Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Pilgrimage to the Mecca of Khao Soi: Chiang Mai, Northwest Thailand

I just came back from 5 weeks of field work in Thailand and Lao studying my favorite subject, food! It was glorious and at times a deranged existential hell to be force fed my favorite food in all the world, non-stop, all day, till I felt like I'd explode from the Khao Soi baby growing in my stomach. The Thais sure know how to eat! It seems they're either talking about where or what to eat, preparing food, in the middle of eating, or talking about how full and satisfied they are. I would be too if I got to eat this food every day. I just have to learn not to finish my plate each time.

There is no way I can visit Thailand and not make a trip to the Mecca of Khao Soi, Chiang Mai, in Northeast Thailand, near the infamous "Golden Triangle" of Thailand, Mynamar (a.k.a. Burma), and Lao, though for my purposes this golden triangle represents the epicenter of Khao Soi since it originated either from Mynamar or Yunnan, China, and is made quite well in all three countries of the Golden Triangle. Chiang Mai is a beautiful city with the old wall surrounded by a mote, beautiful crafts, several luxurious botanical gardens, kind people, and some of the best food in Southeast Asia. In addition to Khao Soi, they specialize in Yum Som-o, a tasty tangy salad of pomelo (or shaddock, one of the ancestors of grapefruit, minus the bitterness), which is made in nearly every corner food stand. Because of this convergence of several cultures, it seems they have perfected Khao Soi here, even if they did not invent it.

So for you, my faithful readers, I sacrificed the integrity of my stomach wall, risked explosion, and sometimes my sanity, and tried 8 different Khao Sois in only 3 days, often having it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! It was a scrumptious and heady few days I would gladly repeat in a second. Thank you so much to my gracious host Lisa for putting me up, scouting out so many great khao soi spots, and showing that you can go from ancient royal Thai food to break dancing in only a few hours in Chiang Mai. Hopefully she'll be doing some guest posts from the field filling in the myriad spots I didn't get to hit in my short time there.

Check this great video from Open Chiang Mai on 3 khao soi spots in Chiang Mai I mention. I'm honored that they mention me on their blog for reference. There's also a new mappy mashup thang over there on the right specifically for Chiang Mai. I also review 2 places in Bangkok, one not even serving Khao Soi, but quite worthy of a mention. For reference, 30 Baht (B or ฿) is about $1 when I wrote this post.

Just khao soi
0-5381-8641 108/2 Thanon Charoen Prathet Despite the name and the focus, this place is all ambiance and little attention to strong good flavors. When order you can choose the spice level, round or flat noodle, 6 different meats or vegetarian, Lanaa (no coconut milk) or "classic Chiang Mai" (coconut milk already added but still too low). I ordered a spicy, flat noodle, vegetarian, classic. Served on palate with many toppings: pickled mustard greens, sugar, fish sauce, extra coconut milk, chili oil, lime, fresh scallions, and one of the more novel toppings I've seen, banana slices to kill the spiciness at the end. Even though I asked for it spicy, it was way too mild. They didn't trust I wanted it actually hot which shows they're probably used to farang (thai for "foreigner") with delicate palates. Watered down farang khao soi. Beautiful surroundings but too much flare. Franchising if interested.
99 B med 150 B large.

Lam Duan khao soi
Charoen rat road south of Wat Fa Ham
Simple but excellent. Owner knew immediately we wanted khao soi. Made vegetarian no problem, though it helps to say "pom kin jeh" in Thai. The bowl of great smelling Khao soi that appeared quickly had a rich oily broth that was not very coconuty but still quite rich and good flat rice noodles. Toppings included were crisp noodles, lime, pickled mustard, and fresh shallots. There is zero ambiance here- plastic stools and table cloth but that puts all the focus on good food as it should be. People come for khao soi and satay. 60 B or 30 B, depending on the size.

Khao soi Fa Ham
Charoen rat road across from temple Wat Fa Ham.
They only serve a buffet with khao soi included but they were nice and gave us a 24 B single khao soi. Nicer open air ambience with wood tables & chairs. Thicker richer spicier broth but less flavor. Same simple toppings as above: crisp noodles, lime, pickled mustard, and fresh shallots. Hibiscus ice tea naan krajiab drink had salt but was tasty and refreshing. They also had us try chaploo tod, deep fried chaploo leaves (a relative of black pepper and betel leaves which have a very peppery smell and taste) sprinkled with sesame seeds, wish I could have those back here in Hawaii to go with my homemade khao soi!

