Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Charms of Chiang Mai

I have a new favorite Thai dish. I'd thought I'd tried them all, but when you travel to the source something new is bound to present itself. The dish is Khao Soy (or Khao Sawy), a straightforward blend of red curry, noodles and chicken. But like everything delicious, the simplicity hides something satisfyingly complex.

I discovered Khao Soy through my new Bangkok-based friend Linnea (of the banana and cheese ice cream expedition), who suggested that while in Chaiang Mai I try the local specialty, Khao Soy. She also said she is especially fond of the "crunchy noodles on top." Crunchy noodles? In Thai food? I was intrigued.

Chiang Mai is a small but significant city in Northern Thailand. It is a highlight on the tourist trail, so like the rest of the country (in my experience, at least) it is overrun with foreigners. But the locals are friendly, the temples are magnificent, and the food is delicious. The old city, which is enclosed by a moat and still has portions of the ancient city walls, is small enough that a tourist like myself can walk for hours and discover hidden nooks removed from the hustle and bustle of the tourist districts.

Ancient Wall at Tapae Gate

Buddha at Wat Pho

Chiang Mai also boasts the best collection of used bookstores that I've seen in Southeast Asia. There are cafes offering organic food and free Wi-Fi, a bustling night market and rugged trekking in the surrounding mountains. It's the kind of place that Thailand is famous for, and deservedly so.

I spent my first morning wandering around town, gazing at gilded wats and contemplating the universe in front of golden Buddhas. I particularly enjoyed browsing in a shop called Noah's Ark, which sells an eclectic range of "T-Shirts, Music and Whatnot." The owner, a smiling young Thai with a taste for the exotic, put on a CD of jazz-tinged pop from South Africa and both of us bounced to the beat. I bought a T-shirt, partly because I wanted one but mostly because I wanted to support this affable entrepreneur.

Wall at Noah's Ark

When lunchtime rolled around, I stopped by a restaurant that looked promising and asked the owner is she served Khao Soy. To tell the truth, I was more concerned about my impending state of dehydration, but that was quickly remedied with a tall glass of watermelon juice and a bottle of extra-fizzy soda water. (The Thais make an excellent soda water.)

I didn't know what I was expecting from Khao Soy, perhaps just another curry-based dish. But it's so much more. Instead of a thin base of curry covering the main ingredients, Khao Soy is a more like a soup, a self-contained dish served in one big bowl. Another surprise, perhaps the biggest for me, was that in a land of rice noodles, Khao Soy used flat yellow egg noodles. There's a hint of fettuccine in the blend of egg noodles and creamy curry. There was also a moment of Proust-like sense memory when I tasted the egg noodles - kugel came to mind, and everything associated with the dish. The Kaho Soy was indeed topped with "crunchy noodles," very similar to what you'd be served in a Chinese restaurant.

Khao Soy

Spicy curry, slippery egg noodles and crispy noodle topping - I have a new favorite Thai dish. I liked it so much that that same night I decided to go out in search of another bowl. I didn't know where to go, so approached a tuk-tuk driver and asked him to take me to someplace local, where Thais would go for Khao Soy. He promised me that he understood and we took off.

He took me somewhere local only in that it is within the Chiang Mai city limits. He didn't take me to a stall where a grandmother sweats over a wok, or every a storefront emitting the scent of steaming vats of curry. No, he took me to a place called "Just Khao Soy," a theme-restaurant where everything is in English and the prices are triple what you'd pay anywhere else. According to Lonely Planet, however, Just Khao Soy "lives up to it's name by serving nothing but the local specialty. This is the grand, gourmet version."

I stood outside Just Khao Soy debating whether to go in. I was angry at myself for not being more specific with the tuk-tuk driver. I should know by now that one of the rules of travel is that locals assume you want to go places where you will be comfortable, where you will be among your own kind and language differences will not be an obstacle to enjoying yourself.

This was not the kind of experience I was looking for. Still, in my quest to experience culture both high and low, I decided to check it out. Which was mistake number two. Another rule of travel is that the locals always assume you cannot handle the spiciness of the cuisine. Thai food is often rated according to the number of chilies in a dish. If the Thais eat Pad Kra Prow with eight chilies, they will serve it to you with one or two. Just Khao Soy offered its signature dish in three levels of spiciness, mild, medium of spicy. I asked if spicy meant spicy and was told it did. So I ordered it medium. Mistake number three.

What came to the table was a bland imitation of the Khoa Soy from lunch. Luckily, this gourmet version was served with an array of condiments -- coconut cream to thicken the broth, fish sauce to add saltiness, bananas to sooth the taste buds, pickles and shallots for crunch, and chili paste for burn. I add a healthy dollop of chili paste and was satisfied with the heat level.

Nothing beats authenticity. Vegas New York will never be New York, New York. The Matterhorn at Disneyland cannot compete with the mountain itself. And Just Khao Soy will never live up to the standards set by a nondescript restaurant somewhere in the heart of Chiang Mai.

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Blogger K Collins said...

Mmmmmmmmm, noodle soup!

4:25 AM  

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