Khao Soi Kai - Northern Thai Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken

There is good Thai food, and then there is really, really good Thai food. If you've had the really, really good authentic stuff (Lotus of Siam in Vegas, Pok Pok in Portland and/or New York)  and it made you want to brave taking on the lengthy list of unknown ingredients and invest an entire weekend to pounding chile paste and curry paste in a mortar and pestle, in my book, you're a true lover of Thai food.

This past year, I've finally transitioned from a merely interested party to someone who longs for the true taste of Thai cuisine. I would rather spend days in the kitchen than accept the mediocre offerings of the two local Thai joints in my small town - neither of which offer this quintessential dish: Khao Soi. I'm perfectly fine being labeled a food snob in this regard - in this case, you get out what you put in, and this is not a simple, quick dish.

My first trip to Pok Pok several years ago found me centrally focused on Andy's famous Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. I believe I had a braised pork belly dish which was equally good, but the Khao Soi went completely under my radar. Fast forward to July this past summer and I had my first glorious taste of it at Crushcraft Thai Street Eats in Dallas, TX. Owner Jack Nuchkasem considers the Khao Soi to be one of Crushcraft's signature dishes and I was glad to visit him a second time to prove him right!

I longed for the red curry and coconut based broth, spiked with mind-blowing chile paste, fresh herbs and loaded with both fresh and fried wheat noodles. And waiting on the bottom of the bowl, laughing to itself as my spoon bumped into its bony behind was a chicken thigh (or drumstick - sometimes both if you were lucky). I simply had to learn to make this one-pot wonder of northern Thai goodness.

So I searched for several recipes online and found quite a few, but none of them matched the flavor punch I got from the Khao Soi at Crushcraft.

And suddenly, I had a V8 moment. It's possible I was first in line to download Andy's Pok Pok cookbook when it became available "way" back in October 2013. I'd signed up for it immediately following my first visit to his Portland location in June of that year following my sister's wedding in Seattle. Surely he had a recipe for this delicious dish in his cookbook. He was all things northern Thai for crying out loud.

Indeed he did, but as I scanned through the ingredient list and instructions, my mood quickly shifted from elated to doubtful to depressed. There was no way in HELL I could make this dish! It called for too much bashing about. It called for too many hard-to-source ingredients. It called for me to basically give a damn about the way something tasted when I put it in my mouth is what it did. Andy Ricker, you sweet, sweet bastard ...

Chagrined, I set about to make this dish, start-to-finish, exactly as Andy Richter told me to. And I did.

And you can too, if you want. It won't be easy, it will take more than one day, but it will be worth it. You can take a few shortcuts if you really want and it won't stray too far from what I enjoyed at Crushcraft and Pok Pok, but really, I hope you'll try it in it's entirety the way Andy recommends. You'll be cursing him the same as I did at first, but then you'll be moaning his name over and over as you enjoy the finished dish (sorry, Andy).

As Andy puts it, "Khao Soi is essentially just a bowl of noodles, which is a bit like saying a banh mi is just a sandwich ..." Perhaps that's what I love so much about both Thai and Vietnamese cuisines - simple ingredients that come together in such a harmonious way that there simply isn't anything else like it.

This dish is rich and aromatic, slippery and crunchy with lots of embellishments like pickled mustard greens and fresh shallots that season the bowl. The roasted chile paste adds a simmering heat.

I recommend taking at least two days to make this dish because there are a lot of steps involved. Do not attempt any part of it until you sit down and read the recipe in its entirety from start to finish. Make a game-plan, source your ingredients and prepare for amazement.

I can't wait to put forth the gigantic effort and make this dish all over again.

Khao Soi Kai - Northern Thai Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken

Serves 6 
Difficulty: moderate

Recipe by Andy Ricker from his Pok Pok Cookbook

Roasted Chile Paste (Naam Phrik Phao) Ingredients

  • *The chile paste can be made up to a month in advance. If you search for it, you can find this in Asian markets in jars - there, I've give you your first short-cut if you must take it)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 oz dried Thai chiles (about 1 cup)
  • A small drizzle of Asian sesame oil (look for a brand that is 100% sesame oil)

Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan over low heat until it shimmers. Add the chiles and cook, stirring frequently, until they're evenly dark brown but not black, 10 to 15 minutes. Ideally every chile will be the same color, but you'll inevitably have some that are lighter than others.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a food processor, reserving the oil, and let them cool. Process to a course paste. (Alternatively, you can pound them in a granite mortar.) Stir in just enough of the reserved oil to saturate the paste but not so much that it's swimming in oil. (The consistency should be like that of chunky peanut butter.) Stir in the sesame oil.

You can store the paste in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 6 months.

Curry Paste Ingredients

*You can make this and store it up to one week in advance ... and if you really have to, you can use store-bought red curry paste. That's it - no more shortcut options after this!

