Most tourists head to Chiang Mai, Thailand for Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, elephant refuges and shopping at the Sunday Night Market. But, in their Instagram feed, alongside selfies in front of gilded temples and 20-foot mammals, is a bowl of their new-found culinary obsession: khao soi.
The dish of springy egg noodles and tender chicken submerged in a broth heavily flavored with curry and coconut is worthy of a love affair. Unfortunately for many visitors to Northern Thailand, the romance is often short lived.
Traveling south from Chiang Mai, good khao soi is few and far between. In the U.S., until recently, it was almost impossible to find. Even in my hometown of New York, one of the few places in the country with an abundance of excellent Thai restaurants, my endless search for khao soi was, for years, a fruitless mission. But finally, Chiang Mai’s favorite noodle dish has started popping up on menus all over the city.
Now, says Andy Ricker, Pok Pok owner and Thai-cuisine expert, “I’m surprised when I don’t see it on a menu.”
Arguably the most famous dish in northern Thailand, khao soi is actually quite incongruous with the rest of the region’s food. Devoid of the area’s usual funky flavors, it’s one of the few savory dishes to employ coconut milk. It also features Chinese-style egg noodles, hinting at origins outside of Thailand.
Most likely, Chinese-Muslim traders brought khao soi to Thailand from Burma, where a similar dish called ohn no khuak swè exists. The fact that khao soi is almost never served with pork further suggests Muslim origins.
Over time, the Thai people made the dish their own, adding more curry paste and coconut milk to create a spicier, richer broth. Today, the most popular version includes a chicken drumstick or hunk of braised beef floating in sauce, with crispy, deep-fried egg noodles crowning the bowl. Often times, it also includes pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime and chilies to cut the richness of the broth.
In addition to this well-known variety now served by Thai Buddhists, Chiang Mai is home to a more traditionally Muslim khao soi, in which a meat-based stew is mixed with heated coconut cream. This relatively mild version is both less sweet and spicy, or as Ricker describes his preferred style, “it doesn’t conk you over the head with flavor.”
Cuisine in Thailand is fiercely regional. While the north (not to be confused with the northeast, or Isaan, region) is associated with bitter, herbaceous flavors (khao soi excluded), central Thailand is known for its sweet, sour and spicy dishes, or what we Americans generally think of as “Thai food.” Here in the U.S., most Thai restaurants focus on these Bangkok- and Chinese-influenced dishes, resulting in a lot of pad thai and pad see ew.
When Ricker opened his first Pok Pok in Portland in 2005, it was relatively rare to see khao soi on a menu. “I think that had a fair amount to do with factors like there weren’t a ton of people in America from the north. It was mostly folks from the center of Thailand, and they were doing the food they knew Americans would like,” says the James Beard Award-winning chef. “Khao soi is even further afield of red curry, which is already too complex for many people to grasp. I could see how introducing something completely new would be a bit of a challenge.”
Regardless of the risk, Ricker decided to put khao soi on his menu “because it’s delicious, and I knew how to make it.” Having first visited as a backpacker in 1987, he now spends several months a year in Thailand, traveling the country and studying its food. When it comes time to write menus for Pok Pok, he asks himself, “What do I think is delicious that I’m not seeing [in the U.S.]? What can I make with the ingredients available there? And how can I make it better than anyone else”?
His khao soi quickly became – and remains – Pok Pok’s best-selling dish. As such, he kept it on the menu when he opened Pok Pok New York in 2012 but, for several years, it was one of the city’s few versions. When I returned from Thailand in 2016, the only other legitimate khao soi I could find –without venturing to Queens – was at Uncle Boons in lower Manhattan.
In recent months, however, Brooklyn restaurants LOOK by Plant Love House (an Elmhurst transplant) and Ugly Baby have joined Pok Pok and Queens standbys like Sripraphai in offering the dish. Ricker is even planning to add a Muslim-style khao soi to his menus in the next couple months, giving diners yet another version to try.
Ricker attributes the surge, like many food trends, to social media: “About two years ago, I started seeing these giant platters everywhere in Thailand, with papaya salad, noodles, pork skins, vegetables. Within six months, I started seeing the same thing on Instagram and Facebook – from Thai restaurants in the U.S.”
He thinks khao soi is experiencing a similar phenomenon. As culinary tourism continues to rise and more people visit Chiang Mai for khao soi, U.S. restaurants have begun to offer the dish in the hopes of attracting similar attention. “The information highway goes both ways,” says Ricker. “People are very hooked on the Internet in Thailand and trends there very quickly end up in the U.S.”
Whether khao soi becomes the next pad see ew remains to be seen but there’s no denying its popularity is on the rise. Says Ricker, “People love it so my guess is, if it’s not in every restaurant now, it will be soon.”