sunday supper

Sunday Supper. Khao Soi: Burmese-Influenced Egg Noodles in Thai Curry Sauce

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Have you ever eaten khao soi – Chiang Mai Thailand’s signature dish? Typically overshadowed by noodle dishes in Thai restaurants like pad thai, rad nar and pad kee mow, this is something I recommend to you for its beautiful colors and flavor profile. You’ve got tender chicken swimming in a rich and silky coconut curry with slippery egg nooodles, topped with Chinese pickled mustard greens and tear-inducing shallots to balance out everything. But what a lot of people don’t know that this dish isn’t originally from Thailand, but rather a surviving memory of centuries of migratory movement due to political turmoil, war and general commerce originating in the southern Chinese province, Yunnan. But enough of the history, which I’ll delve into a much longer posting.

The first time I had what I thought was khao soi, was in Luang Prabang, Laos back in 2009. I did not enjoy Lao food growing up because I was an Asian kid trying to assimilate with my pre-dominantly white and Latino classmates. It’s been a mission of my mine to see where my father grew up and ultimately, taste the food I had grown up with for a substantial part of my life. So I told myself I would trace back to my roots one dish at a time. One night, we were walking around a Lao/Hmong night market looking for food. I of course, gravitated towards the noodle stand. I was searching for a dish I had grown up with called khao poun, which is a delicious, spicy fish curry and rice noodle dish eaten lukewarm. This particular stand didn’t have it but instead offered something called khao soi (pictured above), which to me looked like Vietnamese pho with a nice scoop of fried garlic and shallots. The lady didn’t have to put a gun to my head to try this. But as I ate it, I knew it was definitely not pho – but a delicious soup noodle topped with a dollop of pork, tomato, chile, spices and red curry paste which had to be mixed in with the broth. Once mixed in, the broth looked brownish orange. The noodles to my surprise were not the standard rice noodles you’d see in pho, but a thin round noodle that is quite similar to Guilin, Yunnan or Vietnamese bun bo hue noodles. I learned that khao soi literally means “rice chopped” or “rice cut”, thus the usage of rice noodles. It was amazing – I ended up asking for another bowl.

When I got back to Los Angeles from Southeast Asia, I was hot on the Lao food trail and started asking various restaurants in Thaitown if they offered khao soi. A lot of people don’t know this but a good majority of the Thai restaurants are either owned by Laotians or have Lao chefs. And a lot of them have secret menus that are hidden from you if you don’t look Thai. The two countries are next to each other and the food and language share some sharp similarities. When I found a place that did offer khao soi, I was stoked. I saw the waitress come out of the kitchen with my bowl of khao soi and I got my chopsticks ready. To my disappointment, what I saw in front of me was a bowl of egg noodles in curry with crispy noodles on top. Wait, wait, wait! What is this? This is curry! Khao soi is supposed to be in clear broth right?  Well I had to face the music and what was apparently the Thai version of khao soi – and it was delicious! Serendipitously, I had fallen for this comforting curry noodle dish called khao soi. Here is my version compiled with recipes found online and what I’ve tasted in restaurants. Use this as a starting ground as you may like it spicier or thicker.

Serves 4-6 people
1 pack chicken thigh (chopped into pieces) or drumsticks (skin-on)
1 pack Chinese pickled mustard greens (roughly chopped)
2 large cans of coconut milk
3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
3-4 heaping tablespoons curry powder
1/2 heaping tablespoon turmeric
5-10 dried red chiles
1 tablespoon Coriander seeds (mashed with mortar & pestle/food-processed)
4-5 1/4″ ginger slivers
3 smashed garlic cloves
Chopped red onion or shallots (thinly sliced) – garnish
Fish sauce
Chicken broth or water
Wide egg noodles or Thai “ba mi” dried egg noodles
Wide egg noodles (a few strands for frying) or slivered wonton skin chips
Chinese hot chili oil (辣椒油)
Canola/vegetable oil

(1) First thing I would do is cook your wide egg noodles, not skinny “chow mein” style. I prefer the fresh kind over the dry, but that’ll work too. In a boiling pot of water, add 5 pinches of kosher salt and a tiny bit of oil. Cook noodles super al dente (about 3-4 minutes), because you will need to shock it in ice water to stop the cooking. Strain, dry, mix in some oil and set aside. You will microwave this briefly upon service but note that this dish is not served piping hot dish, but also not at room temperature.

