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How to Invent a Family Recipe

Not everyone inherits family recipes—some people create their own. Perri Klass explains the origin of her household’s favorite dish, the Thai soup khao soi.
Thai

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One day a few months ago, I called up my older son and said, “Hey, we were thinking of making khao soi on Saturday, but only if you can join us.” “I’ll be there,” he said, even though he lives an hour away by bus. And sure enough, he arrived in plenty of time to help chop scallions and shred poached chicken into the bubbling, spicy coconut-milk broth. Khao soi (or kao soy, or khao sawy, or however you want to spell it) is a noodle soup from northern Thailand, or possibly Myanmar. But khao soi is also one of the national dishes of that very small country, my immediate family.

I can’t pretend that we love it because it connects us with our Thai heritage; my husband, Larry, and I come from a mix of Eastern European Jewish backgrounds. But khao soi is still a family recipe. It’s a dish that we cook for our three children only on special occasions, and in such a ritualized way that any day we make it is Khao Soi Day.

Family recipes usually suggest foods passed down through the generations. Indeed, my grandmother’s gefilte fish, which I make from a recipe she once wrote out on a yellow lined pad, does connect me to my heritage. These foods carry forward a flavor of the old country, the family identity from back before the advent of today’s all-purpose, multiethnic convenience cuisine.

But I also have a family heritage of adoptive dishes. My father was an anthropologist who did his initial field work in Trinidad, in an East Indian village. It was during this important year (I was born on this field trip) that my Brooklyn-born parents discovered Indian food, and both took to it passionately. We also spent a year in India when I was five, and keema (curried chopped meat with peas) and other curries turned up regularly at our dinner table ever after. My mother created her own spice mixes from chile powder, turmeric, garam masala, cayenne, cumin, coriander, cardamom and ginger. This was the flavor of the life they had chosen for themselves, which they brought back to the suburban New Jersey kitchen of my childhood.

Khao soi came into our lives through a trip abroad as well. In 1986, Larry and I took our 18-month-old son to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, and tasted khao soi for the first time. And very soon after that, for the second, third, fourth and fifth times. In Chiang Mai, khao soi was on every corner, sold mostly at stands and stalls rather than in more formal restaurants. It was an elaborately assembled dish, starting with fresh noodles and a hot vat of curry-and-coconut-enriched chicken broth. The vendors created each bowl to order: noodles, broth, chicken and an array of toppings, including fried noodles, lime wedges, fried shallots and onions. There were varieties made with pork instead of chicken; there were sometimes pickled vegetables to sprinkle on top; there were differences in the broth—here the chile heat was a little more intense, there the coconut milk was thicker. We noisily sucked down the noodles, happily bent over our steaming bowls, trading off chopsticks and soup spoons. It was the best thing I had ever tasted, and the best thing Larry had ever tasted, and the best thing our toddler had ever tasted.

As we began to plan out our days in terms of khao soi stops, we didn’t know at the time that something essential had been added to our family story. But we did realize that we had found the perfect blend of street food and comfort food, a basic recipe made complex with all the inflections of Southeast Asia, so that hot peppers lit up our mouths and rich coconut soothed them. There were lime wedges to squeeze into the soup if we wanted a sour tang, and fried noodles for crunch. It was as primal as my grandmother’s chicken noodle soup, as sophisticated as the spices my parents had learned to love on their travels.

A few months later, after we got home, I noticed a soup recipe in a favorite 1976 cookbook, Noodles Galore, by Merry White. This soup was called Mandalay Coconut Khawksway, and I wondered aloud to Larry whether this could actually be khao soi (try saying khawksway in a number of different ways, and you’ll get what I mean). Using this recipe as the base, we started preparing our own version of khao soi, and we’ve been ceremonially making it a few times a year for more than 20 years. We use dried linguine instead of hand-pulled noodles and coconut milk from cans labeled for Latin American cooking. Heaven knows I don’t fry my own noodles for the topping, the way the Chiang Mai street vendors do; La Choy chow mein noodles are our stand-in. But we sauté onions, chiles and ginger with turmeric, cayenne and rice flour; we poach chicken and save the broth for the soup; and all I can tell you is that when we add those cans of coconut milk, khao soi happens.

My son—the toddler on that seminal trip—is now 25. When he comes home for khao soi, we set the table together: large low bowls, ceramic soup spoons from Chinatown, chopsticks, napkins to catch the turmeric-stained splatters, along with condiment bowls of limes cut in quarters, chopped scallions and the all-important crispy noodles. Because they can be hard to locate in our age of authentic upscale ingredients, I stockpile cans of La Choy noodles, blue canisters that proudly declare, “Inspired by traditional Asian cuisine.”

Sometimes Larry and I trek to Thai restaurants to taste other versions of khao soi because we love it so much, but I’m not really looking for ways to make my own version more authentic. The whole point of family recipes is that they, by definition, achieve an authenticity that goes beyond ingredients or pedigree—which means that it’s absolutely right for our version to include Barilla linguine, La Choy chow mein noodles and Goya leche de coco. Put them all together and you have our national dish. Like my parents’ curries, khao soi doesn’t reflect where our family came from, but rather, where we chose to go, and what we liked when we got there. We know how to make it and we know how to eat it. And, paradoxically, it tastes like home.

Perri Klass is a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University. She is the author of The Mercy Rule and Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor.

Published November 2009
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