The Old City in Chiang Mai was just as I remembered it when I returned for the second time: Bustling quietly, at least compared to Bangkok, and full of wild, spicy-sweet smells. Hot, but with a breeze. It was different, too, though. The Thailand I saw during my first visit to Chiang Mai in 2014 looked more commercialized this time around.The air was smoggier and there were more tourists than I remembered. Tuk tuk drivers yelled louder. Brochures announcing excursions lined the walls of restaurants. It was the same, but it was also different, as it probably should have been.
When Sean and I arrived in Chiang Mai in 2017, I dragged him to the Writer’s Bar first, my favorite shop run by a former journalist and his Thai wife. He wanted a bowl of Green Curry and I wanted Larb Gai, a dish of chopped chicken, mint, basil and red onions. Then we wandered the grid of streets, sipping on Thai-style iced coffees, buying knock-off sunglasses and small containers of fruit. We stayed for a week, taking day trips out of the city to zip line and see wildlife. We took a cooking class on an organic farm. But more than anything, we haunted the night market at the northern gates of the city – not once, not twice, but three times.
Northern Thai cuisine is based on buddhist traditions, so it’s sweeter and often vegetarian. You’ll find more coconut broths, ginger-spiked chicken, and piles of delicious grilled vegetables than anywhere else in the country. It’s my food nirvana and I’ve eaten (and sweated) more in that city than in any other place I’ve ever been.
So now, when I dream of Thai food on a rainy Boston night like this one, I don’t dream of Pad Thai. I dream of Khao soi, a coconut curry noodle soup and Chiang Mai’s famous identifying dish. It packs a punch, but more subtley than most other Thai food. When Sean and I ordered it at the night market for the first time, it was $2. The man in the stall dumped a pile of noodles and a grilled chicken thigh into a plastic bowl, then drowned them in a spicy, sweet, ginger-filled, coconut-based savory curry sauce and topped the whole thing with fried shallots and cilantro and lime. We finished the bowl in two minutes flat, banging foreheads and sweating over the plastic bowl.
I’ve tried to recreate this dish a number of times and it’s never quite as good as the khao soi from local Thai markets — which is to be expected. But this is my favorite altered version, the one I make almost every other week for Sean and I. We usually eat it while reminiscing about our Thailand trip and planning our next dream travel destination (Japan! Ireland! New Zealand! Vietnam!). It’s a tradition I recommend.
Khao Soi, or Thai-Style Coconut Curry Noodle Soup
Serves 2 for dinner, with leftovers for lunch the next day (roughly 4 servings total). Adapted from Bon Appetit.
- 3-4 T Khao Soi paste (you can often find it at your local Asian grocer)
If you can’t find khao soi paste pre-made, you’ll want to make the curry. When I do this, I usually include:
- 2 small red chiles, stemmed, halved, seeded (more if you’re a spice-lover)
- 2 medium shallots
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 2″ piece of ginger, minced
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro stems
- 1 T ground coriander
- 1 T ground turmeric
- 1 t curry powder
Puree the chiles, shallots, garlic, ginger, cilantro stems, coriander, turmeric, curry powder and 2 T water in a food processor, adding additional water by the tablespoon until the mixture is smooth.
To make the soup, you’ll need:
- 2 T vegetable oil
- 2 14-oz cans of unsweetened coconut milk
- 2.5 cups chicken broth
- 1.5 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
- 1 lb Chinese egg noodles
- 3 T fish sauce
- 1 T brown sugar
- Optional: red onion, cilantro, shallots, fried onions, lime wedges, green onions, jalapeno, chili sauce.
You’ll likely have to hunt for egg noodles and fish sauce as your local asian grocer as well.
Start by adding 2 T vegetable oil to a medium-sized saucepan. Add khao soi paste (either the one you made above or the one you bought) to the oil and stir it over medium heat for 4-6 minutes, until darkened. Add chicken broth and coconut milk to the pot and bring that mixture to a boil. Add chicken chunks and lower to a simmer. Let the chicken cook in liquid for 20 minutes — you’re poaching it.
Remove the chicken from the soup and set it aside. Add the fish sauce and brown sugar to the broth, then the noodles. While the noodles cook, shred the chicken and add it back to the pot.
Top the soup with any of the optional add-ins listed above. Red onions, cilantro and lime are a must for me — but go wild!
You can easily make this vegetarian by subbing in vegetable broth for chicken broth. I also like to sub mushrooms for the chicken – it keeps the soup feeling hearty.