When it comes to Asian soups in the USA, ramen and pho get all the attention. They deserve a lot of it — the former draws hour long lines in trendy neighborhoods and the latter is our favorite steamy Sunday morning hangover cure. But neither rivals this relatively unknown northern Thai soup that I can’t stop drooling over: khao soi (pronounced, yummingly enough, as “cow-soy”).
Khao soi is a curry-based egg noodle soup popular in Northern Thailand. Here you’ll find hundreds of roadside stalls and restaurants dedicated to the soup. Like many noodle dishes in Asia, khao soi is eaten primarily at breakfast and lunch, which means that following my morning cup of coffee, a bowl (or three) of it was the first thing on my mind.
My wife and I are on a 500 Day Trip Around the World, and we’re traveling primarily to eat. Prior to visiting any city, I spend hours researching the top local dishes in order to come up with our daily eating schedule. Heck, I’ve even desperately ventured to page five of Google search results hoping to discover a hidden gem. And while that alone may appear obsessive, khao soi inspired a whole new foodie quest in me, a Bourdainian effort that led me to force my wife to walk, bike, and scoot our way around Chiang Mai in 100-degree heat in search of an even hotter, steamy bowl:
What makes khao soi unique is the variety of tasting experiences in each bowl. Thai cooking philosophy calls for every dish to have a spicy, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter component. Khao soi not only has these five crucial characteristics, but also has temperature contrast (hot and cold), texture differences (crunchy and creamy), and various forms of savory goodness. Unlike pho or ramen (which going forward we’ll refer to as “phamen”), there’s a lot more going on in every bowl than simple slurping.
- Egg Noodles. Served in two layers — buried beneath the soup, a pile of savory, al dente egg noodles, and resting just above it, a generous heaping of the same noodles fried, which give each spoonful a nice crunch. I’m just going to go out and say it — egg noodles are the best noodles. Why? By relative fat percentage, they are the worst for you. And how do you make them even worse for you? Fry them. Khao soi has both deadly combinations, which is the first reason why you should chose it over phamen.
- The Broth. Similar to massaman curry, khao soi’s broth is typically simmered for hours to give it a deep chicken, beef or occasionally pork flavor. The protein is coupled with fish sauce and shrimp paste to provide three layers of umami depth. With the addition of some heat, the soup becomes spicy enough to make you sweat but not enough to make you hurt. To create a flavorful stock, a lot of ingredients go into the curry — this recipe alone calls for about 20 of ‘em. In the category of broth depth, pho is in the minor leagues. At first glance, ramen may appear to have an edge in the broth competition. Heck, one ramen shop even has a Michelin star. So I’ll go back to my previous litmus test — the best broths are the worst for you. Khao soi yet again emerges victorious because all variations of it include the addition of coconut cream, which has almost as much fat per serving as the equivalent amount of oil. So while some ramens have incredibly rich broths — such as this LA favorite in which pork back fat is added— rarely will the fat content in ramen consistently exceed that of khao soi. Advantage: northern Thailand yet again.
- Garnishes. Each bowl of khao soi is accompanied by a small plate of pickled mustard greens, cilantro, sliced shallots, fresh chilies, and occasionally minced garlic, as well as the typical Thai condiments of fish sauce, dried chilis, and vinegar. The mustard greens provide texture, bitterness, and a welcome cooling contrast — a necessity in northern thai heat. The diced shallots add crunchiness and spice, and the chilies need no explanation. While khao soi generally has more varied garnishes which enhance the complexity of the soup than phamen, I’m not awarding a winner in this category. I’ve had some minced garlic brighten a dull ramen broth and oyster sauce msg-up a bland pho — but the add-ons shouldn’t be what separates the winner from the losers.
- Small portions. Khao soi is so incredibly rich that it needs to be served in small portions — think just a tad larger than a bowl of cereal and about 1/3 the size of your typical pho or ramen. The result is something unheard of in the super-sized phamen world: you will devour every last drop, of every bowl, all of the time. There’s no shame in bowl-licking or finger-swiping to make sure none of this soup-of-the-gods is wasted. And yet, despite its smaller size, I always finish my bowls of khao soi feeling satisfied rather than stuffed … as well as ready to order seconds. In a week in Chiang Mai, I had khao soi ten times, and I have suffered withdrawal symptoms since leaving Thailand (hence this article). How many times have you had ramen every day for a week? Or even twice in one week? Eating ramen for consecutive days is so rare that the one person that did it got an article in the Guardian. Visit the abandoned tables of any Vietnamese or Japanese shop and you’ll see shallow ponds of unfinished soup destined for the trash can. If something is good, it should rarely be left behind:
When in Chiang Mai…
So where can you find the good stuff in Chiang Mai? Here’s a map of the places I’ve tried. My favorites are in green, places to avoid are in red, and everything in between is in orange:
My Top 4 Khao Soi Locations in Chiang Mai:
- Khao Soi Samer Jai: One of my favorites and a classic on most khao soi tours. The near-perfect broth is what separates Samer Jai from the crowd.
- Khao Soi Khun Yah (Grandmothers): Another classic located on the edge of the old city. Really solid broth.
- Khao Soi Nimman: Mid-range restaurant that makes perfect egg noodles, al dente below and freshly fried on top.
- Chez Khao Soi: I haven’t tried this one, but it’s the favorite of the Chiang Mai Eats Facebook group. Thanks for the tips everyone!
Pho was so five years ago. We’ve now hit peak ramen. It’s about time we get a little coconut curry in our life. Gone are the days of the celebrated pad thai and mango sticky rice — let’s start lobbying our Thai restaurant friends for some serious soup. Neither our Asian soups nor our presidential candidate choices should be limited to two options. Portland has already figured it out. LA is embracing the movement. Help spread the word about khao soi!