“Sao-ha baht, jao,” said the spice vendor at the market when I asked the price of a package of khao soi curry paste.
With a giggle, she repeated herself, “Yeesib-ha baht, ka.”
By replacing “sao” with “yeesib” and “jao” with “ka,” the dry goods vendor translated her price to Bangkok Thai from the dialect spoken from Chiang Mai to the northern reaches of Thailand. Her price of 25 baht (a little less than $1 USD) was a bit steep for a packet of pre-made curry paste, but unlike the Mars-colored mounds of mystery concoctions sold by the other vendors in the market, this particular package had an ingredient list. In my quest to unravel the secrets of Chiang Mai’s famous and beloved curry noodle soup, written information proves priceless.
The chain grocers closer to the place I wanted to book a hotel in Chiang Mai cannot be relied upon to furnish all components of khao soi, so I specifically rented an apartment in the city’s sprawling mercantile complex known to many as Warorot. To stroll through the labyrinthian market stalls and meander through the hawkers outside is to immerse yourself in Chiang Mai’s culture head on. As I browsed the tabletop displays for materials to use in my at-home khao soi experiments, I caught whiffs of dried seafood and incense, inspected woven baskets and spiritual implements, and honed my ears for the “jaos” and “saos” that let me know exactly where I am.
Today, urbanites living in major cities can expect to find the world’s cuisine with a quick search on a smartphone. Yet as Houstonians argue over pho, Londoners bicker about naan and Jakartans discuss where to get brunch, khao soi’s cult following remains largely in its place of origin. Despite the proliferation of Thai food restaurants across the world, the dish has yet to appear on the global menu alongside the familiar and exportable pad Thai, tom kha gai, curry dishes, and satays. Food rooted firmly in a place is a rarity these days, and after nine months in Chiang Mai, the prospect of eliminating khao soi from my diet was not an option; I had to learn how to make it.
Fortunately, I discovered khao soi’s elements to be quite basic—the kind of thing you could certainly approximate from ingredients found in any sizable Asian market internationally. This is because the dish works through its ingenious combination of common, yet flavorful foods, rather than a frou-frou presentation of foods rare and opulent. Khao soi consists of a thick, vermillion, coconut-milk studded curry broth that laps kinky, yellow wheat noodles and tender pieces of meat—often a whole chicken drumstick or stewed pieces of beef or pork. Topped with a nested tangle of crunchy deep-fried noodles and a few leafs of bright cilantro, the soup’s condiments are as important as what comes default in your bowl. Dishes of sliced shallot, pickled mustard greens, and lime wedges accompany the canisters of fish sauce, sugar, and nam prik pao, a spicy chile paste, that live on the table. The set-up allows the lucky diner to tweak the flavors according to his or her individual palate, keeping in mind the flavor balance so important to Thai cuisine.
Every eater adjusts their soup differently. I throw in all available pickles and squeeze every last bit of lime juice into mine, sometimes adding a scoop of nam prik pao and always topping with a squirt of fish sauce to satisfy my appetite for the savory and sour part of the flavor spectrum. Likewise, the man at the next table might add heaping mounds of sugar and chiles without a first tentative first sample of the broth. Chiang Mai residents adjust their khao soi bowls the way that others doctor coffee; my quarter pack of brown sugar and splash of skim is now my squeeze of lime and burst of fish sauce.
Making khao soi is the easy part, as easily exportable pantry items compose the fundamentals. For me, comprehending the dish has been the more arduous feat.
To fully understand khao soi, one must have a basic grasp of Chiang Mai’s long history of cultural intermingling. Before Thailand as we know it existed, the northern part of the country consisted of multiple kingdoms composed of Tai peoples who lived in areas spanning parts of modern day Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. King Menrai established Chiang Mai around 700 years ago as the seat of his newly formed Kingdom of Lan Na that lasted for three centuries. Even in the good times, the threat of powerful Burmese neighbors loomed large, and Lan Na eventually became a Burmese vassal state for a period of over two hundred years. When the Burmese rule finally declined in the 1770’s, Lan Na became the Kingdom of Chiang Mai, a vassal to the Kingdom of Siam until full annexation to Bangkok in 1884.