(2) In a pot, add some oil and sauté the garlic cloves and dried chiles until fragrant over medium heat. Careful not to burn the garlic or chiles. Add 3 tablespoons of Thai red curry paste and using a spatula, really break apart the paste so that it’s smooth. Then add the curry powder, turmeric and mashed coriander seeds and stir everything together to form the base for khao soi curry. Stir for about 3-4 minutes to bring out the flavors.

(3) Add the chicken thigh or drumsticks in and sauté for another 3-4 minutes and lather up all the chicken with as much of the paste as possible.

(4) Add 1 full can of coconut milk and stir well. This is your sauce base. If you want to make it thicker, slowly add in another can. If you want it thinner, just stay with 1 can. I went ahead and did 1.5 cans and about 1/2 a can of chicken broth. It’s up to you.

(5) Add fish sauce for salinity, add sugar to balance out the salinity, for that signature sweetness of coconut curry. Also decide if you would like more curry powder, turmeric and coriander. And one last check with the thickness – I ended up adding chicken broth to dilute it. If the curry is too rich the noodles will be too moppy – it has to be just right. Not too goopy, not too watery. Let the curry boil over low-medium heat for about 20-30 minutes to really marry the flavors. Longer the better, as the chicken will become even more tender, especially if you’re using drumsticks.

(6) Fry up a few strands of the egg noodles (fresh or dry) until slightly brown and crispy. Lightly break a few pieces as this used for texture. If you prefer wonton skins, cut out 1.5″ x 0.75″ slivers and fry them until crispy. Set aside on a paper towel.

(7) Make a mound with your egg noodles, or more so an island for presentation. Sprinkle a tiny bit of water over your egg noodles and heat it up in the microwave for about 30 seconds. Ladle in some curry around the noodles, creating a curry moat – adding the chicken on top of the noodle island. Garnish with shallot slices, cilantro, Chinese pickled mustard greens and your crispy noodles/wontons. Serve with Chinese hot chili oil (辣椒油) on the side. Enjoy.

Here are a few Thai restaurants in Los Angeles that serve khao soi. I’ve ranked them from favorite to least favorite. In all, most are pretty damn good and I’ve had to use price as a way to differentiate.

(1) O-Chai Restaurant ($6.95)
820 N Western Ave #101
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 463-0634

O-Chai really offers a beautifully balanced bowl of khao soi. But I wouldn’t recommend anything else here as they seem to focus on selling a lot of the bastardized Thai dishes to the pre-dominantly non-Thai clientele. They get a huge plus for offering drumsticks in their khao soi though, when other places are either giving you super dry chicken breast or slightly tough chicken thigh.

(2) Pailin Thai Cuisine ($6.75)
5621 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 467-6775

Pailin also serves a solid bowl of khao soi, but I give the edge to O-Chai for the braised drumstick. And at $6.75, it is the cheapest out of the bunch! The food overall here is excellent and would recommend this place for an overall lunch/dining experience. Owners are super nice as well.

(3) Spicy BBQ Restaurant ($8.95)
5101 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 663-4211

I think most people will go here because it is the only place for khao soi. But as my #3 pick, it’s clear that I have found other places I like more. Spicy BBQ is very good, but I feel the curry is way too thick and rich. But in all fairness, I have come here when the Aunt/owner wasn’t cooking. Her nephew actually made a much lighter curry and it was great. But at $8.95, go to O-Chai or Pailin.

(4) Jitlada Restaurant ($7.95)
5233 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 663-3104

Jitlada has consistently served good food over the years but I’m afraid that khao soi is not their specialty. I think you’ll have better luck with their other 2,189 items on the menu. The curry has the flavor, but the egg noodles were soggy and the portion was dismal. There was simply no love put in this dish.

