Ring in Thai New Year with a dish of khao soi

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The Thai New Year of Songkran begins on Friday. (WLS)

The Thai New Year of Songkran begins on Friday.

The three-day holiday includes water fights all over the country and special celebrations.

It also means a dish called khao soi -- and it's truly remarkable. In Chicago, there are two Chicago area restaurants where they make versions that aren't that much different.

The dish is a combination of chicken, curry, coconut milk and two styles of noodles, plus a few supremely well-balanced condiments that add crunch and acidity. It can be found all over Thailand but primarily in the north, since its birthplace is Chiang Mai.

In Thailand, the cooks at Khao Soi Samer Jai start before sunrise, making curries and noodles; roasting chicken and pressing fresh coconut milk. But a bowl of khao soi comes together in seconds. First, some boiled egg noodles, then the meaty chicken legs, both of which are drenched in a thin-but-assertive curry. A touch of coconut milk enriches the bowl, then a handful of crispy noodles is crowned on top. You always need a side plate of shallots, fresh lime and pickled mustard greens, which are added and then thoroughly combined, creating a breakfast or lunch loaded with texture, heat and creamy richness.

A mile away, at Khun Yai - which means grandma - the open air kitchen offers chicken or beef, and adds just a few spoonfuls of coconut milk to add body and richness, while they also use much thinner fried noodles as a top garnish, the other condiments remain the same, and you must mix everything together to get the full effect.

In Chicago, an excellent version is offered at Jin Thai in Edgewater, where the owners import a curry paste from Chiang Mai.

"My wife she believed that she wanted to get away from the typical Thai menu, as much as possible," said Chai Roongseang, co-owner of Jin Thai. "You hardly can find khao soi in Chicago. Not too many Thai restaurants can do it."

She begins by dissolving and heating that curry paste into several cups of coconut milk, adding some dark meat chicken, then Thai palm sugar and a few tablespoons each of fish sauce and dark soy. Her egg noodles are boiled for about a minute, engulfed in the chicken curry, topped with the requisite garnish of shallot, pickled greens and lime, then the crispy fried noodles last. Chili oil is offered alongside, but don't forget to mix before diving in.

"You've got to mix it up really good, so the taste of everything mixed together," he said.

In a sleepy Morton Grove strip mall, Sri Siam also makes a terrific khao soi. One of the owners happens to be from North of Chiang Mai.

"It's like, if you go to Chiang Mai, you don't eat khao soi, you're not in Chiang Mai," said Co-owner Anna Woods.

Curry paste and coconut milk are the foundation, along with salty fish sauce for balance. Boiled noodles go in first, then the rich curry. Finally, the fried noodles, serving as a sort of protective cap, which can then be topped with the usual garnishes. A good squeeze of lime and some vigorous mixing is all you need to do.

Woods isn't that surprised the dish is showing up in more local Thai restaurants.

"Because it's so good. And I think people are open to trying new things and it's become popular I guess," she said.

EXTRA COURSE: Steve Dolinsky goes to Jin Thai in the Edgewater neighborhood, where he took a look at another dish you don't find very often in local Thai restaurants - Boat Noodles.
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In Steve's Extra Course video, he goes back to Jin Thai in Edgewater, where he takes a look at another dish you don't find very often in local Thai restaurants - Boat Noodles.

5458 N. Broadway St., Chicago
(773) 681-0555

9253 Waukegan Rd., Morton Grove
(847) 583-9924
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