Cooking Khao Soi with Chow

One of my favorite Thai dishes is khao soi, the curried noodles that hail from Northern Thailand. With a variety of textures and loads of rich broth, it makes a satisfying meal. Recently, my Bangkok Glutton friend Chow arranged for her aunt to share their family’s recipe for khao soi with us.

We returned to Chow’s kitchen to try our hand at recreating the recipe. While the results were good, it is safe to say that we are going to need a lot more practice before Chow’s aunt has anything to fear from our competition!

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Khao soi is made with egg noodles. There are a variety of types, but if you have an Asian market in your city, any fresh egg noodles will do. The noodles are split into two batches: one that is blanched in boiling water and the other that is fried to make a crunchy garnish.

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The fried noodles are easier to make than I expected, not requiring much oil at all. The resulting crispy noodles are addictive. Hard to not eat them before finishing the rest of the cooking!

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The base of the khao soi is a yellow curry combined with a fried mixture of ginger and shallots. You can use any yellow curry paste available at your local Asian market. The better the quality paste, the better the flavor, of course.

Like many curries, coconut milk is added to create richness. You can use a “lite” coconut milk or add some broth to thin it out. For the meat, you can use any type of meat you like. Beef and chicken are more traditional but pork or firm tofu would be fine. The flavor of the curry might overwhelm shellfish, though.

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Like all noodle dishes in Thailand, proper khao soi is served with a variety of condiments. Here, you have dried chili flakes, chopped green onions and coriander, fresh shallots, chili oil, minced pickled cabbage (rinse off some sauerkraut as an easy substitute), and fresh lime.

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The end result looked fantastic and tasted good. Getting the proper balance of flavors – fish sauce and sugar need to be added to taste – is where the secret of a true khao soi master lies. Again, Chow’s aunt has nothing to worry about!

Of Soi and Motorsai

Thailand is a country of cat-nappers. Wherever I travel, I see plenty of people who, in their boredom, lethargy, or exhaustion, take every opportunity to shut their eyes and rest. Maybe it is the heat and humidity?

On the list of jobs I would not want to have is the motorcycle taxi driver or khon kap rotmotorsai. While the offices of Bangkok are filled with women, the men from the countryside find jobs like this one. For a fee paid to the mafia and a license paid to the government, they receive a colored vest and an assigned stand at the mouth to one of the city’s many long soi or alleys. 

Inhospitable to pedestrians, the soi are usually too narrow, too winding, and too sparsely populated to justify mass transit. Instead, we flag down a rotmotorsai, hop on the back, and whiz our way to the mouth of the soi where we catch a taxi, bus, or train onward. Dangerous? Yes. I only ride the motorcycles on our soi, where the drivers recognize me as a regular and are familiar enough with the traffic on the street to know where caution must be paid. 

Why are our streets laid out in a network of long, narrow soi? It is thanks to the rice-growing past of the central plains of Thailand.

As you can see in the picture above, rice paddies were laid out in long, narrow strips that connected to a main canal or road. As the paddies were drained, paved, and developed (the housing developments are the strips of mostly red roofs) the streets followed the long, narrow contours of the agricultural past. A map of Bangkok shows that legacy: thoroughfares a kilometer or more apart with long, narrow streets stretching out from them. Few of those streets, though, connect the larger thoroughfares.

The result is that many of us live some distance away from major streets and if we aren’t driving, have to find our way out of the soi under an unforgiving sun. It’s enough to make you cave in an ride on a motorcycle taxi or, perhaps, to want to take a nap.

Soi Phipat Shortcut

“Soi” is a commonly used word in Thailand. It roughly translates as “alley” and Bangkok is filled with these small lanes that feed off larger arterial roads like so many strands of narrow rice noodles in a bowl of guaytiaw. It is on these sois that some of the most interesting sights lie, away from the main thoroughfares and amidst the everyday lives of locals.

One Friday afternoon not too long ago, I had to go from Soi Convent, a pretty large street that connects Silom and Sathorn roads, to the Narathiwat intersection. Traffic was gridlocked on the main streets so I decided to walk. Instead of walking along the main road and inhaling the fumes of idling vehicles, I took a shortcut along Soi Phipat 2.

