Let me set the scene. It’s blustery and cold, misty, drizzly, and raw, and I had a big hankering for a spicy late Thai lunch with R, who was in town piddling around at the studio; something about cleaning and re-taping the mats, although I’m not sure what that really means. I was really wanting some khao soi, but we were both starving, so we needed a couple of more dishes. We went to Burnet, since I figured that Sap might be there, and I wanted to wish him a Happy Holidays, but unfortunately, he was at Westgate. I should have called first.
Mulberry paper umbrellas, from Bo Sang, just east of Chiang Mai....Sap's signature ceiling
I decided to start with Yum Green Bean with Tofu, S-S5. Yum Tua Kieow is a variation of a famous Thai salad which uses a vegetable called winged beans (tua puu or Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), a tropical green bean pod native to New Guinea, with four winged edges and a taste like a sweet, chewy green bean. In cross section they resemble a frilled, green I-beam. The beauty of the winged bean is that all parts of the plant are edible: tubers, stems, leaves, flowers, beans, and seeds, and why it isn’t grown and sold here remains a horticultural mystery. Since winged beans are difficult to locate on a consistent basis, green beans or long beans are often substituted to make this salad here in the States. In Thailand winged beans are sliced very thinly, while, to make the salad over here, green beans or long beans are lightly blanched and cut into bite sized pieces. The salad plate always has thin slices of hardboiled egg arranged around the sides, and is usually made with shrimp, shredded chicken meat, or fried tofu tossed with the beans. The shrimp or chicken is lightly simmered with lemongrass, lime, and honey, while the wonderfully balanced dressing is made from tamarind, palm sugar, roasted shredded coconut meat, fish sauce, peanuts, and a bit of roasted chile paste. We ordered it with tofu, which meant that the cubes of fried tofu were braised in the dressing, intensely flavoring what can be a bland protein. The dish is garnished with coconut cream, fried shallot, toasted coconut, and whole fried red chiles. If you have never had this dish, it should definitely be on your short list of Thai salads to eat, because it is fantastic. It is crunchy, rich, sweet, tart, and spicy. R had never eaten it before, and it’s now her new favorite.
Sap's Green Bean Salad with Tofu
Winged bean salad (center), at a great little riverside cafe in Bangkok, across from Wat Arun
Actual winged beans, whole and cross section, image from the catalog of mylestartseeds.com
The one dish that I knew I wanted when I came in through the door was Kao Soi with Chicken, S-P15. Khao soi is one of those dishes that you fall in love with the first time you try it. The history is long and involved, but at the heart of it, khao soi is a dish that is uniquely Thai, born from several imports and morphed by Thai cooks into a soup noodle mutant infinitely better than any of its parents. It started up in Northern Thailand, and spread nationwide (although the experts insist that any version not made in Chiang Mai is at best, an inferior poser). They have not ordered khao soi at Sap's.
The dish was introduced by ‘Cin-Haw' (Chin-Haw) Muslim traders from Yunnan. Han Chinese called the Cin-Haw ‘Hui' to distinguish them from non-Muslim Chinese; ‘Cin Haw' are the Thai words for ‘Chinese Hui'. The Cin were originally descendants of Uzbek warriors who were brought by the Mongols into China to help with the conquest of Yunnan province. They were known as consummate traders, who for hundreds of years regularly plied their heavily armed mule caravans over the trade routes from Southern China into Laos, Northern Thailand, and, eventually Burma. The Cin-Haw population in Northern Thailand and Burma further increased after the failed Panthay Rebellion - an uprising against the Yunanese Qing Dynasty, which caused refugees to flee Yunnan.
Several factors reinforce this Cin-Haw likelihood. There is a somewhat similar dish eaten in Burma, known there as ohn no khauk-hswe (khauk-hswe, which is phonetically pronounced similar to khao soi, and simply means ‘noodles' in Burmese). This may account for the adopted name of the dish in Thailand. The Burmese dish is similarly spiced, and uses coconut milk in the broth (an unusual trait for Burma), but is thickened with chickpea flour, a decidedly Indian cooking method.
Another vaguely similar version exists in Malaysia and extreme Southern Thailand, known as nonya laksa lemak, a coconut milk and seafood broth with egg noodles, served with prawns, a garnish of thinly sliced egg omelet, scallion, and ginger (lemak refers to the presence of coconut milk). The dish is thought to have been introduced in the South by Haw Sino-Muslim traders or refugees, who later interacted with the Nonya (ethnic Chinese who resettled and intermarried into Malaysia and Singapore culture).
Sap's khao soi with chicken
Perhaps the best evidence of the origin of khao soi come from the statements of the founder of Chiang Mai's famous Lamduan Faham Khao Soi , which has been serving the dish on Faham Road for more than 60 years (Faham is known as “Khao Soi Road”). The founder, who is now in her advanced years, says that she was taught the recipe by some Haw Chinese Muslim immigrants who relocated during the war, first to the area near the town of Fang, and then to Chiang Mai, “It was the Haw Chinese that showed me how to make the distinctive yellow noodles, as well as the soup.” Lamduan altered that original recipe so that it would appeal more to the Thai palette, but the dish was eaten for many years before that, all over the North. It is important to note that the dish was originally cooked only with chicken or beef, never with pork, which also reinforces the Muslim origins. Today, some non-Muslim Thais offer the soup made with pork, but this is an anomaly which is not typical.