(5) Wat Dong Moon Lek ($8.49)
4356 Fountain Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 666-5993

This is a hangout for young Thais, but I really never enjoyed their noodles that much. The khao soi here is watery, soggy noodles and just not presented nicely. They have some rice dishes here that are decent though. I wouldn’t bother with WDML.

(*) Bulan Thai Vegetarian Kitchen
4114 Santa Monica Blvd
Silver Lake, CA 90029
(323) 913-1488

There is hope for vegans that want to try this dish. Give it a shot. When you decided to eat meat, go to O-Chai or Pailin.

Thanks for reading. Hope you get to enjoy this amazing dish sooner than later.

Sunday Supper. Thai Boat Noodle Soup Recipe. Kway Tiao Lua: It’s All in the Blood.

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I first fell in love with this noodle dish known as “Thai Boat Noodle soup” after my father introduced it to me back in the 1990s. We ate it at this place, if some of you may remember, Noodle World, which at that time was actually decent. It was the joyous union of two of my favorite noodle soups, Chinese beef noodle soup and Vietnamese pho. From the Chinese beef noodle soup, you have the prominent usage of five spice powder, star anise and cinnamon sticks in a dark soy sauce-tainted broth. From pho, you have the usage of offals such as tripe, liver and stomach and thin, flat rice noodles (banh pho). Then there’s something else in here that puts this noodle dish in a league of its own. For some, this could make or break the dish: beef blood. But don’t close this window just yet, the introduction of animal blood is nothing recent. Centuries ago, maybe even to this day, the French used it to thicken soups and stews like boeuf bourguignon. The Argentines, Paraguayans and Uruguayans use it heavily in their delicious blood sausage, morcilla. This ingredient was almost treated like a “wine” or a “flavor enhancer/thickener”. And I promise you that you wouldn’t even know it was in your bowl of noodles.

Pa Ord’s Chef/Owner Lawan Bhanduram running her noodle shop on a boat.

For those that live in Los Angeles, there are a few places in Thai Town you can taste this delicacy borne on a peddler’s boat in a Thailand river. You’ve got the funky, rich and bold version from Sapp Coffee Shop. There’s a decent, five spice powder-heavy bowl from Ruen Pair that tastes best after a long night of drinking. And then there’s my favorite for the time being, at Pa Ord, which I feel has a nice balance between Sapp and Ruen Pair’s. It’s slightly sour from vinegar, light on the five spice powder and thickened with just the right amount of beef blood. I made this before in the style of Sapp’s but since the opening of Pa Ord nearly two years ago, I wanted to revise the recipe in the style of the now retired Pa Ord chef/owner Lawan Bhanduram. This recipe was developed after talking to people at Pa Ord, Sapp Coffee Shop and the Silom Thai Market in Thaitown and I’m sure they all left out a secret ingredient. So here goes!

Ingredients for Thai Boat Noodle Soup (Kway Tiao Lua). Serves 8-10 noodle enthusiasts.
10-12 quart pot (I used my 13.25 quart pot)
5 lbs. of beef bones (legs and shin bones; oxtail adds good flavor too)
1-2 lbs. of beef shank
1/2 lb. of flank steak
1 pack of Asian beef balls or pork balls
3-4 heaping spoonfuls of Thai noodle soup powder or Chinese Five-Spice powder
4 tablespoons of Thai sweet soy sauce (starting point)
12 tablespoons of Thai light soy sauce (starting point)
Thai seasoning sauce (similar to Asian Maggi)
Edible beef blood
1-2 cinnamon sticks
Handful of star anise
6-8 – 1/2″ slices of galangal
fresh rice noodles (banh pho or wide rice noodles)
3-4 small lumps of rock sugar (to taste)
Salt & white pepper
1-2 Kaffir lime leaves (optional – closer to Sapp style)

Additional TBNS Toppings
Beef tripe (sliced)
Pork liver
Pork blood cubes
Pork stomach
Pig tongue (braised)

Instructions for Thai Boat Noodle Soup (Kway Tiao Lua)
One. Place your bones of choice and beef shank in your cauldron and fill it up to the top with cold water. The reason you start out with cold water versus hot water is to extract maximum flavor out of the bones and flush out all the impurities. If you really want maximum flavor, roast the bones until they are browned, and then boil them – this is what is done for Vietnamese pho. Once the water is boiling, bring it down to medium for another hour. After an hour, you’ll have a nice foamy surprise waiting for you in the cauldron – scoop out everything. Do not pull out the marrow from the leg bones.

