I’m going to go out on a limb and say there is little else as comforting as curry: its warmth, its spice: sometimes subtle and sometimes a four-star alarm for your taste buds, and its offering of creamy, coconut milk-induced bliss. There are a few other foods that rival curry for comfort and one of them is surely soup, so indelibly ingrained in the memories of people accustomed to long, cold winters.
I discovered Khao Soi, a curry noodle soup endemic to northern Thailand, and it made an imprint on my palate that wasn’t quick to fade. When people inevitably ask me about the best food I tried in South East Asia, I don’t even hesitate before recalling the harmonious combination of flavors in this Burmese-inspired dish. Sometimes, I tell them about it before they even ask. ‘Hey. Do you know what’s delicious?’
Last week, my dad celebrated his 51st birthday and I recognized an opportunity to try my hand at making my new favorite food. After gifts, before cake, we could celebrate with bowls of Khao Soi. As I browsed the aisles of the Vien Dong neighborhood market for fresh ginger and chinese egg noodles, as I blended chili peppers and shallots to a smooth paste, as I shredded chicken that had simmered in coconut milk broth, it crossed my mind that maybe my people would hate it. After all, it isn’t exactly in their culinary wheelhouse, which would usually include the requisite birthday steak dinner. But I didn’t have a plan B, so it was Khao Soi or nothing…
People tentatively ladled polite no thank you portions into their bowls, before sitting down around a communal plate piled high with fresh cilantro, thin slices of red onion, and lime wedges. I sipped by broth, held my breath, and waited. And then, the exclamations started, the squeezes of lime, drizzles of hot sauce, and the trips to the kitchen for seconds and thirds.
Now all week, no joke, I’ve been fielding calls and text messages asking for more. I’ve ferried containers laden with leftover Khao Soi across town and now it’s gone, but its imprint remains.
Try Khao Soi. You will not regret it, guaranteed.
Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit
- 4 large dried chiles, try a variety with medium heat
- 2 medium shallots
- 8 garlic cloves
- 1 2-inch piece of ginger
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro stems
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon tumeric (I reduced this from 1 tablespoon)
- 1 teaspoon curry powder
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. Puree chiles and all other curry paste ingredients, with 2 tablespoons soaking liquid in a food processor, adding more soaking liquid by tablespoonfuls, if needed, until smooth.
- Hefty splash of vegetable oil
- 2 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk
- 3 cups chicken broth (upped from 2 cups, still a very rich broth)
- 1.5 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, halved lengthwise
(Great because they’re less expensive, especially when buying organic)
- 1 pound Chinese egg noodles
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar, preferably palm or light brown
- Salt, to taste, of course
- Sliced red onion, bean sprouts, cilantro sprigs, crispy fried onions or shallots, chili oil, and lime wedges (for serving)
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.