Khao Soi Smir Jai
Charoen rat road north of temple Wat Fa Ham
Same basic toppings: crisp noodles, lime, pickled mustard, and fresh shallots. It had shorter fried noodles but much more of them. Spring onions were incorporated into the broth which was less spicy but with sweeter and deeper cumin & coriander spice notes. Many of the noodles stuck together, which is a good sign they are home made. Guava (called "farang" like foreigners, showing the fruit's foreign origin in the Amazon) and lime drinks were refreshing as well. This place is really a local fave as it was packed to the gills.

Bao Bao Vegetarian
Chiang Mai Lamphun Road and Ratuthit Rd.
This was Lisa's nice discovery. Their serving had light crispy fried noodles and the toppings were simpe lime, pickled mustard, and cilantro. I was happy that I could get a vegetarian version with some extras in it like veg "fish" ball and fake duck. The light refreshing broth had star anise and was thin but flavorful. Perfect for vegetarians.

Tops market Khao soi stand.
Kad Suan Kaew "Central" mall, Huay Kaew rd.
Great selection of toppings with scallions, lemon basil, cilantro, roasted chili paste, whole chilis, sprouts, lemon grass, cilantro, sugar, fish sauce. Broth a bit thin could have used more coconut milk. Needed a fair bit of spicing up. Even with all those toppings. Nice surroundings since you can get many other local foods like khao niao mamuang (sticky rice with mango), dried bananas (the nice soft ones, not the boring dry chips we get in the states), yum som-o (spicy pomelo salad), som tam (green papaya salad), and delicious iced drinks of marmalade fruit (nam matum), lemongrass (nam takrai), hibisicus (nam krajiap), and lime (nam manao).

Kao soi Islam
Thanon Charoen Prathet 1, Near night market road
Nice coconuty broth with red chili oil tints but a bit low on spices. Round soft and fried noodles that taste a bit like lomein noodles and their pickled mustard is sweet, which is strange but interesting. Standard basic toppings- fresh shallots, scallions, pickled mustard, and lime plus sauces standardly at table which give you quite a variety: dried hot chili, siracha sauce, nam pla prik (chili and fish sauce), and nam prik som (vinegar chili sauce). Definitely a deviation from the norm and a bit hard to get used to but tasty. 60 Baht.

Raan Pic ohn
Around Wat Pan On off of Rachadamnoen Rd.
A tasty and very fruity broth with a novel flavor and great toppings that included fried shallots (my favorite and the only place I saw them with Khao soi in Chiang Mai). Light refreshing broth low on coconut but high on flavor. A divine combo of profane and profound- Khao soi and delicious Tod mun pla (kaffir lime leaf fish cakes) in styrofoam bowls in front of a gold temple. The fish cakes quickly became my favorite walking street food in Thailand with their spicy herbiness offset by the sweet, refreshing taste of the vinegar chili sauce.

Soi Sukhimvit 49, Bangkok, near Asok Skytrain station Almost like the Denny's of Thailand with the placemats touting whole lobsters, Hawaiian ice cream sundaes, and New Zealand oysters. Very clean, with a bakery attached, and a freezer full of many items on the menu to take home and nuke yourself dinner.
Khao soi had fried noodles, pickled mustard, fresh shallots, lime, and chili oil to top it with. No veggies or anything but stock and noodles (and chicken if you want it), but the broth was quite flavorful and rich. Perhaps a little bit salty or MSG-y, but I finished the whole bowl down to the last drop. If I was stranded in Bangkok with no Khao Soi, I'd be happy to go to this place since there supposedly many locations around town, though it's hard to figure out exactly where from their website, possibly because it's all in Thai.

Chote Chitr
146 Prang Pu Thorn off Thanon Tanao 1 block north of Banting muang, near Kao San Rd, Bangkok, far from Skytrain or metro
Great smoky banana blossom salad (yum hua plee), roast green eggplant salad (yum ma khuea), spicy sweet orange curry with snakehead fish and vegetables including wing beans and daikon (gaeng som plaa chawn pak). Hard to find but keep asking and you'll find it. Cab drivers don't know alley and might keep pointing you towards Kao San rd, the backpacker ghetto, one block north. The green grilled eggplant had a delectable smokiness that cut through the sourness of the sauce and contrasted the saltiness of the large prawns, small shrimp, and chicken. The orang curry with snakehead fish (no coconut milk) was a little bit thin and one dimensional in it's sourness despite that this is touted ad one of Chote Chitr's signature dish. This place is a pain to find as the taxi drivers have no idea where this place is 2 blocks from the backpacker central, Kao San road, so they keep wanting to take you there. Look it up on google maps, print it out, and take it with you, and show the driver and people on the street the map with the thai names.

