• Get schooled on this classic northern Thai dish. (Yasmin Noone)
Here’s how to tell whether the coconut-curry noodle soup on offer at your local Thai eatery is the real deal or not.
Yasmin Noone

18 May 2018 - 2:24 PM  UPDATED 18 May 2018 - 2:05 PM

One of the most culturally enhancing perks of international travel is the chance to discover foreign dishes – famed in their own local community, yet culinary rarities here in Australia.

Khao soi, a coconut curry-based noodle dish hailing from the north of Thailand, may not be the most popular dish on Thai takeaway menus across Australia, but it's a favourite among locals living in the mountainous region of Chiang Mai.

Mistakenly referred to by some Thai restaurants Down Under as a ‘curry laksa’, an authentic khao soi – topped with a crispy noodle hallmark garnish – is confident in its northern Thai distinctiveness.

Get the recipe for khao soi here
Khao soi (Chiang Mai coconut curry noodle soup)

Mistakenly referred to by some as a ‘curry laksa’, an authentic khao soi is made with egg noodles and topped with a crispy noodle garnish.

For a start, unlike a southern Thai or Malaysian laksa, khao soi uses fish sauce. Some recipes include cumin and a batch of other spices, while others feature a pre-made Thai curry paste that’s similar to the one underlying a red curry. But all authentic versions of this popular northern dish use egg noodles.

It’s in this one ingredient – the humble egg noodle – that we can see the unique origins of the dish. In Chiang Mai, local chefs and home cooks use ‘Islam egg noodles’ (also called ‘khao soi noodle’) over traditional egg noodles in the soup.

At a local market, Akyra Manor Chiang Mai's executive chef Phubase Chuprakong points out a thin package of egg noodles, adorned with Arabic writing.

“The egg noodle we use here in the north of Thailand is more elastic than the standard egg noodle,” says Chuprakong, who runs cooking courses at Italics, the hotel's flagship restaurant. “But if someone in Australia uses egg noodle to make their khao soi, it won’t be a problem.”

Chuprakong tells SBS that khao soi is actually of Chinese-Muslim influence: “khao soi is a dish that mixes the curry from Muslim [culture] with the noodles from the Chinese,” he says.

One version of history dictates that khao soi first came to Chiang Mai when Chinese Muslims (Yunnanese Muslims) moved to the north of Thailand and lived in Chiang Mai in the late 19th or early 20th century.

Khao soi is a dish that mixes the curry from Muslim culture with the noodles from the Chinese.

“Before then, the local soup was a clear soup, but after the Chinese Muslims came here, they added coconut milk and spices to the soup. And now the local soup, khao soi, is a creamy soup that you traditionally serve with chicken. Although, you can also serve it with beef, pork or tofu.”

Meanwhile, a local host in Chiang Mai tells me that khao soi descends from neighbouring Myanmar, bearing similarities to the Burmese egg noodle dish, khao swè, which she once had at a Myanmar official’s residence. There’s one big difference between the two dishes, however: some khao swè variations contain congealed pig blood, which all authentic khao soi recipes should omit.

Mistakenly referred to by some Thai restaurants Down Under as a ‘curry laksa’, an authentic khao soi – topped with a crispy noodle hallmark garnish – is confident in its northern Thai distinctiveness.

“Myanmar is not far from Chiang Mai,” she tells SBS. In fact, it’s only around four hours' drive. “So it makes sense that it came over the border into northern Thailand from Burma.”

No matter the origins of the dish, all authentic variations of khao soi should provide a spicy kick. “It tastes like a red or green curry, but it’s a soup and has more spice added to it,” says Chuprakong.

Featured in the curry paste base are dried chilli, turmeric, cumin, coriander root, ginger, shallot, turmeric and cardamom. Coconut milk is added to the paste once it has been fried, to create a slightly oily, thick and creamy soup. A sweet element is added to the soup base via the fish sauce and palm sugar, along with a spray of soy sauce for saltiness.

“We add khao soi noodle to the khao soi curry, and serve it with chicken that we’ve first poached in milk and brought to the grill. Then we top the dish with deep fried khao soi noodle and serve it with lime, pickled cabbage and coriander," she says. “It’s just a very good combination.”

Where can you get a good khao soi in Australia?

  • Chat Thai, Shop 1, Lower Ground, The Galeries, 500 George Street, Sydney, NSW

“Most people come in and ask for laksa as they don’t really know about khao soi,” says Phod Borisud, head chef at Chat Thai at The Galeries.

“Maybe another place uses tom yum and coconut milk and calls it Thai laksa. That’s the easy way. But at Chat Thai, we make traditional khao soi. It should taste spicy, salty, sweet and sour.

“I use it making my own chilli paste for because we do real Thai street food here. We also use fresh chicken wings, which we cook on a slow heat so that when you bite into it, the chicken almost melts in your mouth.”


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Chicken noodle curry (khao soi)

"I’ve sampled all varieties of curries in Bangkok, but this noodle curry, originating from Chiang Mai, has to be one of my favourites. This recipe uses Thai curry powder – a fragrant blend of ground pepper, cloves, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel, chilli flakes, turmeric and ginger, available from spice shops and Asian markets." Luke Nguyen, Luke Nguyen's Street Food Asia