Some things in life stop us in our tracks. I still clearly remember being jolted into reflection as I read the words of Rebecca Solnit in ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’; “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” The sentence struck me not only as an important question that I want to ask myself throughout life, but also one that should be consciously applied when travelling.
We travel with expectations, images in our mind of what we assume and hope we will experience, and if you’re anything like me, a list of all the restaurants you plan to visit and foods you want to try. When we become so persistent on fulfilling these, it’s easy to become blindsided and miss an otherwise new, unknown and compelling taste or experience.
Taste and memory are inextricably bound. Taste, like smell, bypasses the part of the mind that is logical and travels directly to the primitive brain, seat of instinct and memory. It’s all too easy for us to automatically reject something we don’t recognise, but it’s far more rewarding when we make the conscious effort to be open and willing to the unfamiliar. After all, isn’t it so much more fun to collaborate with chance and accept that there are some essential mysteries in the world that are only discoverable when we limit our need to calculate, plan and control?
I hadn’t planned on travelling to Chiang Mai, and being honest, I had gone there mid whirlwind of a foolish travel romance. And when the fleeting courtship had departed just as quickly as it had arrived, I found myself feeling hopelessly lost in a city I didn’t know. I wondered aimlessly in search of an answer, direction, and of course, comfort food. Unable to find something warm and familiar, I instead settled for the closest street-side noodle vendor.
And there, squatting down on a tiny blue plastic stool, at a table branded with a Pepsi plastic tablecloth, I found all my answers in the bottom of a bowl of khao soi.
This very first bowl of what is undoubtedly Chiang Mai’s most famous culinary export was my lusty admission to a long and forever binding love affair with the cuisine of Thailand’s north. The complex yet humble curried chicken noodle soup made me forget everything that I thought I knew about Thai food, and imagined possible when it came to flavour dimensions. It was a taste awakening that birthed an obsession, and before I knew it, my days were committed to riding my bicycle, map in back pocket, navigating my way through the many khao soi vendors. As I left my tracks, and empty bowls far and wide across the city, I found myself more and more obsessed with discovering and learning about northern Thai food, and completely hooked on what I had never anticipated to be such a creative, inspiring and charming city.
Considered to have either Burmese or southern Chinese origins, depending on who you talk to, the soul of this soup is its distinctive curry paste made with dried long chillies, shallots, garlic, lemon grass, turmeric, ginger (which is actually unusual for a curry paste in Thailand), coriander, cumin and black cardamom.
The curry paste, which sometimes has added Burmese curry powder, is first cooked in oil and shrimp paste. Coconut milk is then added, along with bone-in chicken pieces, and cooked until almost fall-off the bone tender. Towards the end, the curry is seasoned with soy sauce, fish sauce and palm sugar. Boiled Chinese wheat noodles are added to the broth, and once served in a bowl, the curry is adorned with a heap of crunchy deep-fried noodles, and an extra helping or two of coconut cream on top, because life is short.
There are of course, subtle differences between every bowl of khao soi, but no matter where you go, it should always be accompanied with these condiments: pickled mustard greens, which are Chinese in origin, roasted chillies, fresh lime to squeeze, and nice big chunks of raw shallots, which I cannot stress to you enough are vital to this dish. Finding yourself confronted with these can at first understandably be daunting, but all you have to do here is add a spoonful or three of each, depending on your taste to to your bowl, and yes, even the big chunks of raw shallots.
If you do happen to find yourself in Chiang Mai, please trust my advice and eat as much khao soi as you possibly can: until it’s running through your veins. Because one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to swallow in life is the realisation that you’ll probably never find it anywhere else in the world. So here’s to noodle soup and getting lost.
MY TOP THREE BOWLS OF KHAO SOI IN CHIANG MAI
- Khao Soi Prince 105-109 Th Kaew Nawarat, Chiang Mai PH: 05324 244, 8am-3.30pm * You might want to call ahead as the restaurant is frequently closed for Muslim holidays.
- Khao Soi Lam Duan 352/22 Charoenraj Road, near Wat Fa Ham Temple, Chang Phueak, Chiang Mai
- Name unknown, but here’s a photo below! It’s on Ratchaphruek Alley, Changpunk, Muang, Chiang Mai. Once you get to the Alley it should be incredibly easy to find!