khao soi, northern thailand’s iconic noodle soup

I fell hard for Khao Soi while I was in Chiang Mai. The coconut curry noodle soup both won my heart, and was a good introduction to Northern Thai food. It can be found anywhere and everywhere in Chiang Mai. I quickly found myself scanning street food stands for bags of fried noodles; the telltale sign that bowls of Khao Soi are being served from large cauldrons. 

Located in the foothills of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has a distinct cuisine that’s different from the bustling streets of Bangkok and the islands in the South. A lot more herbs are used in the North, and the flavors are more layered and complex. Khao Soi is an easier introduction to Northern Thai food than to many of the spicy, sour and funky flavors found in some of the other typical dishes.

I had numerous bowls of Khao Soi while in Chiang Mai. After the first bowl, I knew I needed to recreate it once I returned home to my kitchen in Portland. This recipe is adapted from a few different  recipes I found. I’ve made it three times, adjusting it so I feel like I’m being transported back to Chiang Mai with every slurp.

The curry paste’s aromas are released and become beautifully fragrant when cooked in coconut milk. Your kitchen will smell like Thailand.

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My kitchen notes

Kaffir lime zest, and its leaves are widely used in Thai cuisine. It has a very different flavor than limes. If you can’t find kaffir lime leaf, do not substitute, leave out. 

Remove the center stem from the leaf by tearing.
Remove the center stem from the leaf by tearing.

Turmeric

Fresh turmeric can be found in many Asian markets and high end grocery stores.

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Cardamom 

Cardamom pods come in three colors: black, green and white. Black cardamom can be found online and in the spice section Asian markets that carry SE Asian ingredients.

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The seeds inside the pods are what you use for the curry paste. Whack the pods with a hammer, or a nut cracker to get to the seeds.

Shrimp Paste

There are many brands of Thai shrimp paste, which can be found in Asian markets and online.

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Palm Sugar

If you want to faithfully follow a Thai recipe, then I suggest you buy palm sugar, which can be found in Asian markets that carry SE Asian ingredients. If you can’t source palm sugar, white sugar will do in a pinch. You can use a mixture of maple syrup and white sugar as a replacement, to add a bit more complexity than using white sugar alone.

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Pickled mustard greens

Pickled mustard greens are used in Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, and probably many other types of Asian cuisine. It can be bought in vacu-paks at Asian markets.

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Khao Soi – adapted from Pok Pok cookbook and Serious Eats website 

Makes four generous bowls

1 whole dried Thai chili

2 whole small shallots, peeled and cut into quarters

4 whole cloves garlic

1 stalk lemongrass, roughly chopped

2 whole kaffir lime leaves (see my kitchen notes above)

1 (1-inch) knob fresh turmeric, roughly chopped (see my kitchen notes above)

2 thin slices ginger

1 small bunch cilantro stalks, cut from the very base of the stalks, leaves and thin stems reserved for another use

1 teaspoon whole coriander seed

6 pods Thai black cardamom, inner seeds only (see my kitchen notes above)

Kosher salt

1 1/2 tablespoons Thai shrimp paste (see my kitchen notes above)

1 cup vegetable or canola oil

1 pound fresh Chinese-style egg noodles, divided

2 (15-ounce) cans coconut milk (do not shake cans)

2 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons palm sugar (see my kitchen notes above)

4 chicken drumsticks

Fish sauce to taste, about 2 tablespoons

Chopped shallots, lime wedges, chopped pickled Chinese mustard greens (see my kitchen notes above) for serving

Directions

  1. Place Thai chili, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, ginger, cilantro stalks, coriander seed and cardamom seeds in the center of a 12- by 12-inch square of heavy duty aluminum foil. Gather edges up to make a tight pouch. Place pouch in a toaster oven, about 8 minutes. If no toaster oven is available, place the pouch in the bottom of a wok or cast iron skillet and heat over high heat, turning occasionally, until smoky, about 10 minutes. Allow contents to cool slightly and transfer to a large mortar and pestle.
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Ingredients for the curry paste.
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Pouch of curry ingredients.

2.  Once curry paste ingredients have cooled, add a large pinch of salt. Pound in a  mortar and pestle until a very fine paste is formed, about 10 minutes. If you don’t have the patience for pounding the ingredients in a mortar and pestle, or you don’t own one, transfer ingredients to a food processor. Pulse until a fine paste is formed.

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3.  Add shrimp paste and pound to incorporate. Set curry paste mixture aside. At this point, the curry paste can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or in the freezer.

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4.  Separate out about a quarter of the pound of noodles (enough noodles to make a crispy fried-noodle topping for four bowls) and set the remaining noodles aside. Heat 1 cup of vegetable or canola oil in a large wok over high heat until shimmering. Working in batches, add noodles to oil and fry, stirring and flipping until golden brown and crisp. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Season with salt and set aside.

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5.  Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the wok. Using a spoon, skim 2 tablespoons of creamy fat off the top of the coconut milk (this is why you don’t shake the cans) and add to the wok. Heat wok over high heat and cook, stirring constantly, until coconut milk breaks and oil begins to lightly smoke, about 2 minutes. Add curry paste mixture and cook, stirring and smearing the paste into the oil, until aromatic, about 45 seconds.

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6. Slowly whisk in the coconut milk, followed by the chicken stock and palm sugar.

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7.  Add chicken drumsticks and bring to a simmer. Cook, turning chicken occasionally, until chicken is tender and broth is very flavorful, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with fish sauce, about 2 tablespoons.

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8. While chicken is simmering, cook remaining noodles according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

9.  Scoop noodles, soup mixture and one drumstick into each bowl. Top each bowl with chopped shallots, lime wedges, chopped pickled Chinese mustard greens and fried noodles.

Congratulations! You’ve just made an iconic dish of Chiang Mai and  Northern Thailand.

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