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Thai soup heaven

chiang mai noodle soup

It wasn’t until I went to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai that I appreciated how a single soup can make a destination live forever in your memory. I was in my twenties, backpacking across Southeast Asia with my travelling buddy Anna. We had escaped Bangkok’s sauna bath heat and planned to make Chiang Mai just a quick layover – until we dipped our spoons into the creamy, golden contents of a certain noodle soup.

I swooned. Anna did, too.

Thai Basil

Thai basil

Then we quickly rallied our reinforcements, digging in with chopsticks now, pulling out a tangle of soft, pliable noodles bathed in coconut milk and spiked with a litany of flavours. We slurped and gobbled, one part spoon, two parts chopsticks, making a crazy mess of ourselves, crowded around a makeshift stall, sitting on wobbly stools perched on a dirt floor.

Like everyone around us, we were immersed in our soup, digging out deep licorice Thai basil notes, spiked by the fire of bird’s eye chillies. To our right and left, slurpers stopped only to reach for a lime wedge, giving their soup a slight spritz. We followed suit and could taste fish sauce undertones lift up new, indecipherably delicious flavours.

Limes, basil, green onions and fresh coriander sold in Thai fresh market.

Limes, basil, green onions and fresh coriander sold in Thai fresh market.

It was chicken noodle soup unlike anything we’d encountered from Campbell’s. Every morsel had such a cacophony of flavor. Did someone turn up the volume control on our tastebuds?

***

Here is my rendition. You can prepare everything in advance for this soup, except the noodles- then it’s a breeze to serve as a quick dinner or lunch.

Coconut milk and curry paste

Purchase a 525 ml can of coconut milk- it’s just the right size for this recipe. Be sure to buy my favourite brands of Aroy-D coconut milk and Maesri curry paste, pictured above.

 

Chiang Mai Noodle Soup

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tbsp chopped garlic

1 sweet red pepper, diced

1/2 cup coconut cream

3 tbsp red curry paste

1 tsp ground turmeric

2 lbs. boneless chicken breast, thinly sliced

1 3/4 cup coconut milk

3 1/2 cups chicken stock

15 basil leaves

2-3 chopped bird’s eye chillies

3 tbsp fish sauce

2 tsp sambal oelek chili sauce

1 tsp sugar

1/4 tsp salt

3 tbsp lime juice

1/2 lb Chinese egg noodles

1/2 cup chopped fresh coriander

4 green onions, chopped

In a large pot on medium-high, heat the oil. Add garlic and stir-fry 30 seconds or until golden. Add diced red pepper and stir-fry 2-3 minutes or until tender. Transfer to a plate and reserve.

Open the can of coconut milk and gently spoon off half a cup of the thick cream on top. Using the same pot, warm the coconut cream at medium-high, whisk in curry paste and turmeric and continue to whisk until coconut cream starts to separate slightly and glisten with oil. Add chicken and stir-fry 1-2 minutes or until chicken is browned and covered with paste. Add reserved red pepper and garlic, remaining contents of coconut milk can, chicken stock, basil, chillies, fish sauce, sambal oelek, sugar and salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes or JUST until chicken is cooked through. Remove from heat and stir in lime juice.

In a large pot of boiling, salted water, boil egg noodles for 2 minutes or until just tender. Drain.

Place one-sixth of the noodles in each bowl and ladle over with hot soup. Garnish with coriander and green onions.

 

A Vij’s attack

Who knew that a night at the movies would set off a torrent of onion, ginger and garlic chopping, a spice drawer purge and some of the most sumptuous curries I have ever created in my kitchen? I didn’t. But recently I paid an exorbitant $35 to watch a TIFF Food in Film movie called The Lunchbox and forgot all about my sticker shock once the reel began, reveling in the click-clack of Bombay trains coursing over tracks as thousands of freshly packed, hot tiffin boxes made their way to hungry civil servants, just in time for 1 pm lunch.

The Lunchbox charmed with a sweet, unexpected love story based on a lonely wife’s kitchen wizardry. As she dipped into spice baskets and seductively licked a smear of sauce off the palm of her hand, I too, longed to dive back into my kitchen and suffuse it with the perfume of cardamom and nutty richness of toasted cumin.

