Khao Soi – Northern Thai Curry
Guys, I’ve been holding out on you. I have been trying to perfect my at home Khao Soi recipe for the past three years. And about a month ago, I did it.
First, I have to find some way to convey to you my deep love for Khao Soi. And I guess before that I have to explain to you what it is.
Let me back way up here and take you on a bit of a tangent for a minute. When I was in high school and part of French club, we were planning our first ever trip to France. My French teacher told us a story about scent tying viscerally to memory. She recommended we bring something with us to France that was fragrant (perfume being the most obvious example) and to only smell that thing while we were in France.
Then she told us to hold on to that thing and to bring it out later, only in small doses, whenever we wanted to be reminded of France. That scent would only be connected to the time we spent in France and would have transportive abilities.
She was completely right. I now have a “France perfume” that I wear any time I’m traveling there. I brought a bottle before I left to go study in France, before I went to teach there, and every time I’ve been back. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has the ability to knock me straight back to Paris as smelling this perfume.
Khao Soi is my France perfume.
Not literally of course. Let me explain.
Khao Soi is a type of Thai curry. You will find it everywhere in Northern Thailand. But it’s not like regular Thai curry. It’s been heavily influenced by the Burmese people to Thailand’s north, has different spices, and is made with egg noodles instead of rice noodles. Khao Soi is almost exclusively in this part of the country, and it’s not frequently represented on Thai menus internationally.
This means Khao Soi, and all its glorious smells and tastes, are ubiquitously available in Thailand. But as soon as you step out, it disappears. No more Khao Soi. And so the taste creates a connection with the place.
Much like the perfume in France, the scent throws you back – to that time, to that place, to that feeling. I can’t unlink Khao Soi with Thailand, and I also don’t want to.
So, what is Khao Soi?
Khao Soi is a type of Thai curry. It starts off at its base with a regular red or yellow Thai curry paste. Then it gets extra layers of flavor with spices like cardamom, coriander, and nutmeg. Then it gets a sinful creaminess from coconut milk. And finally, you have the egg noodles.
Khao Soi always has two different types of egg noodles, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. You have soft, boiled egg noodles swimming in the curry broth, but you also must have fried, crispy egg noodles in tangled nests to top the bowl. The textural contrast is a dream.
The main protein in this Northern Thai curry is chicken, and for my best recreation I used chicken thighs. The garnishes – as with almost any dish I’ve eat in Southeast Asia – make the meal. Pickled mustard greens, raw shallots, and fresh herbs and chilis are all commonplace on Thai tables when eating Khao Soi.
The only Khao Soi I’ve ever been able to find at Thai restaurants in the US has been Lao Khao Soi. Khao Soi from Laos is not at all Khao Soi from Thailand. It’s made with rice noodles, ground pork, and tomatoes and has no crispy fried egg noodles or coconut milk.
So now you understand what Khao Soi is and why I love it so much. Let’s talk through making it, and why this recipe I’m sharing today has been so different from the other versions I’ve tried recreating.
Khao Soi: The Keys to Success
We tend to have a bias that is homemade = better. While I would argue this is true in a lot of cases, it’s definitely not true in all cases. And curry paste is exactly one of those exceptions.
I have tried very hard to make homemade Khao Soi curry paste. I’ve sought out Thai ingredients from Asian markets, I’ve tried making curry paste in the blender, and I’ve even pounded out a paste using my mortar and pestle alone (which is traditional in Thailand but a LOT of work).
The results have been fine, but they haven’t been worth the effort for the close-but-not-quite renditions of Khao Soi I’ve been able to make. But this time, I cracked the code. It goes like this:
- Start with store bought red curry paste. I used Arroy D brand for this recipe and had great success. Compared to other curry pastes it has cumin and coriander which I wanted extra of for this recipe
- Add in spices that take this from traditional red curry to Northern Thai Coconut Thai Curry – those are coriander, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg and allspice. Investing in some good mild or Madras curry powder will give you many, if not all, of these ingredients
- Get yourself some palm sugar. I normally use dark brown sugar as a substitute because I can only find palm sugar in Asian markets (and I’m all about making this blog and its recipes accessible for YOU guys). Brown sugar works, but my most successful rendition was made with palm sugar.
- Use coconut cream AND coconut milk. Shout out to Pups with Chopsticks for this brilliant idea. I think the coconut milk in Thailand being fresher might impact the texture, because all the versions I’ve tried with canned coconut milk alone haven’t had the signature silky texture I remember from Thailand. The version with coconut cream brought me back in an instant.
Making Khao Soi
The most labor intensive part of making Khao Soi is preparing the fried egg noodles. It’s not difficult it’s just an extra step to plan for and an extra dish to clean. But it’s a labor of love, because those puffed and crispy egg noodles make this dish the star that it is.
Make sure you’re using fresh egg noodles and not dried egg noodles otherwise you won’t get the same result. Asian grocery stores tend to have fresh egg noodles, and you should absolutely make a trip to buy these.
