In the north of Thailand, far from flashing Bangkok alleys sizzling with Pad Thai, Chiang Mai holds its own gems. It feels earthier here; the mountains sprout from the horizon and the people bustle in slow motion. It’s meaty. Carnal. Khao Soi is the gritty, oily wonder that has found a home in translations throughout the city. It’s best kept in the places that stew it in vats, or post a three item menu behind a shoddy display. It’s meant to be brewed, not cooked, and devoured, day after day.
Egg noodles nestle in a spicy broth, rich with chicken or pork. The flavor conjures images of simmering sauces, pots that are black with age. The base can be compared to a Massaman curry, bubbling with an exhaustive list of spices: shallot, garlic, lemongrass, lime, turmeric, ginger, coriander, cardamom, and cilantro.
Despite the stature of the haggard women that walk the final product to the table, the spices have surely been pulverized behind cracked glass in a pok pok, releasing their flavor compounds. Only then is the shrimp paste added and the curry can soak into the chicken with the addition of fatty coconut milk and a splash of water. The chicken fat and spices will pool when they cool, creating a broth as flavorful as it is photogenic.
The noodles are added upon completion, both boiled and fried, taken from the Chinese style. The intensity makes you feel whole, bubbly enough to slurp while the fat sits on the tongue and reminds you of the overwhelming sense of life in this place.
The tables are almost always matted aluminum. The only prints are your own; they condense as soon as your fingers graze the flatness. Neat stacks of utensils line the walls with hodge podge collections of spoons and chopsticks. Perhaps what defines not only Khao Soi, but Chiang Mai as an entity, are the piles of condiments that lie next to these utilities.
Last on the plate are the lime wedge, shallots, pickled mustard green, and spicy chilies. You’re free to squeeze some juice in your drink or dab a tear duct with glistening capsaicin. You can drown the dish or add lightness. The diner becomes a collaborator for a dish that defines a city.