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Discovering Chiang Mai's famous Khao Soi

This dish is so good, I usually ate the entire thing before realizing I had forgotten to take a photo.
Jeana Shandraw

Chiang Mai Curry Noodles, also known as Khao Soi, is a popular lunch meal found mainly in northern Thailand. This spicy noodle soup usually consists of a bowl of egg noodles and a chicken leg covered in a soupy mild coconut curry, topped with crispy noodles, lime, shallots and pickled cabbage.

Originally a Burmese dish, Khao Soi literally means 'cut rice' in Thai. This refers to the way the dough for the rice noodles is steamed on a cloth over boiling water and then rolled and cut with scissors. Some street vendors and specialty noodles houses still use this method, but most Thai eateries now use egg noodles.

The funny thing about this dish is the fact that it's base consists of coconut milk. If you know anything of Thailand's climate you would know it's not exactly conductive to growing coconut trees, yet the ingredient is widely used in many recipes. So how did Chiang Mai become so well known for it's Khao Soi?

It's believed that when Chinese Muslim traders from Yunnan traveled through trade routes along Burma, Thailand and Laos in the 19th centuries, a few of them settled in Chiang Mai. With them, they brought the traditional Burmese dish ohn-no-kyaukswe, a coconut milk-based noodle soup. They made this dish more friendly to the locals by adding heat with chilis and other traditional Thai flavors.

There are other theories as to it's origins, but using a few entomology clues and given the fact that the dish can be so vastly different from one restaurant to the next - some offering meats such as pork or frog instead of chicken; others using traditional rice noodles; and still others varying the amount of heat and variety of spices - I found the theory of the dish originating from Burma and adapted for local Thai's the most plausible explanation. You could order the dish from one place and find it nothing more than a coconut curry soup and turn around the next day and be completely intrigued by the flavors with each sip.

Ranging in price from 40 Thai Baht (just over $1 USD) to 170 Thai Baht (about $5.60 USD), you'll find Khao Soi being sold in restaurants and also by numerous street vendors throughout Chiang Mai. For a truly memorable tasting bowl, try the street vendors just outside Wat Phra Singh, under the red umbrellas. Simmering in large clay pots, the various layers of flavor and spice filling the air are difficult to pass by.

Another great spot that is close to the center of town is a veritable "hole in the wall" restaurant whose entire menu consists of 4 soups, with Khai Soi being menu item #1. An elderly woman carefully makes noodles on a large chopping block and stirs the fragrant curry from a make-shift setup, at the front of the shop, lining the sidewalk. At only 40 Thai Baht (about $1.30 USD), you can reach this restaurant by traveling from the corner of Chang Klan Road and Loi Kroh road north along Loi Kroh Road about one and a half blocks. On the same side of the street as Starbucks, you'll know you're close once you pass 7/11.

Follow Jeana's travel adventures on her blog, Surf and Sunshine.