Pro Tip: These fried egg noodles make a crazy addictive and delicious snack when sprinkled with salt and chili powder while they’re still hot after cooking
Every time we had Khao Soi in Thailand it was with chicken, and since I was going for exact replication I used chicken here as well. But in all honesty, it’s not the star. If you’re vegetarian you could easily omit it and be just fine.
I sear the chicken thighs in the pot I’m cooking the curry in for maximum flavor then remove them. The curry paste and spices bloom in the same oil that was used to brown the chicken, so you get all those crispy flavor bombs incorporated into the soup.
These spices – their combination – this is the star of Khao Soi. You start with good red curry paste and determine if it’s worthy based by reading the ingredients. Ingredients should include red chili peppers, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, galangal, garlic, and shallot at a minimum. Try to find a curry paste that has other spices like coriander seeds and cumin. Arroy D and Maesri are both brands I’ve used with great success.
In addition to the curry paste, you’ll add curry powder. Again, read the ingredients to judge the curry powder’s worthiness. Seek out a mild curry powder or Madras curry powder and make sure it has coriander, fenugreek, cumin, ginger, and allspice.
I couldn’t find a curry powder with cardamom or nutmeg in it so ended up adding my own cardamom and nutmeg to the spice mix. I used the Indo-European Mild Curry Powder for this recipe.
The broth for Kha Soi is – in a word – luxurious. It’s so rich and creamy and overflowing with flavor. The Khao Soi broth is made by adding coconut cream and coconut milk (both unsweetened) to the curry paste and spices that have been bloomed by cooking them in oil for a few minutes.
After you mix the spices with the coconut milk and cream you add palm sugar, which gives a flavorful sweetness to the Khao Soi. It’s all finished with a healthy squeeze of fresh lime juice. It’s the perfect balance of salty, sweet, sour, spicy.
The soup is the masterpiece and the garnishes are the final finishing touches. I beg you to try some of the pickled mustard greens. It sounds like a strange addition, but when it’s all put together with the soup, it just works. Raw shallots, sliced chilis, and lime wedges are also commonplace so you can customize the spice and sourness to your liking.
All of the garnishes sit on top of the crispy fried egg noodles just waiting for their plunge into the Khao Soi.
I’m happy just talking about it.
Khao Soi – Northern Thai Curry
Khao Soi is a Northern Thai Coconut Curry and is absolutely brimming with flavor. Both soft and crispy fried egg noodles provide a textural contrast that makes this recipe a knockout.
For the crispy egg noodles:
- 4 oz fresh egg noodles
- ¾ cup vegetable oil
- 1 tsp salt
For the Khao Soi:
- 12 oz fresh egg noodles
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs cut in 2-3 inch pieces
- 1 tbsp finely chopped lemongrass white part only and tough exterior leaves removed
- 2 ½ tbsp red curry paste
- 1 tbsp mild curry powder
- ½ tsp ground cardamom
- ½ tsp ground coriander
- ½ tsp fresh grated nutmeg or 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 14.5 oz can unsweetened coconut cream
- ½ 14.5 oz can unsweetened coconut milk half the solids and half the liquid if separated
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 2 tbsp palm sugar
- ½ tbsp lime juice
For the garnishes:
- 1 shallot thinly sliced
- ½ cup chopped pickled mustard greens
- ½ bunch cilantro leaves roughly chopped
- 2 limes quartered
For the Crispy Egg Noodles
Heat the 3/4 cup vegetable oil in a large pot or wok over medium heat. Touch the tip of a chopstick to the oil and when it bubbles, the oil is hot enough.
Add the fresh egg noodles to the hot oil and use chopsticks to separate and turn the noodles so they fry evenly
Remove from oil and place on a paper towel lined plate when they are golden brown – about 5 minutes. Sprinkle immediately with salt and toss to coat.
For the Khao Soi
Heat a large dutch oven over medium high heat and add 3 tbsp vegetable oil
Season the chicken with salt and pepper and add to the pot. Brown for 6-7 minutes and remove using a slotted spoon. Set aside.
Reduce heat to medium low and add additional oil if needed. Add the lemongrass to the pot and saute for 2-3 minutes
Add the red curry paste, curry powder, ground cardamom, ground coriander, and nutmeg to the pot and stir to cook the spices. Allow to bloom 1-2 minutes but do not let the spices burn
Add the coconut cream and coconut milk to the pot and stir to incorporate the spice blend with the liquid
Add chicken stock, browned chicken, palm sugar, and lime juice and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer covered for 5 -10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked all the way through and tender.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the uncooked egg noodles and cook according to package instructions
To Serve and Garnish
To serve, add boiled egg noodles to individual bowls and ladle soup and chicken over the top
Add crispy egg noodles to the top of each bowl and sprinkle with fresh cilantro
Place shallots, pickled mustard greens, cilantro, and lime quarters in bowls and allow each person to add to their own bowl of Khao Soi to their liking