Khao Soi at Somewhere Far Far Away
There is always an allure of a place far, far away. Many times, we are just not too happy with our own routine-ridden spaces, and we just need to get away. A long drive, the wind in your hair, the no-schedule, no-destination, no-agenda feeling that liberates and immensely satisfies us.
And a long drive is certainly required in this very case. The delicious dish of this day’s column is something unique to Chiang Khong, a small district of upper Chiang Rai with magnificent views of the serene Mekong River.
Chiang Khong is about one hundred kilometres from Chiang Rai City. However, the winding mountainous terrains of the area also make it even harder to get from one place to another. Being closer to the northwest of Laos and Xishuangbanna prefecture in the extreme south of Yunnan, China, Chiang Khong is a mixed bag of culture. The district’s cluster is the small main market and that is where you can find all kinds of Chinese-influenced foods, staples such as hand-made egg noodles, chicken rice and so on. But then, there is this dish that is known as ‘Khao Soi Nam Na,’ that is said to be the recipe from Xishuangbanna and it is only available in Chiang Khong and nowhere else.
Stories of ‘Khao Soi,’ if you are to search for one, are eclectic. Khao Soi that most of us know of is the coconut milk-based curry served with egg noodle and a choice of protein. An etymological research finds that the word ‘Khao Soi’ derives from a Shan dialect ‘Khao Swe’ that means noodle making. Perhaps this is why when ordering a bowl of ‘Khao Soi’ in Chiang Khong, you will also get a bowl of noodle, but a totally new type not in any sense common to the usual ‘Khao Soi’ that we know of.
Chiang Khong’s Khao Soi Nam Na contains neither coconut milk, nor curry paste. It is neither served with egg noodles. Instead, this is a bowl of clear noodle soup with rice noodle. The rice noodle in this case is also particular, with its width between narrow and wide. Its texture soft and stretching. Very, very delicious
This noodle has the topping of minced pork that is slowly stir-fried with fermented soy beans or ‘Tua Nao’ – a staple flavour-booster of the Thai North. This minced pork topping has a strong resemblance of ‘Nam Prik Ong’ which is another of Thai northern dish, a delicious staple, but with stronger taste and the unique bitterness of the fermented beans. You can also order extra a hard-boiled egg and giant pork balls.
The healthier sides of this meal include an array of fresh vegetables, seasonal picks from cabbages, green bean sprouts, to sweet peas and others, that you can point and choose and they will blanch it ‘a la minute’ for your table. This is a wholesome, hearty breakfast and lunch. This bowl tastes very fresh; the clear soup deep in flavours. The condiments, if you will, include crushed chilli paste with a faint hint of, again, the fermented beans. This unpretentious dish, in my noodle-loving opinion, makes a trip to Chiang Khong all worth it.
Being along the Mekong River means Chiang Khong is also picturesque. It is a real quiet place you can come to be with yourself. Communities lining the river depend on the river, wider fertile banks are employed as vegetable plots, fishings are done on the spot, the sun rises over the horizon. Golden hours are worth snapping pictures away.
Lue Lai Kham Museum, about 15 kilometres south of Chiang Khong, is a place worth exploring. Private-run and personally curated by Lue native Suriya Wongchai, this museum, set on a rustic wooden house on stilts, has a good collection of Lue textiles and traditional costumes. This is where you can trace Chiang Khong’s ancestral lines that came all the way from Xishuangbanna where the recipe of that Khao Soi was said to be originated.
Browsing the beautiful textile is not the only attraction of this lovely museum. At the back of the building is a vast rice paddy, a good stretch of green field backed by a mountain. This is where the museum’s cafe is located, serving hot drinks for the cold days, and iced-cold options when the sun works overtime. A great place to be. A solitude far, far away you deserve.
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Chiang Khong, a remote district in upper Chiang Rai, lines the Mekong. This is a far, far away place good for inner escapade. And while you are there, explore their local tastes, especially their one-of-a-kind ‘Khao Soi’ that is nothing like the typical Khao Soi we know of. What is their Khao Soi like, let’s explore in this latest Food & Travel column.