Fresh noodles for khao soi at Suthasinee
I'd wager that ninety-eight percent of the travelers to Chiang Mai who try khao soi fall hard, very hard for the dish.
What's not to love? You've got chewy noodles, curry, coconut milk. Comforting soup with a crispy deep-fried noodle garnish. Crunchy pickles to add or not. A choice of chicken, beef, or pork. All of the flavors that define Thai food for so many -- coconuty sweetness, salty pickle, spicy nam prik paow, tartness from a squeeze of lime juice -- in one bowl.
The thing is, within the pantheon of northern Thai dishes khao soi is an anomoly. The region's cooler climate and relatively high elevations aren't particularly coconut palm-friendly. Yes, at Chiang Mai's Muang Mai market you can watch hatchet-wielding women hack away at coconut tree trunks till they're reduced to nothing but tender half meter-long hearts that will find their way into local kitchens. But those trunks are trucked up from Sukhothai.
I wondered how it is that a dish with such a lengthy history (khao soi's been around for at least sixty years) could depend on an ingredient -- coconut milk -- that can't have been in bountiful supply when the dish first appeared on the scene. And I wondered if I could uncover new information about khao soi's origins.
Khao soi is generally attributed to the Cin Haw, Chinese Muslim traders from Yunnan who plied a trade route through what is now northern Burma, Thailand, and Laos in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Some settled outside of Yunnan along the way -- a fair number chose in Chiang Mai, where they established a village (Baan Haw - baan means 'village' in Thai) and built a mosque near the Ping River. (If you're in Chiang Mai on a Friday head to the morning market across the street from the mosque for a selection of excellent street foods.)
It's been speculated that Cin Haw brought with them from Burma ohn-no-kyaukswe, a coconut milk-based noodle soup, and adapted it to the local taste for heat by adding copious amounts of chili.
Yet etymology suggests Shan origins -- there is an identically-named (khao soi simply means 'rice, cut') dish in the Shan repertoire that incorporates rice instead of egg noodles and is coconut milk free.
I'd heard somewhere that Chiang Mai khao soi was originally made with rice rather than egg noodles.
Might Cin Haw have brought the Shan dish with them to Chiang Mai, where some enterprising cook (Cin Haw or northern Thai) substituted egg for rice noodles and added coconut milk, chilies, and a heap of dried spices to the mix?
In Chiang Mai we hooked up with our friend Wilaiwan; a Chiang Mai native, she's a medical researcher by day and oral historian and avid culinary explorer in her off hours. She took to our quest like a fish to water, leading us first to venerated Khao Soi Lamduan, where we downed several bowls of khao soi (I am partial to the shop's non-halal version, topped with fabulously tender deep-fried cubes of pork) and sat down for a chat with Naree Mahadilok. Khun Naree learned to make the dish from her mother-in-law, who's own mother founded Lamduan as an outdoor stall in a longan garden across the Ping River from its current location.
As Khun Naree understands it, her grandmother-in-law learned to make khao soi when she was about 14 years old by observing a Cin Haw khao soi vendor. (This would have been during World War II, Khun Naree says.)
The Cin Haw vendor used rice noodles that he tinted yellow with turmeric, but she substituted egg noodles. Lamduan's khao soi is made with 'Indian' curry powder that was once blended and ground in-house but is now purchased outside.
Unfortunately Khun Naree couldn't tell us is whether or not the original Lamduan recipe included coconut milk and chilies and spices or not.
Two generations of noodle makers at Khao Soi Islam
We moved on to Khao Soi Islam, a halal khao soi institution located near the Baan Haw mosque founded all those years ago by Cin Haw traders. There we spoke with Wanida Lertpunwilaikhun (right, above), whose mother and father opened the shop 'forty or fifty' years ago
Khun Wanida's father, who would be 101 years old if he were alive today, was a Cin Haw from Kunming. She'd never really thought much about the dish's origins, she admits, and supposes it might have been brought from Burma ... or not.
The family has always made their own noodles for their khao soi, and they've used egg noodles from the start.
"I think my father and mother learned how to make the dish from another seller ... maybe my aunt, who sold khao soi before they did."
Khao Soi Islam's khao soi, topped with a spoonful of Chinese-style chili oil
(An aside: the chili sauce that accompanies Khao Soi Islam's version is not the sweet-hot nam prik paow served by most other khao soi purveyors, but Chinese-style la jiao, sandy-textured dried chili flakes in oil.)
