Northern Thailand: Khao Soi

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This post is the result of a half-destroyed Bon Appetit I found in my collage pile and an excess of free time.  It is the result of my contradictory love for time-intensive, complicated dishes and entertaining.  It is the result of me really, really, REALLY loving curry and noodles, and noodles in curry, and all the things that go along with that.

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For a long time I thought thai food was spring rolls dipped in soy sauce or sticky-sweet pad thai.  And I thought it was delicious!  Sweet rice noodles with bits of egg and chicken?  Why not.

Enter college and ridiculously fortunate happenstance.  My freshman year I was put in the same entry as Tat (real name Patsorn) Udomrittiruj, a girl from Thailand with a British accent and bright flip-flops.  And four years later a group of nine of us went to Thailand for Spring Break, fulfilling a half-drunk (okay, maybe two-thirds) promise made one Saturday night.

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On the 14-hour plane ride, between straining to understand a Justin Timberlake movie dubbed in Chinese and doing mandatory airplane-seat stretches, we talked about what we were most looking forward to.  We listed warm beaches, petting elephants, ziplining through the rainforest or bartering in crowded street markets.

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I, of course, would literally not shut up about the food.  Every corner of every sidewalk in Bangkok is jammed with stands selling smoking sausages, steaming bowls of pad thai or just-beheaded coconuts.  I had to be yanked along every few feet because I would stop to stare at the various jewel-like juices or octopus fritters and almost get lost in the crowd.

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Though the street food can be a pretty unhygenic by Western standards my philosophy for the trip was, simply, “don’t think about it,” or alternately “parasites make you tougher.”    One of our first meals I ordered noodles off the street and was served a bowl crowned by a cricket–something I tried to bravely eat, thinking it a garnish, until it hopped away.

One of the best meals of our trip (and believe me, there was stiff competition) was in Chiang Mai, the second-largest city in Thailand.   It is located in the north of the country where tropical palm trees give way to wooded bamboo mountains.  It is also the land of tigers and elephants (yep, we fed them bananas. )  One day Tat took us to a tiny restaurant her mother had recommended in the twisting alleyways of Chiang Mai whose specialty was Khai Soi; a northern dish of curry soup with ginger, garlic, tumeric and coconut with chicken and egg noodles.  Every bite was a perfect harmony of sour lime, savory curry powder, salty chicken stock and sweet coconut milk.

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It’s July in Western Masachussetts and nearly as hot as Chiang Mai in March, and we decided it was time to recreate khao soi.  Plus I happened across an excellent recipe in March’s Bon Appetit.  We switched rice noodles for egg ones (have to keep our gluten free friends alive), and adjusted a bit of the spices.  This recipe will satisfy in winter and take the edge off of summer, keeping your mouth so happy you forget that you’re sweating.

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Also here is a cute picture of Danny and a beagle named Dino. 

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Ingredients

Khao Soi Paste

  • 4 large dried New Mexico or guajillo chiles (we used dried Thai chiles, extra spicy), stemmed, halved, seeded
  • 2 medium shallots, halved
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • 1 2-inch piece ginger, peeled, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder (we doubled this for super curry-tastic flavor)

Soup

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, halved lengthwise
  • 1 pound Chinese egg noodles (or rice noodles!)
  • 3 tablespoons (or more) fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
  • 1 tablespoon (packed) palm sugar or light brown sugar
  • Kosher salt
  • Sliced red onion, bean sprouts, cilantro sprigs, crispy fried onions or shallots, chili oil, and lime wedges (for serving)
  • Ingredient Info

    Dried chiles are available at Latin markets; Chinese egg noodles and chili oil are available at Asian markets. All can be found at many supermarkets.

Preparation

Khao Soi Paste

  • Place chiles in a small heatproof bowl, add boiling water to cover, and let soak until softened, 25-30 minutes.
  • Drain chiles, reserving soaking liquid. Purée chiles, shallots, garlic, ginger, cilantro stems, coriander, turmeric, curry powder, and 2 tablespoons soaking liquid in a food processor, adding more soaking liquid by tablespoonfuls, if needed, until smooth.

Soup

  • Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add khao soi paste; cook, stirring constantly, until slightly darkened, 4-6 minutes. Add coconut milk and broth. Bring to a boil; add chicken. Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is fork-tender, 20-25 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate. Let cool slightly; shred meat.
  • Meanwhile, cook noodles according to package directions.
  • Add chicken, 3 tablespoons fish sauce, and sugar to soup. Season with salt or more fish sauce, if needed. Divide soup and noodles among bowls and serve with toppings.