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Khao Soi

2011 January 9
by rob

My blog has featured a few Indian dishes lately. I much prefer Thai cooking, though. Some of the earliest recipes on this blog were Thai – including the famous pad thai which I originally made during my cooking class in the wonderful city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. There was another dish that I had when I was in Chiang Mai, a local specialty: khao soi. I heard about it long before I travelled to Chiang Mai. A curry with coconut milk and crispy noodles. I knew it would be a hit!

This is a photo of the khao soi that I ate three years ago in Thailand. There was some rich brown curry, boiled egg noodles, crispy fried egg noodles, and a chicken leg. At only 30 baht (1 dollar) it was a delicious and inexpensive meal. I still look back upon this photo fondly.

Khao Soi in Thailand

Khao Soi in Thailand

After that initial introduction to khao soi I longed to have another. I searched for it long and hard. Since it was a local specialty to Chiang Mai, it was nigh impossible to find. I spotted it on a menu in Hong Kong, but it was not the same dish. There were no crunchy fried noodles, which I considered to be the definitive feature of the recipe. Alas, there was no khao soi for me.

My interest in the dish has been revived lately. I had to have it again! Although I know of a couple of restaurants in Toronto that supposedly prepare the dish, I’m trying to take on the strategy of preparing my own dishes. I could do it better than a restaurant, couldn’t I?

I found a copy of the recipe in the cookbook “Hot Sour Salty Sweet“, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Janet borrowed the book from the Toronto Public Library (a wonderful place where they’ll let you borrow books for FREE!). She thought I would be interested in it and let me take a look. The book had delightful photos and stories from all over southeast Asia. Looking through the book brought back many positive memories of my trip there. What a great cookbook!

Why is this book called “Hot Sour Salty Sweet”? Many southeast Asian dishes like to mix and balance all of these kinds of flavours in their dishes. They each have a chance to excite your taste buds with every bite. This dish does not fail to deliver. The red curry paste and chilis provide a bit of hot. A squeeze of fresh lime provides sourness. A few splashes of fish sauce deliver saltiness. Your experience will be rounded out by the mellow sweetness of coconut milk.

Fish sauce is a condiment that I’ve introduced to my kitchen very reluctantly. A popular addition to Thai cuisine; almost every restaurant in Thailand will have a small bowl of fish sauce for customers to season their meals to their preference. The flavour is much too intense and fishy for me, though! Just a hint of the odour will make me turn my nose. What is it with this stuff? Why do people like it so much?

I’ve found that, although an intense fishy aroma assaults your senses when you add fish sauce to your meals while cooking, the fishy flavour does not persist very much in the completed dish. The sauce is there to provide a salty component to the food — just don’t add too much!

When I first made this recipe, the flavours were all very very intense and intimidating. I was worried that I put in too much fish sauce! When I ate it the next day, though, all the flavours diffused into the coconut milk. The taste was amazing! I shouldn’t have been surprised. Curry is always better the next day.

The cookbook suggests making khao soi with beef or pork. I dislike cooking with raw meat so, of course, I substituted with tofu. The book also suggests added Thai pickled cabbage. I didn’t have any, so I did without. Instead, I loaded up with lots of fresh scallions and shallots and some lime. I’d like to try the cabbage sometime, though.

I think my photo of khao soi looks far more delicious than the one I had in Thailand. It was really easy to make, too! Click to enlarge (and possibly incite salivation). Enjoy!

Khao Soi à la Rob

Khao Soi à la Rob

Ingredients for Khao Soi

2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon and a pinch of salt
1 tablespoon red curry paste — I did not make my own but used some store-bought paste
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 cups coconut milk — the recipe suggests separating the thickest 1/2 cup of milk — I wasn’t sure how to do this, so I didn’t bother
350 grams extra firm tofu
1 teaspoon sugar — the recipe originally calls for 1 tablespoon, but I chose to put in less
1 cup water
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
more oil for deep-frying noodles
3/4 pound Chinese egg noodles — the recipe originally calls for 1 full pound, but I found this to be too much.
1/2 cup coarsely chopped shallots
1/2 cup coarsely chopped scallions
1 lime cut into wedges

Instructions for Khao Soi

1. Finely mince the garlic. Add the turmeric, pinch of salt, chili flakes, and red curry paste in a small bowl. Stir together and set aside.

2. Place a large heavy pot or wok over high heat. Add the 1 tablespoon of oil. When it is hot, toss in the curry paste mixture. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds then add 1/2 cup of the coconut milk (the thickest part of it, if you can). Stir well.

3. Lower the heat to medium-high. Add the tofu and sugar and cook for 4 or 5 minutes while stirring frequently.

4. Add the remaining coconut milk, the water, fish sauce, and the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt. Hold your breath while you add the fish sauce. It’s going to stink.

5. Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce the heat to medium and cook at a strong simmer for 10 minutes.

6. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice. The soup portion of your khao soi is now complete.

7. Now prepare to make the crispy fried noodles. Place a plate lined with several layers of paper towels by your stove. Place a large wok or heavy pot over high heat and add about one cup of vegetable oil (try to cover the bottom of the pan with about 1/2 inch of oil). When the oil is hot, drop in a strand of uncooked noodle to test the temperature. It should sizzle slightly as it falls to the bottom then immediately puff and rice to the surface.

8. Toss about a handful (about one cup) of noodles into the oil and watch as they puff up. You don’t need to fully immerse all of the noodles in order to cook them. Use a spatula or tongs to turn them over and expose all of them to the hot oil. You may have to do this several times to cook all the noodles to your satisfaction. It should take less than a minute to cook them. Lift the crispy noodles out of the oil and place on the paper-lined plate.

9. Give the oil a moment to come back to temperature and repeat with a second handful of noodles.

10. Time to make the regular noodles. Bring a large pot of water to a vigorous oil over high heat. Drop in the remaining noodles and cook until tender, but not mushy, about 6 minutes. Drain well.

11. To serve, divide the drained noodles over 4 large bowls. Ladle the soup and tofu over the noodles. Add the crispy noodles on top. Finally top with the shallots and scallions. Squeeze on some more lime juice if you want more sour flavour.

Serves 4.

Rob Szumlakowski
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

One Response leave one →
  1. January 10, 2011

    Yum! Glad you enjoyed the dish, Rob!

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