IMG_1594But after the last credits rolled and the lights turned on, out stepped CBC’s Matt Galloway and the owners of Vancouver’s Vij’s restaurant holding microphones, ready to discuss the film on the stage before us.

Galloway and Vikram Vij both gushed unabashed foodie enthusiasms saying their thoughts always centred around food, from morning to night, yet Vikram’s wife, Meeru Dhalwala said, “Sure I love food… and our lives revolve around it, but I get sick of it, too!”

Galloway and Vij’s heads both snapped in her direction.

“Don’t look so shocked,” she said. “I love my kids, too. And get sick of them, also,” she giggled.

I was instantly hooked. She talked about the blood, sweat and tears she put into the writing of her two cookbooks and why her restaurant kitchens are staffed by women only.IMG_1589

“We tried a male chef once. He had tons of experience but his ego got in the way. I really care about the ambience of my kitchens. It needs to be calm and creative when we are cooking- not full of yelling and fear.”

I figured anyone who had such a fine philosophy about food, children and kitchen ambience, was my kind of cook and I instantly nabbed a copy of Vij’s At Home.

I started with cauliflower, the lowly crucifer vegetable that plays a pivotal role in The Lunchbox and is generally adored by Indians. Aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) is a standard you’ll find in most cookbooks and Indian restaurants. I’ve made it many times and have always felt a little let down by the results. It takes a lot to push this plain white veggie with its sulfurous odor into the realm of “Ah ha!” but Meeru’s Spicy Cauliflower Steak does just that. Her culinary tricks include half a cup of oil (I cut that in half), a slow braise in a rich sauce and a goodly punch of whole cloves.

It didn’t hurt that I used one of the finest brands of pureed tomatoes: Mutti made IMG_1394in Parma, Italy. This passata (tomato puree) is sweet, luscious and has a Hindi-kind of ring to it.

The Vijs had mentioned on stage that they drink wine with every Indian meal they prepare and that their default – or other favourite cuisine – is Italian. The more I perused their cookbook, the more I sensed a Parma-Punjab fusion going on. Such as “Ground Fennel Seed Curry”, in which a rich marriage of fennel, tomato puree and cream creates the perfect sauce for fish, seafood or chicken. Among Indian cookery, this dish is super easy and fast. You decide whether to serve it plain (vegetarian) or drape it luxuriously over some protein. Serve on basmati rice or even linguine.

Ground Fennel Seed Curry:Photo courtesy of Vij's at Home

Ground Fennel Seed Curry: Photo courtesy of Vij’s at Home

Ground fennel seed curry

The difference between mediocre and fabulous Indian cooking lies squarely in the treatment of spices. Buy whole (except turmeric!) and grind in a coffee or spice grinder. Don’t store ground spices for longer than a month or two. BJ Supermarket (1449 Gerrard St East, near Coxwell) has every exotic spice you’ll ever want and more. Recipe adapted from Vij’s at Home (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010)

6 tbsp fennel seeds

1/3 -1/2 cup cooking oil

2 cups pureed tomatoes

1 tbsp (or less) salt

1 tsp turmeric

2 tbsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground fenugreek seeds

2-3 tsp crushed dried chilies

4 cups water

1 cup cream

Heat a 10-inch heavy-bottomed frying pan on high for 1 minute. Add fennel seeds, and stirring regularly, cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until slightly dark and fragrant. Pour roasted seeds onto a plate and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Grind the fennel seeds in a spice (or coffee) grinder. Set aside 2 Tbsp ground fennel seeds for this recipe. Store the remaining seeds in an airtight container in a dark cupboard or drawer for use in other dishes.

In a medium pot, heat oil on medium for 1 minute. Add ground fennel seeds and stir continuously for 30 seconds, or until fennel begins to foam lightly. Carefully and immediately add tomatoes, stirring well. Add salt, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek seeds and crushed dried chillies and sauté for 5 minutes, or until oil glistens.

Pour in water and cream. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

Gently poach a pound of fish fillets, shellfish or chicken pieces in this sauce until just done. Serve over basmati rice or pasta.

IMG_1392

Cod in fennel curry sauce and cauliflower steak.