold water to wash out the excess starch, and then cook in the very hot boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Stir the noodles well to prevent sticking.

2. Put some cooked noodles in a bowl and top with one or two chicken thighs (depending on size) and a generous serving of the curry sauce.

3. Top with the crispy noodles and garnish with ith the fried shallots, chilies, mustard sprouts and chopped cilantro to taste, and a wedge of lime. Serve the rest of the garnishes tableside.

The recipe may seem like a lot of work, and I won’t lie; it is. But it’s SO worth it. Imagine rich, red curry and fork-tender chicken over freshly boiled tender noodles, in and of themselves, already deeply satisfying. Now, imagine adding crunch, subtle sweetness and heat by way of crispy fried noodles, shallots and chilis, And then, if your brain hasn’t exploded yet, imagine splashing that concoction with shots of herby-citrusy freshness provided by the lime and cilantro, while the unexpected bitterness of pickled mustard greens cuts through the curry broth's richness.

Now, imagine yourself so entranced by this Thai carnival of tastes, textures and aromas that you find yourself unable to stop until every morsel, every last drop of curry, every single solitary noodle in your bowl is completely gone. Ready to stop imagining yet?

Then, make sure to invite a bunch of people over. Aside from being visually impressive, khao soi is also ideal for entertaining, because you can prepare nearly all the components ahead of time.  When your guests get there, all you need to do is boil the soft noodles, plate, and modestly say “Oh, it was nothing really,” while your guests “ooh” and “aah” appreciatively in between slurping noises.

Go on. Do it. And when you do, don’t forget to invite me.


  1. Khao soi was the top of my to-eat-list when I went to Chiang Mai a couple years back. And I had it everyday of my stay. On the street, in markets and in restaurants; I never had a bad bowl. Unfortunately it is quite hard to find a good version outside Chiang Mai; and is even rare to find in Bangkok as you mentioned. I noticed a few restaurants locally doing their versions but it's really a far cry; and in my opinion does not come close. At all. Like sweet, diluted curry soups. Really disappointing. I have a recipe with me that I've been gearing up to do but have been to lazy to carry out as it is so time consuming and the ingredients really have to be fresh. Down to the spices used in the paste (bordering on Islamic/Indian flavors) and the type of egg noodles. But good on you for trying. Looks great.

    Oh, if you don't like the chicken skin maybe try to trim it all off so you don't have to brown it. Saves you a step.

  2. I love it so much and you're right, Paul, it is really hard to find a good khao soi in restaurants. And I admit, my chicken skin issue is out of control. Even when you trim, one little piece just always manages to get in there and once I bite into that piece, I'm completely grossed out and DONE. It's just (one of) my weird things. :) Thanks for stopping by!

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