Khao sawy in Chiang Mai

When I visited Chiang Mai a few years ago it made a really strong impression on me. And when I speak to other people who’ve been there, it’s obvious that this small northern Thai city has a very large fan club indeed. When I was asked in the interviews for my new job about what I liked about Chiang Mai I immediately said, “the street food”! In fact, before I even applied for my new job, I had started a short piece in December about khao sawy, a dish I have been waxing lyrical about ever since I tasted it.

It was a rough journey to get to where we are, wandering the streets of Chiang Mai  that night idly looking at the wares on sale at the hundreds of market stalls. I’m not sure about him but I’m actually looking for dinner. Preferably somewhere that sells khao sawy, a dish which sounded intriguing from the description in the Lonely Planet guide.

Earlier that day I’d had a meltdown in Bangkok Airport. My usual calm, even-tempered self had been replaced by a hysterical young woman bawling her eyes in front of scores of passengers in the waiting lounge. My shaking hands had dialled a string of numbers on the public payphone. I’d had enough and wanted to go home. “Come home, leave him at the airport, ” mum said with dad shouting in agreeance in the background. My parents, I realise at that moment, are terrible at dealing with conflict and their way of dealing with it is by not dealing with it. But I couldn’t just go home like that. It was just that the pressure of travelling with my brother had gotten too much, and his every fault had become intensely magnified in a foreign country seemingly so far from home. I felt completely miserable. We got onto that plane to Chiang Mai without speaking and wordlessly made the journey to the next airport. With minimal utterances we arrived at the other end, and found our simple accomodation.

Now we are here with him following me in a sullen mood. I finally spot an eatery by the night market claiming to be a purveyor of khao sawy. We sit down at one of the plastic white tables and order in English. As we sit there avoiding each other’s eyes I awkwardly think about how to broach a conversation I’ve been waiting most of my life to have with him, to start confronting a lot of the baggage from our childhood which is being carried right into our present predicament.

The food comes out fast. The bowl in front of me looks familiar yet foreign at the same time. A combination of thin egg noodles, chopped coriander, pickled mustard leaves, fried onions, chicken pieces and crispy noodles served in a light curry broth. The broth looks a lot like the yellow Vietnamese curry I’ve had countless times in my life yet never tire of. On a small side plate are little shallots and lime wedges to sharpen the flavours contained within the bowl. All of these components are ingredients I know so well; flavours which have been burned into my tongue’s memory. But the combination is altogether new. And when I take a bite I’m there – I belong to this moment. Being here, eating this magnificent dish. Khao sawy is reminiscent of home in ways I will never be able to explain. Fragments of experiences over decades are contained within this single bowl – no exaggeration.

Discovering the ultimate comfort food is just what I need to start the difficult conversation ahead of me.


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