Though parts of the old Lan Na kingdom were ceded to French Laos, most of old Lan Na remains in Thailand. Many northern Thailanders still speak the old language, as evidenced by my trip to the market. Yet with annexation came greater Bangkokian influence, including the replacement of the Lan Na alphabet with the general Thai script. Today, the alphabet lives only in temples and universities. The elderly who remember the looping script may find comfort in the aesthetic curves of alphabets used by Laos and Burma—a visual representation of a shared heritage.
Beyond Chiang Mai’s cross-pollination with Burma and Bangkok, and its roots shared with Laos, the city also accomodated a plethora of foreign merchants due to its premium location connecting China with greater southeast Asia. Yunnan merchants trading tea, silk, opium, and other goods crossed through the region, infusing the area with the essence of China and leaving many traders to settle on the spoils of trade through the Golden Triangle.
In fact, it’s the descendents of these Chinese merchants who receive wide attribution for the invention of khao soi. Chiang Mai hosts a sizable Chinese Muslim community who are thought to have popularized the yellow wheat noodles that make the bulk of khao soi and to have introduced the spices that give its broth an extra zing. According to the recipe given by a local cooking class and my translations of the khao soi curry paste, the base for the soup does appear to be a modification of the traditional Thai red curry paste to include staples of Muslim curry powders like dried cumin, coriander, and turmeric, among others. These spices are incorporated to the red chiles, shallot, garlic, kra chi ginger, shrimp paste, kaffir lime rind, and lemongrass mixture found across Thailand. The influence of the Chinese Muslims (sometimes known as Chin Ho around these parts) extends to the fried-noodle topping, clearly inspired by the chow meins of the motherland.
But why would Chinese immigrants give the soup a Burmese name? Khao soi is essentially nonsense in any Thai dialect, but it does translate to “cut rice” in Burmese. In spoken language this equates to “noodle,” as handmade rice noodles come from hunks of rice flour dough that are scraped or pulled and cut into noodles. The Laotian dish khao soi may derive from this, with its tender, melt-in-your-mouth rice noodles served in a tomato-based pork soup, but the similarities between the Chiang Mai dish and that from Laos end at the name.
Then there’s the coconut milk puzzle. Though Chiang Mai may be inundated with the fruits today, the palms that produce the wonder food do not grow this far north—they’re imports, and they used to be much less plentiful. Coconut’s presence represents the influence of southern cuisine and Bangkok culture, not that of the Chin Ho, the soup’s purported inventors.
Chiang Mai khao soi’s closest relation may be ohn no khauk hswe, the Burmese coconut curry chicken soup. In this preparation, thin, round noodles soak in a rich, but mild broth thickened with chickpea flour and coconut cream. Instead of fried noodles adding a crunch, ohn no khauk shwe is often served with savory fried chickpea crackers. The spices are different; Burmese soups, mostly Shan in origin, do not harp on the balance of saturated flavors in the way that Thai and Laos foods can.
My guess is that khao soi was a concept borne out of a Chin Ho’s attempt to make a noodle dish from home with the ingredients he or she found in Chiang Mai. Perhaps the cook tweaked and adapted the Burmese dish by upping the curry flavor and confusing the name. Maybe the viscous curries served with rice from the south prompted an experiment with noodles from China. As more cooks have taken the banner of khao soi, new versions emerge. For example, where it was previously halal, pork options now abound. A few shops see my white skin and pour in additional coconut milk to temper the heat that so many people who look like me disdain. The beauty of food is that it isn’t stagnant. It’s adaptable. It can change on a cook’s whim or as a deliberate move to attract more customers.
All in all, the specifics of khao soi’s invention aren’t as important as the big picture; Chiang Mai made khao soi by having all the right influences from which to draw as a result of its colorful past. Khao soi is the edible version of the trade routes that drew Chinese traders, the politics that led to Burmese invasions, the resources gained from joining Thailand, and the common heritage shared with northern people stretching from Vietnam to the Shan states in Burma. Within each and every bowl lies Chiang Mai’s heritage, and rather than the melting pot becoming a dumping ground, something beautiful—and delicious—emerged.
Though it will take considerably more effort than running to the shop down the street for a khao soi fix, I’m confident I will be able to reproduce the iconic dish in the states. With access to red curry pastes, curry powders, coconut milks, condiments, and noodles, I’ll be able to approximate the recipe until international Thai restaurants catch the bug. And I hope they do, because you really need to try it.