Khao Soi, Part 1: By Neil Robinson

A signature dish of northern Thailand

Recent reviews in the Mail have been of European or Japanese or other foreign food. This is a reflection of the fact that Chiang Mai is blessed with a remarkable range of restaurants offering almost every cuisine. However, I thought it was time to come back home and look at a dish which is very special to Chiang Mai, and indeed rarely available outside northern Thailand. The dish is khao soi.
Some readers may be unfamiliar with khao soi. So I will start by describing what it is. Next week, I’ll give a little of its history. In essentials, khao soi is a bowl of boiled egg noodles in a spicy, usually thin, curry/coconut milk broth, topped with crispy fried noodles. To this is often added meat, (chicken, beef or pork), although vegetarian khao soi is available. Along with the khao soi, you will be served a wedge of lime, to be squeezed into the broth, and some chopped shallots and pickled cabbage, to be mixed into the bowl to taste. Also on the table will be powdered chillis and/or a paste of chili in oil or vinegar, sugar, fish sauce, (or soy sauce for vegetarians), and other condiments, that you can add if you like. Traditionally, khao soi was only eaten at lunch or breakfast. Now, however, a few places serve it in the evening also.
The heart of khao soi, and the main thing that distinguishes one shop from another, is the curry/coconut sauce, and what spices each shop uses. It is this sauce, together with the important contrast in textures of the noodles that I will mainly be looking at to distinguish great khao soi from the merely good. In this and the next few reviews, I’m searching for the best, but I doubt that I will know if I’ve found it, because I will only be reviewing a half dozen or so places and there are always many more shops to be tried. That is why I need readers’ help. I hope to publish readers’ recommendations in a future article. So, if you have a favourite place, please tell me why you think it may be one of the best.
To narrow down the search a little, I’m limiting it to traditional khao soi places aimed at local Thais. The cost for a meal, including a bowl of khao soi, a shared appetizer such as satay, and a cold drink, should be in the range of about 50 to 80 baht per person. This excludes such places as, for example, Just Khao Soi, which is aimed more at visitors and where the khao soi alone is 150 Baht - I hope to cover such “upscale” places in some future review. Because I plan to cover a number of places in a few articles these are brief, snapshot reviews, and of course, somewhat subjective. I did not want this to be a farang review of northern Thai food, so I made sure to take with me northern Thais, with plenty of experience in eating khao soi. I relied heavily on their verdicts, however, this was not difficult because I found myself agreeing with them anyway - I must have been in Thailand too long!
There is only space today for one brief review, so I will start with Khao Soi Samoe Jai, and leave other places until future weeks. I have eaten several times at Samoe Jai, mainly at their former branch on the inner ring road, which seems to have closed. Their main shop is on Charoen Rat Road, which runs along the east side of the Ping river, close to Wat Faham, about half a km south of the Superhighway. In many ways, this place exemplifies what a khao soi shop is, and when I go to other shops, I tend to compare them mentally with Samoe Jai (sometimes favourably, sometimes unfavourably).
The building is cavernous and its appearance is typical of a Thai restaurant in this price range, although neater than many. I have eaten both chicken and beef khao soi. The broth for both was thin in consistency, but rich in curry/coconut flavour, the way I like it. I found I did not need to add anything to the broth except for a squeeze of lime juice. Note that, because it is quite spicy, it may be too hot for some tastes. Both are good, but I found the beef better than the chicken, because the broth has a savory meaty flavour to it, in addition to the curry flavour. The fried noodles on top provide a good contrast in textures. One other thing I like here is the pickled cabbage. It has a good balance, neither very sweet nor very sour. A meal for five, including khao soi, pork satay (the pork satay here is one of the best I’ve had) and cold drinks totalled just 320 baht.
If you have not yet tried khao soi, rush out and do so now! Khao Soi Samoe Jai is certainly a good place to start. Then tell me about it at: [email protected] If you already have a favourite place, please let me know why you think it is one of the best.


Bell Pepper and Parmesan Stuffed Mushrooms

Mushrooms are always plentiful. It is a very adaptable vegetable and can be used in many ways - as soup, a sauce, steamed, creamed or baked. This recipe for stuffed mushrooms mixes the tastes of capsicum (bell pepper) and parmesan cheese, along with the mushroom itself. I find ground black pepper sprinkled over the parmesan adds even more flavor, and the cayenne pepper adds that little bit of spice, but do not overdo it.

Cooking Method
Clean mushrooms; remove stems, leaving caps whole. Chop stems. Sauté mushroom caps in 3 tablespoons of butter; set aside. Sauté chopped stems, green bell pepper, and chopped onion in remaining butter until onion is tender; stir in bread crumbs, salt and cayenne pepper.
Stir to mix well. Stuff each mushroom cap with bread crumb mixture; sprinkle each stuffed mushroom with a little grated Parmesan cheese and then a dash of ground black pepper. Place stuffed mushrooms in a greased baking dish. Bake at 325° for 15 minutes.

Ingredients                        Serves 4-6
Large mushrooms, fresh                           12
Butter, melted                                    ˝ cup
Green bell pepper, finely chopped    2 tbspns
Onion, finely chopped                     3 tbspns
Bread crumbs                                   2 cups
Salt                                                 ˝ tspn
Ground black pepper dash
Ground cayenne pepper dash
Parmesan cheese, grated                 ˝ cup