Thai Street Food - yes please!
Thai food, it's one of my favourite cuisines and when it's done well, the balance of flavours play around on your tastebuds like a symphony performance.
I've been travelling back and forth to Thailand for over 25 years now and wow hasn't it changed, like everything I suppose. The photo below was taken in 2004 from an over- pass in central Bangkok. Still amazes me today when I look back at this image, as I saw this probably 80 year old woman still determined to walk down the same street (well almost) selling her steamy bowls of noodles, regardless of the changing 8 lane freeway that it now was. Traditions never die!
With those earlier years, there were a few hard and fast rules to be learnt - when tucking into a 'traditional style' spicy hot and sour Tom Yum Soup for the first time, know that it's not for the faint hearted. My eyes watered down my bright red face for what seemed days afterwards.
Street food is so amazing now, but way back then, some of it was a bit dodge. Think lengthy return flight from Bangkok to Sydney, a belly full of who knows what and an aeroplane bathroom, eek! Aside from some of those lessons learned, it's where I was introduced to the art of balancing flavours and textures in a dish, so if you are offered some salad and herby freshness for the top of your curry or soup, trust that your vendor knows what they are on about. The extra burst of aromatics and textures will really take your dish to a whole new level.
The Khao Soi Experience
It's one dish that has won the gong in my eyes as my most memorable Thailand food moment and it was actually from my last visit. We first found it at a little shaded roadside food stall whilst on a bike ride through the beautiful countryside of Chiang Mai. There was nothing else in sight except a little rickety wooden roofed shed, but our local biking friends swore by it. While we smiled politely and brushed the running bugs from our sneakers, I had to admit the BKK>SDY flight memories were looming. After a bit of swirling with some rusty old utensils and a little chat to the 'chef' we were good to go! Out came a bowl of bright yellow liquid with a totally frightening, anaemic and slightly yellow tinged, chicken leg protruding from the middle. A sweat instantly poured from my brow as I graciously smiled to the chef and wondered how many toilets there were going to be before we arrived back into town - prediction, none! After an exchange of nervous smiles with my husband, the first tentative mouthful and a chomp on the pasty chicken leg, it was quite simply, the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. Let's just say, it was an anxious next 6 hours though, but once we passed the threshold there was no turning back, we were on the hunt for the Khao Soi Holy Grail and had another 7 days to try as many as we could get our hands on.
I have searched high and low for a replica of this soupy Northern Thailand curry dish and my favourite recipe is this one I will share with you today, which has slightly been tweaked from a recipe I found in Bon Appétit Magazine by Ravin Nakjaroen a Thailand born chef from Long Grain, Camden USA. All in all it is actually very simple to prepare so don't be overwhelmed by the ingredients, they are all readily available. Make sure you check out the tips below which will give you some even speedier ways to prep this dish in no time.
This dish is in the soup category (it's the lesser known cousin of the Malaysian Laksa), but certainly an all year round dish which can be eaten shared with friends, or more traditionally, just kept all to yourself!!! It's at it's best 1-2 days later as like all good soups and curries, time is where the flavours develop.
Chicken Khao Soi
Ingredients (serves 4)
For the Paste
4 large dried chillies, sliced in half lengthways
2 medium shallots, halved (we also know them as eschalots, the small brown onions)
8 garlic cloves
5cm piece of ginger, peeled and roughly sliced
1/4 cup fresh coriander stems and roots
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp curry powder
For the Soup
2 tbsp canola oil
2 400ml tins of coconut milk
2 cups salt reduced chicken stock
chicken thigh fillets, chopped into quarters
450g dried Chinese egg noodles
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp firmly packed palm sugar
For the Garnish (important in this dish)
Sliced red onion, bean sprouts, coriander sprigs, crispy fried onions/shallots, chilli oil and lime wedges.
Place chillies in a small heatproof bowl and add boiling water to cover. Soak for 30 minutes or until softened. Drain, reserving soaking liquid.
Using a small blender (or to be totally true to the recipe, a mortar and pestle), add chilli, remaining paste ingredients and 2 tbsp of the soaking liquid. Blend adding more liquid a tablespoon at a time if necessary, until smooth.
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add paste and cook stirring constantly for 4-6 mins or until slightly darker in colour. Add coconut milk and stock and bring it to a boil. Add chicken, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until just cooked for 20-25 minutes.
While chicken is cooking, cook dry egg noodles according to packet instructions.
Add fish sauce and sugar to soup and stir to combine. Taste soup now and adjust with the fish sauce and sugar to your liking. Divide cooked noodles among 4 large soup bowls, ladle soup and equals amounts of chicken between bowls, top with all the garnishes and serve with a wedge of lime.
Like any of these 'base' pastes, why not make double or even triple and freeze extra portions for next time you need a soup/curry in a hurry!
Whole dried chillies are available from Asian supermarkets.
If you can find really young ginger at your green grocer (the skin will look almost translucent), you won't need to peel it.
I was taught many years ago at a cooking school in Thailand that the stems of the coriander are actually where the flavour is held. Thai's usually use the leaves as a garnish only for us Westerners! Go figure, all that flavour you have been throwing out for all those years! I actually scrub the roots as well and throw them in too, all the more the merrier.
Careful with your fish sauce as different brands often change in flavour. This is where you will need to add a table spoon at a time and taste in-between to make sure you have the balance just as you like it. It will add the salty component to your dish so go slow with it as it's hard to turn back. I use 'Squid' brand which is readily available in most supermarkets.
If you don't have palm sugar you can use light brown sugar. Palm is slightly less sweet than the brown sugar so again, adjust the recipe to your taste as you go.
Crispy fried onions are available in the Asian section of most supermarkets these days. They are a staple in our household and give a really great textural lift to many dishes.
It's IMPORTANT not to miss the garnish on this dish. As I mentioned earlier it's the freshness and varying textures of this garnish that really enhance and balance the dish. Give it a go and you'll be garnishing every dish you eat - your morning cereal will never be the same again. Hahah!
If you have any spare limes around, an extra squeeze over the soup is also really worthwhile.
I'm working on two new Thai classes at the moment, so the test kitchen is in full swing. Keep your eyes peeled, start gathering your friends and we will hope to see you very soon.
LOVE YOUR FOOD MOMENTS... ENYOY!