It's nearly impossible to get a word in with Kanlaya Supachana, the chef at Red Hook, Brooklyn, pop-up Chiang Mai. If you meet her, you'll understand why: The petite chef's smile is brilliant. That, and her enthusiasm for the exciting Thai food she's making is downright contagious.
Ask most people to rattle off which Thai foods they eat, and you'll probably get green curry, pad Thai and maybe tom kha gai. Supachana knows this is the Thai food that most Americans have come to expect. She wants to change that.
"Before, when I worked in Thai restaurants, we were serving American-Thai food. I spoke to my partner and thought, 'Why don't we cook the food we eat at home and make at parties?'" Supachana says.
Just a little over a year ago, Supachana opened up Kao Soy with her then-boyfriend. The restaurant quickly drew curry lovers from all over the city to get a taste of what the food of Northern Thailand has to offer—as well as some hefty praise from guests and a little publication called The New York Times, which awarded it one star. Due to creative differences, Supachana split, and within a month, she opened up Chiang Mai a mere one block away, along with her business partner, Sirichai Sreparplarn.
Supachana's knowledge of her homeland's cuisine is vast, but the restaurant is named for the city where she grew up. Located in the foothills of Northern Thailand, it has a distinct cuisine that's different from the bustling streets of Bangkok and the islands in the South.
"We use a lot more herbs in the North. Just in the curry paste for the khao soi (see the recipe) we put coriander root, lemongrass, fresh turmeric and lime leaves," Supachana says. "We also use salt to season and break down ingredients into paste instead of fish sauce."
Supachana spent 15-plus years working in Thai restaurants in New York, but she picked up a lot of her cooking skills from her father, who she is quick to name as her biggest influence.
"My father's a very good cook and the one who taught me how to make khao soi. When I was young, I didn't want to help him. I wanted to play. Later on, when I wanted to taste what he was cooking, he would tell me, 'If you want to taste, you have to help me.'"
At this point in our conversation, Supachana and I are interrupted, not a first or a second, but a third time by another neighborhood local. He just wanted to say hello and catch up. As he walks away, Supachana's smile remains. "[Red Hook] reminds me of my hometown. Everybody says hi and asks how you're doing."
While Supachana's tiny pop-up can barely hold the amount of guests who want to try her food (and have a friendly chat with her), you can bring the complex and fiery flavors of the North to your kitchen. Admittedly, you may have to do a little legwork to find all the right ingredients, but once the ingredients are prepped, the cooking time is rather short.
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"I normally make khao soi and nam priks, because I work six days a week and I'm only off one day, and you can make a lot of both those dishes," Supachana says.
She shares her recipe for both: Khao soi, a coconut curry noodle soup, is a dish most travelers fall in love with when visiting Northern Thailand—and it's an easier introduction to Northern Thai food than to the spicy, sour and funky flavors found in other dishes. To make the soup, Supachana begins with a curry paste made with dried chiles, ginger, fresh turmeric, curry powder, herbs and more spices that are pounded into a paste. The curry paste's aromas are released and become intoxicatingly fragrant when cooked in coconut milk.
Chicken is added and slowly braised until tender, and flat egg noodles appear in two forms: served fresh, bathing in the rich red curry, and fried until a crispy nest forms to sit on top of the soup. Served with cilantro, lime, shallots, chile oil and pickled mustard greens, the soup is exactly what we want to make for friends as the weather starts to cool down.
Nam prik is a chile-based condiment found all over Thailand, but nam prik ong (see the recipe) is the version found in the North that Supachana serves at her pop-up. Dried chiles are softened in warm water before they're pounded with shallots, garlic and shrimp to form a paste. The paste is cooked in oil, before ground pork and tomatoes are added. Supachana serves the fiery dip with chayote, Thai eggplant, lettuce and pork rinds, but you can serve it with sticky rice, cucumber, jicama and green cabbage.
Even though the heat will build with each bite, you may find yourself ad-dip-ted to the food—just like we are.
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