Wow, I'm getting both hungry and full writing about all this mindblowing food. And that's not even mentioning the incredible Isan food- laab (or larb as it's sometimes written), sup naw mai (bamboo shoot salad), khao laam (sticky rice and coconut grilled in a bamboo tube), pad dok salit (stir fried pakalana flowers), and much, much more. But that will all have to wait till I write the cookbook!


Dave said...

So glad that you got to go to Chiang Mai, the spiritual homeland! Thanks for the report.

Anonymous said...

My own fave place for kao soi in CM has reportedly closed. It was a stand in the back of the Thanin Market. An old, surly man ran the joint himself, and he made a mean bowl of rich sauce, with free fixins on the stainless steel tables.

Nat said...

Thanks for the tip Fendergal! Too bad I missed that place. When did you see it last? Was it like the Khao soi nazi of Chiang Mai?

ព្រះរាម Phreah Ream said...

wished i had known about your site; my husband and i were on such a quest to find the best khao soi back in october.

lngarrison said...

FYI: laab is originally from Laos and some of the best khao laam is from Cambodia. I've taken cooking classes in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The best cooking class was at the Chaing Mai Thai Cookery School near the Thapae Gate.

Tim Colby said...


Love the blog, great idea. I just got back from my first trip to SE Asia. I'm now addicted to Khao Soi.

The home recipe I use is from the "Hot Sour Salty Sweet" cookbook by Alfred and Duguid. Great SE Asian compilation book.

Did you notice any ill effects by eating Khoa Soi for every meal? I'm afraid I am not going to be able to eat anything else other than this.

We live in Chicago. If you are ever in town send me a message. I am going to start compiling a list of Khoa Soi spots here.

Nat said...

Hi Coal B,

I haven't seen that cookbook, I'll have to check it out! Thanks for the rec.

Ill effects from eating Khao soi at every meal, as in nothing tasted good after that? That's probably the only ill effect, luckily. Otherwise it's full of healthy stuff so I don't see why one wouldn't eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a regular basis!

I haven't had Khao soi in Chicago myself, but several friends have recommended a few places:
Sticky Rice was one my friend went to and liked, and their photo of it looks authentic.
Opart Thai is supposed to have it too.
and TAC Quick if they are still serving it.

Let me know if you try any of those.

Unknown said...

Love Khao Soi. I tried the first restaurant that you mentioned in your article. It was okay but not great. I'll definitely have to try some of the others next time I am in CM.

One place I did have Khao Soi this past winter was at the women's prison. No, I was not an inmate :)
The prison runs a cafe that is staffed by inmates. Their food is excellent, including the Khao Soi.

Nat said...

Thanks for the tip on the Women's prison, LadyE! I'll check it out next time I'm in Chiang Mai next month if I can get through the throngs for the Songkran Festival.
I tried to get a massage at the women's prison last year since I heard it was excellent for that as well, but they were closed when I tried to go.

Solomon said...

If you cant get into the prison, go to Lailai off Rachadamoen/ Ratpakinai. Same prices and all of the staff are ex-prisoners. Actually most massage places inside the moat are staffed that way. Have a great time.

Oh if you are taking suggestions on khao soi stalls. Why not give Bee's cafe a try. Its on Ratchaphakhinai below Julie's guesthouse just down from same-same guesthouse. Its 70 baht and made like in Pai.

Greg Goodman said...

Great post!!! I love Khao Soi so much my mouth is watering right now... and I just had one yesterday :)

Anyway, my recommendation for the best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai is in the Airport Plaza Mall.

Though, I haven't tried all the ones on your list yet... Challenge, accepted!

scott said...

Khao Soi Mae Sai should to be on this list. Living in Chiang Mai for more than four years and this is my favorite place for Khao Soy - near Kad Suan Kaew. Very popular with UCM students. Excellent

Unknown said...

Hi ! I am crazy in love with this chiang mai noodles soup. Thanks for this great article. I live in Chiang Mai tough it will be very helpful.