Hearty Noodles with Curry Sauce Combine Thai, Burmese and Chinese Flavors
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Everybody likes noodles, me included. I grew up on them, for breakfast, lunch, snack and, occasionally, dinner. They come in various types of strands – long, medium length, and short – and even in flat squares, circles, and rectangles that curl up into cylindrical tubes when boiled. Some of the strands are wide and chewy, some round and slippery, while others are thin, like angel hair, and silky.
Most are made from rice starch, since dozens of varieties of this grain grow naturally and abundantly in the moist, humid climate of tropical Southeast Asia where I grew up. But in a region of the world that has seen much movement of ethnic peoples and goods in migration and trade over the centuries, there are also those made from mung bean, sweet potato, arrowroot, and tapioca starches, as well as wheat flour and eggs.
Even more varied than the numerous kinds of noodles are the almost countless ways of cooking, seasoning and serving them. Though most are consumed as one-dish meals – complete with accompaniments of herbs, vegetables and some kind of protein such as pork, chicken or seafood – some are made into sweet snacks, savory appetizers and even creamy desserts, while others are tossed into soups, spicy salads and other savory dishes served as part of a multi-course meal along with rice. Most of the year when the Southeast Asian climate is hot, the general preference is for noodle dishes that are light and easy to digest, such as those cooked in clear bone broths, tossed lightly with seasonings and blanched vegetables, or quickly stir-fried. During the cooler months of the year and in the mountainous regions swept by the cold northerly winds of winter, heartier ways of preparation become popular, such as those that smother the noodles with rich meat stews, or drown them with rich coconut milk-based broths.
One of my favorites has origins in the northern region of Thailand – a complete meal in itself, very heart- and tummy-warming on those cold mornings that require sufficient fueling for tackling the tasks of the day, very satisfying for lunch when energies need to be replenished for the second half of the day, and comforting on those cool evenings before going out to mingle with lively crowds shopping at the night bazaars.
Called kao soi locally, it is frequently translated as "Chiang Mai-style curry noodles" (Chiang Mai is northern Thailand's largest city), though it is served throughout most of the northern region. To many English-speaking foreign visitors curious about trying local cuisine, this rich noodle dish with contrasting textures and flavors and a very likable, mildly spicy curry broth quickly becomes the subject of a consuming culinary love affair.
The delicious kao soi owes its complexity to mixed Shan Burmese and Yunnanese Muslim origins. Shan settlers were brought in to occupy the region when Burma took control of this part of Siam and ruled it for over 200 years, starting the middle of the sixteenth century. The Yunnanese Chinese, on the other hand, traversed this part of Southeast Asia since as early as the fifteenth century, in horse-back caravans engaged in transporting spices and other commodities between China and the Indian Ocean ports of western Burma, Their religious orientation is Islam, owing to the mass conversions brought about by the Mongol invasion of Yunnan in the thirteenth century. Because of the equestrian nature of their caravans, Thai people call them "jeen haw" – literally "galloping Chinese."
Born of a mixture of these influences and combining Shan, Yunnanese, Muslim and local northern Thai flavors and styles of cooking, kao soi is perhaps one of the ultimate "fusion" foods to be savored in northern Thailand. And it seems to keep changing, as different cooks add their own secret touches, though the main characteristics of the dish remain intact– a contrast of the soft and chewy texture of boiled wheat-based egg noodles with the crunchy texture of crisp-fried noodles, in a rich and spicy coconut milk curry broth, cooked with either chicken or beef, and served with the accompaniments of fresh shallot chunks, chopped pickled mustard greens, fresh lime wedges, and a thick dark paste of crushed dried red chilies fried in oil.
What distinguishes one noodle shop's kao soi from another's lies mostly in the flavor of the curry broth. The best successfully accomplishes an intricate blending of roasted dried spices, reminiscent of those used in Indian cooking, with fresh herbs.
I personally love a version that combines the delicate, yet complex, flavors of fresh turmeric with a pronounced flavor of roasted cardamoms. But if you aren't able to find fresh turmeric at your local Southeast Asian or Indian market, substitute with the freshly ground dried rhizome – use one-third the amount in the dried form. But of course, the result will not be quite as delectable as the fresh rhizome itself. I avoid the pre-ground turmeric powder because it can leave an acrid, medicinal after-taste in the mouth.
As for cardamoms, the kind used in Southeast Asian cooking is small and round and looks sort of like a large chickpea (garbanzo bean). Its strawlike hull is brittle and, when popped open, reveals a crinkled, dark gray, aromatic seed case, which, actually, is made up of dozens of tiny blackish seeds compressed together and held by a grayish membrane. If you aren't able to find this kind of cardamom, substitute with the large, hard cardamom seed used in Indian cooking – roast entire seed until very aromatic and lightly charred before grinding and use one teaspoon for this recipe. As with most curries made with coconut milk, the flavors of kao soi curry sauce improves with a little bit of aging to allow the full range of flavors of the herbs and spices to marry and emerge through the veil of the rich, creamy coconut milk. So make it at least a few hours ahead of time; better yet, a day or two in advance.
As for the noodles themselves, I use the large round strands of fresh Chinese egg noodles for making the crispy noodle part of kao soi; when fried, they sort of remind me of Chungking crispy noodles but, of course, taste much, much fresher. As for the soft noodle part of the dish, my preference is to use the 1/4-inch-wide, flat egg noodles, which yield a smooth, velvety texture and a non-starchy taste when boiled. Look for them in pound-size packages in the refrigerated section of Asian markets that carry an assortment of fresh noodles.
Especially in the winter, but anytime of year really, I like to make a big pot of the curry sauce to have on hand in the refrigerator, so that I can quickly whip up a hearty bowl of kao soi whenever I feel the need for comforting food that is both very satisfying and nutritious. Contrary to popular belief, the coconut milk in the curry sauce is a health food (as are the fresh herbs and spices) and is regarded as medicine among traditional naturopathic doctors in Southeast Asia, as well as in India, where it plays an important role in the age-old Ayurvedic medicine.
Among the beneficial short- and medium-chain fatty acids that coconut milk richly contains is the very potent, anti-microbial lauric acid, which gives our immune system a boost and helps ward of the flu and other viruses that can make us ill during this vulnerable time of year. It is one of nature's best antiseptics and is found abundantly in only one other natural food source – mother's milk, known also to be very beneficial to the infant's immune system. Coconut has gotten a bad rap in America due to powerful political and economic interests, but the truth about its nourishing qualities is finally beginning to be unburied; for more information, check out our article on coconut.
In the meantime, do as I do and make yourself a big pot of this curry sauce (Curry Noodle Recipe) and stay healthy during any season. The curry sauce gets better and better each time it is heated and stays good for at least a week in the fridge. The crispy noodles and other accompaniments can also be prepared ahead of time and stored either in a zippered bag in a cool place in your pantry, or in sealed containers in the fridge.
In Lampang, Thailand? You can get Kao Soi at a great Lampang Noodle Shop.