In my childhood hometown in New Jersey, the Italian-American deli you frequented – to buy your sandwich – made with crusty bread, just-pulled mozzarella and a mountain of roast beef or salami – said a lot about who you were. In Chiang Mai, the northern capital of Thailand, an old moated city of wooden temples and small-town friendliness, I’ve discovered that where one takes a certain type of noodles can be just as expressive a life decision. I’m thinking first and foremost about khao sawy, made with noodles and curry, which is probably this city’s signature noodle dish.
Khao sawy can be found in just about every section of town. All one has to do is look for the signature noodles – cartoonish squiggles made from egg and wheat, often sitting limp and steamed, fried and crisp in the windows of vendors. History, as is often the case with edibles here, can be tasted in every bowl. Khao sawy is Chiang Mai history in a blue plastic bowl. Its origins, as such, are up for debate among food scholars. Some say it is a dish that originated from Shan culture, an ethnic group with strongholds throughout the Northern reaches of SE Asia, and sure enough there is a similar dish called hkauk swe in Myanmar. Others point to the Yunnanese ties of khao sawy — turmeric and other un-Shan spices, Muslim dietary practice in the ban of pork — and indeed two of the better khao sawy places in Chiang Mai are where the Yunnanese mule caravans used to stop while descending from trade routes through China.In all cases, khao sawy consists of a curry-based broth, usually chicken, traffic-jam busy with steamed noodles, topped with fried ones, served with a chicken leg afloat in the middle. Condiments, which say a lot about one’s taste, of pickled vegetables, chili jam, lime, and onions are provided for flavor adjustment.
Early in October, I went on a khao sawy odyssey to see just who made a version to which I could commit my lunchtime allegiance. I started on Soi Islam, near the Ban Haw Mosque, and found tuk-tuks and trishaws had replaced the old mule caravans. This is a sleepy little block despite the fact that it is but yards from Chiang Mai’s vaunted night bazaar. I took my khao sawy in one of the two restaurants there. It came in a small bowl and was stained yellow-brown thanks to the Yunnanese Muslim addition of turmeric. Even with the addition of chili jam, the Soi Islam khao sawy was most easily identified by a round flavor that emphasized sweet spiciness.
Second stop was a small, Thai-Chinese-owned noodle shop on Thanon Intrawarorot, inside the old city, and within view of several stupas. I walked past fish ball, coconut cream custard, fruit, and Vietnamese soup vendors to reach the place. Once there, I was greeted by a bevy of smiling women, ornate as some of the temples in their flowered aprons, and was hurried to a table. I snuck a taste of the chili jam – here heavily roasted and superlatively good – as I waited for my noodles. This khao sawy was served in big blue plastic bowls with fine braised chicken legs (the Thai at times want for proportion) and had more dimension than the Yunnanese version. It wasn’t naturally spicy, perhaps a nod to the Shan, yet with a dose of chili jam managed to be hot-spicy and curry-sweet in very pleasant proportions. I washed it down with naam cha, watered down tea provided free at tables.
My final destination involved going above and beyond the basic local transport budget of 10 baht (about 18 cents American) for a ride in a covered pick-up. Getting to Faham, a leafy suburb named after its main road, involved a near-exorbitant tuk-tuk ride of 35 baht. But Thanon Faham, as the driver’s nod of purpose would reveal, is known for a reason – and that is khao sawy. Some six shops in a half-mile radius sell the same dish. But this is a thoroughly Thai part of town. The walls of Lam Duan show their patriotism with some two dozen photos of King Bhumibol on their walls. The setting inside an old house, with antique wooden tables and a yard outside, lent the place a touch of suburban mellowness. Lam Duan’s khao sawy is the most Thai in its presentation. Again the big blue plastic bowls. Copious amounts of pork or chicken, whole and shredded, are part of the package. When condiments are added, the Thai talent for blending hot, sour, salty and sweet is irresistible. I force myself to sip, slowly, my plum juice (elderflower with honey is another option) to savor the dish. Lunch tomorrow won’t come quickly enough.
Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur, East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications
around the world.
Photo: Phra That Doi Suthep Temple