  • 1 pod black cardamom (often labeled cha koh, tsao-ko or thao qua)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 14 grams dried Mexican puya chiles (about 8), split open, seeded, and deveined
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 7 grams thinly sliced lemongrass (tender parts only), from about 1 large stalk
  • 1 (7-gram) piece peeled fresh or frozen (not defrosted) galangal, thinly sliced against the grain
  • 1 (14-gram) piece peeled ginger, thinly sliced against the grain
  • 1 ounce peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
  • 4 ounces peeled shallots, thinly sliced against the grain
  • 1 tablespoon shrimp paste

Make the Curry Paste

*The use of a large, granite mortar and pestle is recommended here - it really aids in the bashing about of ingredients and just can't be done with a smaller, smooth mortar. I'll include Andy's recommendations on where to source one at the end of the post.

Use a pestle or heavy pan to lightly whack the cardamom pod to break the shell. Pry it open, take out the seeds, and discard the shell. Combine the cardamom seeds in a small pan with the coriander and cumin, set the pan over low heat, and cook, stirring often, until the spices are very fragrant and the coriander seeds turn a shade or two darker, about 8 minutes. Let the spices cool slightly and pound them in a granite mortar (or grind them in a spice grinder) to a coarse powder. Scoop the powder into a bowl and set aside.

Combine the dried chiles in the mortar with the salt and pound firmly, scraping the mortar and stirring the mixture after about 3 minutes, until you have a fairly fine powder, about 5 minutes. Add the lemongrass and pound until you have a fairly smooth, slightly fibrous paste, about 2 minutes. Do the same with the galangal, then the ginger, then the garlic, and then half of the shallots, fully pounding each ingredient before moving on to the next. Pound in the dried spice mixture, then the rest of the shallots. Finally, pound in the shrimp paste until it's fully incorporated, about 1 minute.

You'll have about 10 tablespoons of paste. You can use it right away, or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months. You'll need 5 tablespoons of paste for 6 bowls of khao soi.

Curry

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon mild Indian curry powder
  • 1/4 cup Thai fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Thai thin soy sauce
  • 3 ounces palm sugar, coarsely chopped (you can substitute brown sugar here if you'd like)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 6 small skin-on legs (about 2 1/2 pounds), separated into thighs and drumsticks
  • 5 cups unsweetened coconut milk (preferably boxed)

Make the Curry

Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot until it shimmers, add 5 tablespoons of the curry paste (that you made above) and the turmeric powder and curry powder, and cook, breaking up the paste, then stirring frequently, until the paste smells very fragrant and looses the smell of the raw garlic and shallots, about 8 minutes. Knowing when it's done takes experience, but as long as you're cooking at a low sizzle, the curry will taste great. Some of the paste might brown and stick to the pot, so occasionally scrape it to make sure it doesn't burn.

Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, and salt to the pot, increase the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often and breaking up the sugar once it softens, until the sugar has more or less fully melted, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken, tossing to coat the meat in the liquid. Cook for about 2 minutes so the chicken can absorb the flavors a bit, then stir in the coconut milk.

Increase the heat to medium high. Bring the liquid to a simmer (don't let it boil!), then decrease the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the meat comes easily from the bone but isn't falling off, about 45 minutes. You'll see droplets or even a layer of red oil on the surface. This is good. The broth will taste fairly salty and intense. Keep in mind that it will dilute slightly after you add the coconut cream later. You can keep the curry warm on the stove for up to 3 hours or in the fridge for up to 3 days. It'll get even better as the flavors meld and the meat soaks up some of the curry.) Bring it to a very gentle simmer right before serving to make sure the chicken is heated through.

To Finish the Dish

Vegetable oil for deep frying

1 pound fresh or defrosted frozen uncooked thin, flat Chinese wheat noodles (sometimes called wonton noodles)

1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut cream (preferably boxed), gently warmed

To Serve Alongside

About 1 cup drained, chopped (into bite-sized pieces) Thai pickled mustard greens, soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained well (I've sourced these online and at Asian grocery stores)

About 1 cup small wedges of peeled shallots, preferably Asian

6 small lime wedges (preferably from Key limes)

About 1 cup very coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed

Naam Phrik Phao (the Roasted Chile Paste you made earlier) - use caution here. I am a hot-head and I love heat and spice, but this chile paste is not to be underestimated. Start with just a little bit, then add if you desire more heat. You can always add more but you can't take it back once it's in the bowl :)

Finish the Dish

Pour enough oil into a wide medium pot to reach a depth of 2 inches and set the pot over medium-high heat. Heat the oil to 350-degrees (or test the temperature by dropping a piece of noodle into the oil; it should turn golden brown in 20 seconds). Put 3 ounces of the noodles on a plate and gently toss them so there are no clumps. Fry them in 6 portions, turning over the nest of noodles once, just until the noodles are golden brown and crunchy, 20 to 45 seconds per batch. Transfer them to paper towels to drain. You can let them cool and store them for a day or two in an airtight container kept in a dry, cool place (not in the fridge).

When you're ready to serve the curry, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the remaining noodles and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the noodles are fully tender (you're not going for al dente here, but not mushy either), 2 to 3 minutes. Drain them well and divide them equally among 6 bowls.

To each bowl, add a thigh and drumstick, ladle on about 1 cup of the curry, spoon on 1/4 cup of the warm coconut cream, and top with a nest of fried noodles. Serve the bowls with a plate of pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime wedges, and cilantro; a bowl of the chile paste; and a bottle of fish sauce. Season your bowl and stir well before you dig in!