Khao Soi By Any Other Name

Travelling through Thailand, Spencer Humiston stops to translate a local menu into English

I’m supposed to be translating his menu, but intead I’m listening to how this stooped man’s shop came to serve Khao Soi, the best noodle dish Thailand has to offer. He smiles, even while he talks, and I’m pulled into to a story of love and adventure.

There aren't many English-speaking tourists who pass through Chiang Rai, but the ones who do surely end up scratching their heads at some of the attempted translations of the local dishes. Khao Soi is ubiquitous in northern Thailand and Myanmar, and, while even a mediocre version of it is still better than most anything else you’ll eat, a masterfully prepared bowl will change the way you view Thai cooking. The dish is essentially a spicy coconut-milk based soup containing either beef or chicken and served over thin egg noodles. The eater does most of the flavoring since tables in most Khao Soi restaurants contain bowls of limes, pickled vegetables and fresh cut onions. Good Khao Soi restaurants prepare the entire dish in house from start-to-finish, even pickling the vegetables themselves.

As the old man (who could be 75 as easily as he could be 120) rolls out the dough for the noodles and claps the rice flour from his hands, I know I am in for a treat of dish — one toward the perception-changing end of the spectrum. According to him — and he is the owner/cook/waiter/cashier of the establishment — his great-grandfather founded the very restaurant we’re sitting in 95 years ago.

The Khao Soi-maker’s great-grandfather was a member of a Muslim ethnic group from Yunnan China that the Thai called Ciin Haw (loosely translated as “the galloping chinese”). The Ciin Haw were a nomadic group whose heavily armoured caravans were responsible for most of the trade in the Golden Triangle for hundreds of years. On a trading trip to Chiang Rai, which is now Thailand’s northernmost province, the great grandpa met and fell in love with his great grandma and gave up the galloping lifestyle of the nomadic trader. He opened a shop, but soon realized the recipe for Khao Soi that he brought with him from Yunnan could be more lucrative than anything he sold in his shop. And so it began.

I’m assured the recipe and even some of the tables and stools haven’t changed since the first bowl of Khao Soi was served. I suspend my disbelief and the claim seems plausible as the shopkeeper rattles through childhood stories spent in this very restaurant, that except for the sound of an occasional puttering motorcycle, feels like it belongs to a different time and place.

I finish one bowl and then a second. He tells me my translation will be for the new English menu he wants to hang on the wall so tourists will know he has the best Khao Soi in Chiang Rai. I think for a while about how to decribe the dish in English, but come up empty. Eventually I settle on “Khao Soi.” He seems disappointed, but I tell him it will work. Just tell everyone your story.

-Spencer Humiston, reporting from Thailand, which he is cannonball-running by motorcycle.