It's own homegrown cuisine is one of Thailand's hottest exports; these days it's hard to find a sizeable city in the world that doesn't boast at least one Thai restaurant. Yet much of what's known as 'Thai food' is in reality the food of only two regions, the central plains and Isaan, in the country's northeast. From the former come well-known dishes like gaeng kiaow wan gai (mild and 'sweet' green curry with chicken), tom yam gong (spicy and sour shrimp soup), miang kham (snacks rolled in 'betel' leaves), various fresh lime juice-dressed yam (salads), and Chinese-influenced noodle stir-fries. Grilled chicken and searingly spicy favorites like somtam (pounded green papaya salad), nya nam tok (grilled beef salad with ground toasted rice), and laab (chopped meat or fish 'salad') hail from the latter.
There is one dish, of neither central plains nor Isaan origin, that has become - both within Thailand and beyond - an intrinsic part of the Thai gastronomic vernacular: kao soi. This humble yet exquisite curried egg noodle, served all over northern Thailand but most often associated with the city of Chiang Mai, is in fact not originally Thai, but a Burmese dish adapted by Thais and influenced by their contact with Cin Haw, Muslim Chinese traders from the province of Yunnan.
Descendants of Uzbek warriors brought by the Mongols to China to help with the conquest of Yunnan province, Cin Haw became the consumate traders of the Golden Triangle, pushing, with their heavily armed mule caravans, as far south as Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang (Lao), and Moulmein (Burma). Those that remained in a subdued Yunnan assimilated over time, dropping their Turkic language in favor of the Yunnanese dialect. Han Chinese called them 'Hui' to distinguish them from non-Muslim Chinese ('Cin Haw' are the Thai words for 'Chinese Hui').
In the mid-19th century, in response to Chinese Qing government's systematic oppression of Muslims, a large part of Yunnan province broke away to form the independent kingdom of Ping Nan Guo ('Kingdom of Southern Peace'). When the rebellion was put down by the Qing, and followed by government supported massacres of Hui, many Cin Haw fled to Burma, Lao and Thailand. Some of the latter settled in Chiang Mai, in Cin Haw Village, now the site of the city's night bazaar.
Burmese food is heavily influenced by India, its neighbor to the west, and the Burmese origins of kao soi are evident in the Indian spices, such as turmeric and coriander seeds, in its curry paste. Kao soi may have migrated directly from Burma to Thailand via the countries' shared border, or it might have been brought to Thailand by Cin Haw plying the Golden Triangle trade route. It's said that in its original Thai incarnation kao soi was made with rice noodles. If that's the case then the golden egg noodles now so integral to the dish are likely a result of Chinese influence.
Kao soi shops and vendors are liberally sprinkled about Chiang Mai's streets; we set out to find a stellar version. Inquiries pointed us in one direction, to a plain shop with a faded sign smack dab on the busy road that runs along the east bank of the Ping River.
Lamduan Kaosoi has been a Chiang Mai fixture for over half a decade. The shop's original owner (the operation is still family-run) has the distinction of having prepared her noodle for the Thai King whenever he stayed at the Royal Palace on nearby Doi Suthep Mountain. Our guesthouse owner, a Chiang Mai native, fondly remembers eating kao soi here as a boy.
The always crowded restaurant, divided into indoor (but fan-cooled) and metal sheeting-roofed outdoor dining areas, is fronted by prep and cook stations. At one side of the entrance a coal jockey tends to wooden skewers of pork sate, while just opposite, a long narrow table serves as the kao soi assembly line.
Lamduan's staff work at a brisk pace - portioning cooked noodles into bowls, adding meat (choice of pork or chicken) and curry, and finally a garnish of deep-fried egg noodles (see top photo) - to fulfill the orders that never seem to stop coming.
The wait for an order of kao soi can be up twenty-five minutes (observation told us that most patrons order two bowls at one go). Luckily, ravenous diners can keep themselves occupied with sate (lightly charred, tender slabs of turmeric-scented pork secured on skewers with a single, squared-off piece of gristle; the dipping sauce, while full-on peanuty and correctly light on sugar, is superfluous),
sai oua (grilled, smoky pork sausage redolent of lemongrass, galangal, cumin, and turmeric - spicy enough to warrant a chaser of the fresh Thai basil it shares a plate with),
or naem maw, a sour fermented 'sausage' of pork, pork rind, cooked sticky rice, salt, garlic, and chili. After the ingredients are mixed together, they're pressed into a earthenware pot and left to stand for three days before they're shaped into pyramids and wrapped in banana leaves.
Those who've jockeyed for a table, managed to flag down a waitress, and endured the wait are rewarded with a tableau almost too lovely to eat: yellow noodles and chunks of tender pork (or chicken drumstick) half-submerged in deep red curry, its surface brightened by a stark white drizzle of coconut cream.
Appearance gives a clue as to Lamduan's popularity: the deep red of the curry suggests that coconut milk is not the primary ingredient of this kao soi, which is rich with chili, spice, and herbs (but not fiery) rather than cloyingly fatty with coconut milk. The prevalence of curry paste over coconut is further evidenced by the barely visible, powdery red ring clinging to the sides of the bowl.
A quick comparison with a version dished up on the other side of the river, near the night bazaar, is instructive.
Note the golden hue of the chicken curry in this bowl, served at Kao Soi Islam, and the tiny globules of coconut cream clinging to its sides. In this kao soi - tasty enough, by the way, to warrant a sampling if you're in the neighborhood - spice takes a back seat to coconut. The curry is yummy, but not particularly distinctive. It's no match for Lamduan's.
Sweetness is not a hallmark of Lamduan's kao soi - another plus (and a real contrast to most overseas versions). Eaten with the traditional condiments of (clockwise from top) sour and salty pickled mustard, roasted chili sauce, a squeeze of lime, and sliced raw shallots, this substantial dish satisfies but doesn't overwhelm, making two bowls a definate, delicious possibility.
Lamduan Kaosoi, Faharm Road, Chiang Mai. 8am-4pm. 2 bowls of kaosoi (one pork, one chicken), a bottle of water, and 10 sticks of sate for 85 baht (that's barely over 2 US dollars, folks).
Kaosoi Islam, soi between Chang Klan and Charoen Prathet Roads, Charoen Prathet entrance kittykorner to the Governor's Residence at Nawarat Bridge. Hours similar to Lamduan's.