Two. Add 3-4 heaping tablespoons of the Thai noodle soup powder, galangal slices and all the spices in. If you can’t find this particular Thai brand, you can use Chinese Five-Spice powder – it’ll be just fine. Add the suggested starting amount of Thai sweet soy sauce and Thai light soy sauce. These soy sauces are not to be confused or replaced with the Chinese versions – they are completely different. The Thai sweet soy sauce is made with fermented soy beans, palm sugar and/or molasses and is known for is subtle sweetness. This is used solely for coloring food and soups. The Thai light soy sauce is much lighter in salinity than Chinese superior soy sauce and is a bit more watery. Definitely do not use Japanese soy sauce as it is very strong on the salinity and nuttiness. In addition to the two Thai soy sauces used, there is also one more that is used to give it a slight sour/vinegar-like taste. If you cannot find Thai seasoning sauce, then you can use a tiny bit of Asian Maggi. But we will use this later on. Due to the large size of the cauldron, you will be using a lot of soy sauce. Boil this for 2.5-3 hours, until the beef shank in the cauldron is tender enough – then take it out and set aside. The bones will remain in the soup for maximum flavor. Also, resist the urge to use fish sauce.

Three. It is 3 hours since you’ve been boiling the broth and now it is time to do the final seasoning and the point in which our bowls of noodles will start to differ. You really don’t need to use the Thai sweet soy sauce anymore, so you can put that away. Season the soup with the Thai light soy sauce until you’re happy and use rock sugar lumps to balance out the salinity. Once that is achieved, you want to use the Thai seasoning sauce or Asian Maggi to add a slight sourness to the soup and double check that the salt is balanced out with sugar. If you want more of the Thai noodle soup powder, add more.

Four. In a large pot, bring some water to a boil and keep on low. Add your beef or pork balls in there and let them soak in the hot tub while you prepare everything else. This pot will be used to boil your noodles so have the noodles ready. The key to making this dish right is boiling the noodles for no more than 5 seconds in boiling water, placing it in a bowl and covering it right away with broth. But rice noodles can only stay firm for so long – serve immediately! You can also use this pot of water to boil any vegetables you may want to add such as Chinese hollow-heart vegetables (also known as Morning Glory) or Chinese broccoli (gai-lan). Another key ingredient here is the fried garlic or shallots that tops off your soup noodles. In a small pan, heat up some oil (vegetable, canola or corn; not olive oil). Add the fried garlic or shallots (or both) into the oil and lightly brown them, careful not to burn the garlic – set aside. For the flank steak, cut thin slices and dip them in the pot of boiling water to your desired doneness and set aside. If you have additional meat toppings, boil/heat them up and set aside for plating.

Five. So now that you have your condiments and toppings ready, it’s time to finish off the broth with… beef blood. In a separate pot, ladle enough soup for service into a separate pot and bring it to a boil. As a general rule, for every serving, use one large tablespoon of beef blood. I like my Thai boat noodle soup on the thicker/richer side so I did two large tablespoons of beef blood per one serving. Ladle enough broth to cover the 3/4 mark of the noodles  and top with white pepper, fried garlic, cilantro and your meats. Enjoy!

I was very happy with the way this turned out and ate two bowls in one sitting. It’s amazing how the blood turns this otherwise, very Chinese noodle dish, into something more special and unique. The ultimate test for me though is to see if my father would approve of it since he ate this growing up in Laos and Thailand. But even if I had the exact recipe as Pa Ord or Sapp Coffee Shop’s, it will never taste the same. And I have a feeling it’s because I’m not serving this delicious noodle dish out of a boat on some river in Thailand. For that reason, look for me on the Los Angeles River haha. Thanks for reading.