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This narrow soi connects from Convent to Narathiwat and passes all sorts of houses, shops, condos, and hotels. It is an older neighborhood, one that predates most of the buildings in this otherwise modern corner of the city. In the late afternoon, numerous vendors were setting up their carts. Smoke from freshly-started grills rose in thick clouds through which the sunlight sliced. The smell of charring chicken and pork made my stomach growl as I tried to hurry past so as to not arrive at my destination smelling too much of smoke.

Midway down the soi, I saw a large sign warning in Thai and English to beware of pick-pockets and bag-snatchers. I’ve been warned before that this soi, despite being in a very populated area adjacent to the main business district, is known for its risk of theft. Once, a year or so ago, I was walking down the street one afternoon and a Thai man was just standing by the side of the road in the shade. As I passed, he called out to me in English to be careful and watch out for pick-pockets. He then drew back his jacket so I could see the handle of a gun sticking out of the waistband of his pants. Very strange.

All the more strange because Bangkok isn’t a city in which I ever have any fear of crime. Sure, it happens here, but I don’t worry about it the same way I might when I’m in the US.

Anyhow, this afternoon I passed through Soi Phipat 2 with no incidents and arrived a few minutes later at my destination, a little sweaty and a little smoky but none the worse for wear.

 

Food in Chiang Mai – Grandmother’s Khao Soi

Sometimes you have bits and pieces of information in your head but they have yet to coalesce into a linked arrangement that qualifies as knowledge.  Prior to this trip to Chiang Mai, that described the state of affairs in my mind when it came to the subject of Northern Thai cuisine.  On this trip, though, the bits of knowledge started to come together and my understanding of Northern Thai cuisine began to solidify.  The process began, appropriately enough, over a bowl of khao soi.

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Khao soi means snipped or trimmed rice and it refers to the way the noodles used to be made in this classic curried noodle soup.  Originally, sheets of rice noodles colored and flavored with turmeric were rolled up and then snipped into strands.  These days, though, the dish is generally made with egg noodles.

The dish is believed to have roots with the Hui, Chinese muslims from Yunnan province.  Similar dishes with similar names are found in Burma, northern Thailand, and Laos, the result of the trade routes crisscrossing the area where the three countries not far away from China.

While khao soi has a curry base, it is usually not as thick as a traditional curry.  It also does not have a lot of spicy heat, although it certainly has a lot of flavor.  The dish also relies on two types of noodles: fresh ones in the soup and deep fried ones on top to add some crunch.  All in all, it qualifies as comfort food and is certainly a defining dish in Northern Thai cuisine.

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We ate khao soi a trio of times during our trip.  The first stop was at Ran Aahan Khao Soi Khun Yai, which translates as “Grandmother’s Khao Soi Restaurant.”  Located on Sriphum Road, which runs along the inside of the north moat, Grandmother’s Khao Soi is in a private residence nestled between two wat, or temples: Wat Kuan Kama to the east and Wat Montien to the west.  It is only this small orange sign, all in Thai, that indicates the entrance.

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Parking is limited to a few places on the grass and most customers walk from nearby businesses and houses.  As you can see, Wat Montien is literally right next door.

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The restaurant is an open air pavilion just inside the gates.  Grandmother’s house is further back on the property.  The restaurant is open from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm daily except Sunday and quantities are limited.

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In a wonderfully old-fashioned touch, the menu is painted on the property wall as well as being posted on a sign over the kitchen.  I didn’t see any English menus, but imagine that you would be able to make yourself understood (through pointing, if nothing else).  The menu is basically three items: khao soi, bami (thin egg noodles), and guaytiaw (rice noodles), available with chicken, beef, or pork.  (I know, strange that a Muslim-origin dish would have a pork option.)

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I opted for the khao soi nua (beef), which is always a good test for a khao soi restaurant.  The key is whether they have stewed the beef long enough so that it is very tender.  Grandmother’s beef met the tenderness test and the noodles were cooked to the perfect, not too mushy consistency.  The curry broth is fully flavored, a little thinner than some versions I’ve had but not lacking in flavor.  A small splash of boiled coconut cream added richness.   

