Khao soi — a fragrant and fiery coconut curry and noodle soup served with fermented pickles, fresh shallots and a dollop of crushed, roasted chilies — is not indigenous to Chiang Mai, but that doesn’t stop the Thai city from laying claim to it.
Khao soi is believed to have originated among Chinese Muslim communities in southern China. The dish crossed the border into Myanmar, where Shan communities adapted the recipe oh no khao swe. Like the original dish, the Shan version uses rice noodles — in fact, khao swe means “cut rice”. Northern Thailand got its first taste of the noodle curry around the 19th century, and the dish adapted yet again. Handmade boiled egg noodles replaced rice noodles, and local red curry paste gave the coconut base a spicy kick. With its piquant and hearty flavours and quick preparation, Chiang Mai khao soi quickly took off as the city’s go-to breakfast and lunch dish.
A typical bowl starts with a pile of hand-cut, boiled egg noodles. A light, creamy coconut and red curry paste broth is ladled on top, along with your choice of stewed chicken or beef (because of its roots, pork is rarely used). The bowl is garnished with fried egg noodles and accompanied by small plates of pickled onions, fresh shallots, lime and roasted chillies.
Cruising the city in search of the best bowl is a pastime among locals and visitors alike. We’ve rounded up six of our favorites (one for every day of your weeklong Chiang Mai holiday), but we also recommend you be adventurous — this dish is always evolving, and the best bowls are often in low-profile, humble, family-run spots.