Food & Culture

Anatomy of a dish: khao soi

What's in Chiang Mai's famous dish?

By Harriet Davidson
This bowl of spicy, salty, sweet and sour goodness is one of the signature dishes of Chiang Mai. But did it originate from Thailand? Is it Burmese? Or from further afield still? It's certainly seen in the provinces of Myanmar, and the Burmese dish "ohn no khao swè" translates to "coconut milk noodles". The use of dried spices to form the base, however, lends weight to the idea that the dish has Muslim roots. The particulars of the curry paste, the noodles, the protein and condiments varies widely, even in Chiang Mai itself, but the dish's defining features are the laksa-like curry soup and the use of the same type of noodles in the soup, fried crisp as a garnish.
1. Curry broth
Rich, creamy and spicy, this soup base has it all going on. Layers of flavour come from a curry paste of fresh turmeric, ginger, garlic, coriander roots and chillies, with fish sauce and sweet grated palm sugar to even out the fire. Spices such as coriander, cumin and fennel seeds are dry-roasted and ground into a powder before being added to the paste, which enhances the coconut milk. The ingredients and style may differ but balance is what you want here.
2. Meat
Chicken on the bone adds to the layers of flavour – typically drumsticks or Marylands, simmered in the soup until the meat falls off the bone. Beef and pork can also be used but are far less common options than chicken.
3. Noodles
This dish is known for its pleasing contrast of noodles – both in the soup, and fried as a nest piled on top. Fresh egg noodles are the go-to but rice noodles are also seen.
4. Condiments
Zesty toppings brighten up the soup. Pickled mustard greens are a staple, adding a sweet-sour tang, while slices of red onion, cucumber and pickled ginger add a fresh contrast. To serve, sprinkle over coriander leaves and add a squeeze of lime.
Where to find one
Sydney-favourite Chat Thai serves up a fast and fiery khao soi with smoked chilli oil, while in Brisbane, Longtime does a share-style version topped with crisp egg sheets.