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It is customary to doctor your khao soi with a plate of garnishes.  These always include some dark chilli paste, red shallots, lime, and pickled cabbage.  I make it a point to taste the broth before adding condiments so that I can get a sense of the original flavor.  The lime and cabbage add acidic notes that keep the curry broth from being too heavy.

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A wonderful drink with which to accompany the khao soi is naam lamyai, or longan juice.  Don’t you love the high-end table covering?  Winnie the Pooh and Tigger love khao soi!

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To get a taste of what else Grandmother’s Khao Soi has to offer, Tawn and I split a dish of bami moo, egg noodles with ground pork and pork balls.  This dish is always comforting, a little sweet, a little savory (thanks to the fried shallots on top), and very easy to eat.

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The look of a satisfied diner.  All told, Grandmother’s Khao Soi met and exceeded expectations, setting a very high bar against which other khao soi we tried during our trip had to compete.

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Not to spoil your appetite, but I found this garden snail climbing up the midst of the menu painted on the wall, crossing the “o” in “soi”.  I thought it was an interesting shot.

 

Food in BKK: Gastro 1/6 at RMA

San Francisco, the area I come from, is a great place to eat breakfast.  Since moving here more than five years ago, I’ve regretted the lack of good San Francisco-style breakfast places and if I had the money and free time, I’d probably open one myself.  In the meantime, I’m glad to have recently learned about another candidate for my breakfast baht: Gastro 1/6.

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Located at the RMA Institute, a gallery and art space buried deep in Sukhumvit Soi 22, Gastro 1/6 is just a small cafe, really.  It is already busy on weekends and I suspect will become so popular that its charm will quickly wear off.  That said, it is a charming place in a way that eludes most restaurants in Bangkok.

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All the seating is in an outdoor, although covered, space that is thick with foliage and decorated with a motley assortment of chairs and tables.  There is no table service – you order at the counter and pick up your own food.

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The kitchen is a tiny, open affair with a limited selection of dishes.  Pastries are available from Le Blanc, a local bakery that is improving the quality of baked goods available to us denizens of Bangkok.  There are both breakfasty type dishes as well as specials more suitable for a lunch, making this an appealing place for brunch and those who can’t decide what they’re in the mood for.

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The grounds are home to a friendly dog who greets visitors and generally manages things.  We arrived at what we thought would be a bit late – about 10am – on a Sunday and were surprised to find things not very busy yet.  Some other people breezed through, mostly it seemed for a quick bite and then on to whatever else was on their docket for the day.

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Tawn had French toast with a side of bacon, which was very tasty.  There’s a drop of syrup about to drip from the bacon on the right end of it.  Caught it with the camera!

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My breakfast came with a bowl of toasted bread, thin slices that definitely wouldn’t appeal to the Thai palate, which doesn’t seem to like crispy and crunchy.  Perfect for me, though, who likes his bread willing to fight back a bit.

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I had the traditional English breakfast, which was spruced up so nicely I barely recognized it.  Scrambled organic eggs with fresh cracked pepper and sea salt, homemade baked beans and baked tomato, salad with a lovely dressing, homemade sausage, and some bacon.  This was really tasty and just the perfect serving size.

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Afterwards, relaxing with my latte as an English family with three adorable children decide what they want to order.

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Tawn, fresh off his fashion show, looks so much more relaxed without the stress of an impending deadline looming over him.

My impression?  Gastro 1/6 is a cute and satisfying choice for brunch or even pastries and a cup of coffee.  Probably not the place to linger for a long time, but a good start to your morning.  Cash only, closed Mondays.

 

Curbing Our Walking Space

After writing about some potentially good news for pedestrians in Bangkok, I have to strive for some karmic balance by writing about something else what is currently underway that is impinging on the foot-friendliness of a soi in my neighborhood.