At Khun Wanida's suggestion we moved on -- after another bowl of khao soi -- to an older Muslim khao soi restaurant called Suthasinee. And here the story got a bit more interesting.
Suthasinee's husband-and-wife owners
Sawat Phettongkam and his wife (above) inherited Suthasinee from her father, who in turn took over the business from his own father. Khun Sawat's grandfather-in-law was a Yunnanese Muslim who, as a young man, lived for a while in Burma (in the vicinity of Mae Sae, thinks Khun Sawat), and then migrated to Thailand, staying a while in Chiang Rai before finally settling in Chiang Mai.
"When he was alive I asked him all about his life," Khun Sawat told us. "I was interested, I wanted to know everything."
This is what Khun Sawat's grandfather-in-law told him:
His migration from Burma to Thailand was on foot, and he carried with him a food he'd learned to make in Burma: bpa-bpa soi: rice that was ground, cooked, pressed into a cake, and dried. From the cake he could cut strips or 'noodles' to add to soup that he made from foraged plants and wild game.
After he arrived in Chiang Mai he began selling clear soup with bpa-bpa soi from a shoulder pole. His son (Khun Sawat's father-in-law) set up a shop to sell the specialty. After the son married a local girl they experimented with chilies and spice, at some point added coconut milk to the soup, and switched from rice noodles to egg noodles, which they made themselves. (Suthasinee's khao soi still features housemade noodles.)
"I'm not claiming Suthasinee was the first" to add coconut milk and spices to khao soi, says Khun Sawat. He has no idea which shop or seller was the first. He's also not sure who was the first to substitute egg noodles for rice.
Suthasinee's beef khao soi
Coincidentally, later that week we found ourselves at Chiang Mai's Wat Pa Pao, a Shan Burmese temple opposite the north side of the Old City's wall.
It was a festival day and several stalls were dishing up Shan specialties, including kao soi -- which consists of a delicious coconut-free tomato and pork-based sauce dished over pea shoots and rice noodles
that are shaved, or cut, from a big block of ground, cooked, and pressed rice (they're fantastic by the way, very chewy and bursting with rice flavor).
Is this what Khun Phettongkam's grandfather-in-law might have carried with him from Burma? Might Lamduan's original owner have learned to make khao soi from him? Or from his son?
When I returned home I contacted the Shan Cultural Association in London, hoping to ring a bell with bpa-bpa soi. How nicely things would have fallen into place if a Shan, any Shan, were familiar with the term.
No luck (in fact no one I talked to anywhere in northern Thailand following our investigations in Chiang Mai had heard of bpa-bpa soi), though a representative of the SCA did describe a noodle-making process identical to that which Khun Pettongkam described, the process that results in the pressed rice block pictured above.
Some sources suggest that coconut milk was an ingredient in khao soi before chilies and other dried spices were. Wilaiwan led us to a 70-year-old Chiang Mai resident called Hia Jiw (hia being a Chinese word for 'brother') who said that he used to eat a version of khao soi sold at Lam Yai market when he was 15 years old; it consisted of egg noodles in a thin, ginger-and-coconut milk broth with just a little chili oil, but no dried spices.
So maybe the coconut milk came first. Nai Haang Jan Baan, an eighty-year-old Indian-Thai spice merchant in Chiang Mai, relayed that as far as he knows none of his customers were purchasing dried spices for khao soi until 30 or so years ago. (There are, of course, other sources for dried spices in Chiang Mai.)
Some credit a certain Lung Pan (lung means 'uncle') with being the first to add coconut milk to the dish. He who took over a Chiang Mai khao soi business from a Cin Haw during World War II and set up a shop called Kao Soi Wat Chang Kong, which is unfortunately no more. This suggests that at least one early Cin Haw version was coconut milk-free.
The original owner of Lamduan claims to have added coconut milk to please the palates of the Bangkok-native government officials stationed in Chiang Mai, also suggesting that her original version was coconut milk-free. But we'll probably never know if she was the first.
The bottom line?
After several days on the ground connecting with a lot of folks with stories to tell, we're still not sure how Chiang Ma'si khao soi got to be Chiang Mai-style khao soi. But it was a fun, if frustrating, pursuit.