Khao soi is sold up north in noodle shops that specialize in the dish, and traditionally they were open from morning to the early afternoon only. The shops are usually unassuming affairs, with modest signage. It's a word of mouth type of dish, and insider information is key to finding the best versions. One of the pleasures of khao soi is that no two noodle shops or vendors will serve exactly the same dish. Every cook has their own subtle variation, and every khao soi aficionado has their favorite venue for dining on the luscious noodle soup. Arguments over who serves the best version can get heated, and everyone has a personal opinion.
Khao soi shops will often also serve chicken, beef, or pork satay (pork only if they are non-Muslim), skewers of spice and coconut milk-marinated meats, grilled over coals, and served with toasted white bread, and a peanut curry sauce and a sweet-sour relish of shallot, cucumber, and chiles. In the rest of the country, specialty khao soi shops and vendors exist, but the popularity of the dish causes it to be included on many standard noodle restaurant menus.
Lam Duan Fah Ham khao soi, from The Bangkok Post
When a bowl of khao soi is placed in front of you, your senses take over. It's a work of culinary art. Visually you'll see a reddish-orange colored liquid topped with golden-yellow fried noodles, garnished with pinkish-red shallots, with green pickled Chinese mustard and deep red chile. It's fragrant with the aromas of combined Thai and Indian spices, coconut milk, chicken broth, citrusy lime, and smoky chile. The taste is ambrosial: rich, spicy, sweet, salty, and sour, all at once, all with perfect harmony in a thickened broth.
Our favorite version, like the one served at Sap’s, is made with a base of rich chicken stock, to which thick coconut milk is added. You can get it with either chicken meat or stewed beef meat, although these days, pork is also offered. The spices are a blend of a paste made from garlic, shallot, galangal, lemongrass, makroot zest and fruit pulp, with a small amount of shrimp paste and palm sugar. To this paste are added bay leaf, curry powder, cumin, coriander, black pepper, and turmeric. Lo mein-style fresh dan mien Chinese egg noodles, which are flat and about ¼ inch wide (a little more narrow than a fettuccine), are added to the liquid. These same noodles are also deep fried until golden and crispy, and placed on the top to provide a textural accent. Before indulging in Thailand, you must garnish the bowl with the accompanying sliced shallot or red onion, slices of sour and salty pickled mustard, a vigorous squeeze of tart lime, and a spoonful of the smoky chile sauce made from roasted red Thai chiles. Sap's version garnishes with fresh, crisp mung bean sprouts, and places the pickled Chinese mustard in the bottom of the bowl; an addition that we like.
A bowl of excellent khao soi is hard to beat, a synchronous blending of Thai, Indian, and Chinese flavors, in a rich and sensual broth, with complex layered flavor and interesting texture. It is truly perfection in a bowl, ideal for sultry or cool weather, and uniquely Thai in flavor profile.
The main attraction of the meal was S-P50, or Sap’s Special Masaman Curry with Beef. Depending on who you believe, massaman (or mussaman) curry originated in the 1600s in the court of Ayutthaya, with the original curry developing from a Thai adaptation of a dish introduced by Persian merchant Sheik Ahmad Qomi. Another theory has the dish being introduced into Southern Thailand from Malaysia, by way of India, and that its name derives from the Malay word masam, which means “sour” (although the dish in its present manifestation is not a sour curry by any stretch of the imagination). There is little doubt that the dish was Muslim in origin, and the ingredients that form the curry paste are not typical Thai curry spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, clove, star anise, cumin, bay, nutmeg, and mace. These spices were brought to the Malay Peninsula by Muslim traders from the Middle East, India, and the Indonesian archipelago. Later on, Dutch, Portuguese, and French East Indian traders imported the spices. The Thais combined the spices with dried chile peppers, white peppercorns, coriander, lemongrass, galangal, shallot, garlic, shrimp paste, and sometimes turmeric to develop the flavors of the curry paste. This paste gets fried with the separated oil from coconut cream until fragrant, and then the meat is added. Thais typically cook the dish with beef, since pork is forbidden (haram) for Muslims. It can also be made with chicken, duck, mutton, or goat. Once the meat has braised with the paste to develop flavor, potatoes, onions, fish sauce, tamarind, palm sugar, coconut milk, and peanuts (or cashews) are added. It is a dish eaten with rice or with roti (a crepe-like South Asian flatbread made from wheat flour), and a bowl of massaman tastes best eaten the next day, once the potatoes have absorbed the flavors of the curry.
Sap's Special Massaman Curry is made with slowly braised chuck steak that's so tender that it melts in your mouth (I cut mine with my spoon), and instead of using white potatoes, he substitutes Yukon Gold potatoes. The overall flavor is sweet and tangy, with many complex layers of spice and an assertively piquant background, and whole roasted peanuts providing a pleasant crunchy texture and nutty taste. Sap's Special massman has deeper flavor than most of the typical versions, and is flat-out delicious. Highly recommended.
We wanted a crunchy vegetable and R had never had the Sweet Hot Bamboo Shoots with Egg, Palm Sugar, and Jalapeño, S-P33. IT’s a simple dish of stir-fried bamboo shoot strips with beaten egg, garlic, a soy-based mother sauce, brown sugar, and jalapeño slices. It’s crunchy from the shoots and chile slices, rich and sweet from the egg and sugar, salty from the soy, and spicy from the jalapeño. It complements the other dishes well, and provides a savory-sweet finish to the meal. Once again, another ass-kickingly great meal from Sap’s, and whether we eat it north, on Burnet, or south, on Westgate, it all tastes just as good.
Mick Vann ©
Mick Vann ©
Lam Duan Fah Ham
Soi 58, Thanon Vibhavadi Rangsit
Chiang Mai, TH
8:30-3 daily, closed last Sunday of the month