“Soi” is a word in Thai that is often translated into English as “alley”.  It means a smaller street, often not connecting, that branches off a major road.  The neighborhood I live in is in the midst of a veritable maze of sois, some of which have footpaths (sidewalks) and others of which don’t.  One main soi on which I regularly have to walk has undergone some road construction this past week that ended up with a pedestrian unfriendly result.

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This particular soi is called Thong Lor Soi 9, indicating it is the ninth soi off a larger street called Thong Lor – which is itself a soi of Sukhumvit Road, Sukhumvit Soi 55, to be precise.  (Confused yet?)  Soi 9 parallels a small khlong (canal) that is really more of a drainage ditch with some stagnant water in it.  There isn’t much space and when you walk along it you have to be careful of passing traffic.  Thankfully, though, there is a wide dirt shoulder that you can step onto if you become concerned about the passing vehicles.

Two weeks ago when I saw workers shoveling gravel along the khlong side of the soi, I was optimistic that perhaps they would widen it just a bit, making a little more room for the many pedestrians who walk this soi from the residential area to the main street where all the shops and markets are.

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Unfortunately, the plan was not to widen the street but instead to add a curb along the side of the existing street.  Not that I’ve seen it happen, but perhaps they are suddenly concerned about vehicles ending up in the ditch like some pilot of a South African 737.  Or, more likely, they are trying to channel rain water into the storm drains (concrete rectangles with metal grates in them in the picture below) instead of into the khlong. 

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The net effect for pedestrians is that now you really have to walk in the street.  An easy step off the street now involves stepping over a curb and onto uneven ground, increasing the risk of tripping or ending up on your butt in the khlong.

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From a pedestrian perspective, the best solution would probably be to install a wide pipe in place of the khlong and pave over that area with a wide footpath.  They did this on part of Sukhumvit Soi 38 (above) and it is beautiful.  Yes, there isn’t as much greenery although that could be addressed in several different ways.  But you do have one of the widest, smoothest footpaths in the city, complete with ample curb cuts. 

I’m curious to see whether Thong Lo Soi 9 ever receives similar treatment.  For now, I’ll just have to be that much more careful when walking along the soi.

 

Unexplained Landscaping

Sukhumvit Soi 53 (“soi” is Thai for an alley or small street) is one of the nicer sois in Bangkok.  There are generally walkable footpaths on both sides of the soi and several trees provide shade.  So it was a surprise when, in a flurry of unexplained activity, green Bangkok Metropolitan Authority trucks descended upon our soi, removed footpath pavers, and planted hedge rows and new trees the entire length of the soi.

Not that I mind the extra attention and new landscaping, although it is rare to see government landscaping that is actually set into the soil – potted plants seem to be the norm.  But this landscaping project doesn’t seem to be happening anywhere else, just on our already better-than-average soi.  That seems suspicious.

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Tawn and I spoke to the workers in front of our condo, who didn’t know much other than they were following directions from their superiors.  This shot captures both the full range of landscaping being added – tall hedge rows in the back, trees in the middle, and short hedge rows in the front – as well as the asinine lack of planning resulting in some areas in an entirely blocked footpath.

“What could be going on?” I wondered to myself.

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In some stretches of the soi, such as this barren patch, the new landscaping was a welcome addition.  You can see where pavers have been removed near the curb in order to add hedge rows.  The irony is that a few weeks later, these trees and the hedge rows in front of this house have been inexplicably removed.

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In other areas, trees and hedge rows were being planted right in front of properties that already have very lush foliage.  This seems a bit wasteful to me.  The tall trees you see in the distance of this photo, the ones on the left-hand side, are pine trees.  Some of them have been cut down as part of this process.

While we were viewing the planting, a neighbor came up and shared some gossip with us.  The landscaping has been done because a very important person is moving into the soi.  So important that, because of Thailand strict lese majeste laws, I can’t tell you who.

It has been three weeks since the landscaping and I haven’t seen any signs of the pomp, circumstance, and police that one would associate with that sort of VIP.  But it seems likely that this one-off landscaping which isn’t happening anywhere else in our neighborhood, must be the result of someone important.

We’ll see if the rumors come true.  Perhaps more importantly, we’ll see if the landscaping lasts.