Some might say that Yuwat Khuwimon is one of the best Thai chefs in Sydney. His Haymarket restaurant, Show Neua, is regularly packed (as much as a restaurant can be these days) and is famous in Sydney’s Thai community for being one of the few examples of good northern Thai cuisine in Sydney.
But tell all that to an 11-year-old Khuwimon in the 2000s and he’d be pretty disappointed with how his life turned out. Back then, Khuwimon’s mum had just opened a small stall outside her house in Chiang Mai. She'd been working as an accountant in the city, but quit to spend 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, serving northern Thai street food: a lot of noodles, fried rice and the Chiang Mai special, khao soi, a noodle soup based on coconut milk, a reddy-orange curry paste, egg noodles and some kind of meat – usually chicken or beef, but back when Khuwimon was a kid, buffalo.
At least that’s how young Khuwimon saw it. He noticed his mum coming home every day in nice business clothes and couldn’t understand why she’d want to give that up to wear an apron and work in a kitchen. Like the kids in family businesses the world over, Khuwimon was enrolled to help: cleaning dishes, setting up tables, even cooking pad krapow – the only dish he says, to this day, he could ever make better than his mum.
Khuwimon didn’t want to do any of that. He was an 11-year-old boy. All he wanted to do on weekends and after school was play football with all the other kids. Maybe one day, he could even play professionally.
That’s not how life turned out – he ended up with another kid’s dream, working as a pro singer. After finishing his schooling, Khuwimon joined a cover band and ended up playing rock songs all over the country. He says they were pretty successful – they didn't have mansions, record deals and groupies, but they were good enough to earn good money and have a bloody good time.
He noticed his mum coming home everyday in nice business clothes and couldn’t understand why she’d want to give that up to wear an apron and work in a kitchen.
In a way, it was too good. Khuwimon describes a world of drugs, late nights, women and very little responsibility. So, after ten years of singing in pubs and discotheques, he quit cold turkey. He wanted to have a family – and the music scene, he thought, was no place to start. He did the only other thing he knew how to do well: cook.
His first foray was at the Chiang Mai night markets. He ran a simple stall selling just barbecued pork intestines with a basic seafood sauce he’d created with his mum’s help – just chilli, garlic, coriander, palm sugar, salt and good quality fish sauce. It must have been delicious because his simple stall was soon selling 2000 intestine skewers a night, netting Khuwimon $400AUD or so a night. “It was the sauce,” he explains.
With the money he was making, he would have been happy doing that for years, but the markets got canned by the landlords and Khuwimon moved into the restaurant industry, selling his intestines alongside Isaan food (the cuisine of Thailand’s north-east) on a popular restaurant strip. He didn’t have any training cooking Isaan food, but that didn’t seem to matter either – after a slow opening, his restaurant became very popular. There was no point cooking northern food he says, because everyone already did that in their homes. Eventually, one of his regulars, one Khuwimon describes as a trustworthy and wealthy man, suggested to Khuwimon that he’d be better off cooking in Australia. "There are great opportunities there and you can make great money," the old man said.
It must have been delicious because his simple stall was soon selling 2000 intestine skewers a night, netting Khuwimon $400AUD or so a night.
That’s how we get back to the beginning of this story. Khuwimon was a talented northern Thai chef working in a city completely dominated by central or Bangkok-style Thai food. There were simply no opportunities for Khuwimon to cook the cuisine of his home town. But one day, he produced a staff meal at a Thai hot pot restaurant run by Pitt Yimsiri – he made khao soi. “Every week, my mother and father would have a day off on Sunday. My family loves noodles, we would make noodles every Sunday. [Things like] khanom jeen and khao soi,” says Khuwimon.
Yimsiri, also a northerner, was taken by this. He already knew Khuwimon was a great chef from working with him, but now Khuwimon and Yimsiri had a chance to show Sydney the cuisine of their home town. Khuwimon currently makes khao soi, Chiang Mai street food and his OG street-stall pad krapao almost every day at Show Neua. His northern customers regularly come into the kitchen just to say, "thank you, this food reminds me of home." His 11-year-old self may not be happy with this future, but today’s Khuwimon certainly is.
Yuwat Khuwimon’s khao soi
Serves 1 – 2 people
- Shallots, to garnish
- 1 lime
- Pickled mustard leaves, to garnish
- Vegetable oil
- 150 g khao soi curry paste, see note
- 1 tbsp curry powder
- 1 ½ cups coconut milk (Khuwimon recommends the Chaokoh brand)
- 5 cups chicken broth (or meat stock)
- 3 chicken drumsticks (or an equivalent amount of beef or buffalo)
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 200 g - 400 g egg noodles (you'll need 200 g noodles per person you're cooking for)
1. Thinly slice your shallots, quarter the lime and roughly chop the pickles. Set aside.
2. Heat your wok over low to medium heat and add a little vegetable oil. Add the curry paste and curry powder, mix and stir until fragrant.
3. Add the coconut milk and stir until the coconut milk boils and then lower the heat to a simmer. Add the broth and then the chicken. Simmer until the chicken becomes soft, about 35 minutes. When the chicken is soft, add the palm sugar and fish sauce, taste and add more sugar and sauce if needed. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting.
4. Divide the noodles in two. With one portion, blanch the noodles for two minutes and set aside. Deep-fry the remaining noodles until they are golden and crispy. Put the blanched noodles into a bowl (or divide the noodles into two bowls if serving two people) and ladle the soup on top. Garnish the bowl with the fried noodles and serve with the shallots, lime and pickles on the side. Add these in as you like.
Note: if you want to use a paste, Khuwimon recommends the Mae Ploy brand. Otherwise combine the following ingredients in a food processor or a mortar and pestle (the food processor may be more convenient, but the mortar and pestle produce better results). Gather 4-5 dried chillies (seeds removed and soaked in clean water for 10 – 15 minutes), 4-5 thin slices of galangal, 4-5 long red chillies, 1 tablespoon of ground coriander seeds, 1 teaspoon of ground cumin, a stalk of chopped lemongrass, the zest of one makrut lime, 5 red shallots and 1 tablespoon of curry powder. Grind or blend all the ingredients in your food processor or mortar and pestle, until they have been thoroughly combined and emulsified.
Yuwat Khuwimon’s pad krapao
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 egg
- 1 tbsp chilli and garlic, pounded together in a mortar and pestle or blended in a food processor
- 100 g ground pork
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 30 g basil leaves
- Steamed rice, to serve
1. In a wok or non-stick pan over medium-high heat, heat half the oil. Fry your egg until crispy on the bottom and set aside.
2. In the same wok, heat the remaining oil over medium-high heat. Add the chilli and garlic paste and stir fry until aromatic. Add the ground pork and stir until cooked through. Add the sugar and the sauces and mix well. Add basil leaves and stir-fry for a final five seconds.
3. Serve with steamed rice and the fried egg.
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