Khao soi | David Hammond

We usually think of comfort food as what we ate — and enjoyed—m when we were kids, like Kraft mac ’n’ cheese, Campbell’s tomato soup, or something your mother always made, like meatloaf, that maybe you got tired of, but which now feels nostalgic.

Many have praised Forest Park’s Habrae restaurant (7230 Madison), including Steve Dolinsky (the Food Guy on NBC) and Louisa Chu (Chicago Tribune). Chu mentioned that Habrae served Thai “comfort food,” and although I never had this dish as a kid, it’s extraordinarily comforting on a cold day.

Khao soi (pronounced cow-soy) is a noodle dish, usually with meat or fish, in a spicy broth, with cilantro stems and leaves, red onions, lime slice, and a tiny bit of Thai pickle. The egg noodles are soft and creamy, but there are also fried chow mein-type noodles. There’s a lot going on in the Habrae version: spicy broth, amped up with curry, is balanced by soft egg noodles, which offer textural contrast with the crunchy noodles, and the whole bowl is warming and good to eat.

There are several spices in this bowl of khao soi that I couldn’t positively identify, but the very fact that there are spices in there is a very good thing. According to an article in the National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health, “There is now ample evidence that spices and herbs possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antitumorigenic, anticarcinogenic, and glucose- and cholesterol-lowering activities as well as properties that affect cognition and mood.” That’s a lot of good stuff coming in one bowl.

Spices also function as a kind of natural preservative, increasing the shelf life of well-spiced foods.

So spices not only make food taste better, they’re also good for your health and they may keep food from going bad, a big consideration in warmer climates, like those in Southeast Asia.

Moreover, spices can make food “look” better; the broth of my khao soi was bright red, probably from the addition of curry powder, which is commonly added to the dish.

And yes, spicy food can be literally “comforting,” as Lifehack reports, because spice “causes your brain to produce ‘happy’ hormones, like serotonin, which makes you better equipped to deal with depression, anxiety, anger, and stress.”

I was first introduced to khao soi in Chang Mai, Northern Thailand, where the dish is believed to have been brought in by Muslim traders from China — likely the birthplace of noodles — who came along the Golden Triangle trading route. Basically, this khao soi is chicken noodle soup, which any Jewish mother will tell you is excellent for your physical health and, of course, your soul.

Khao soi is lightly creamy — not with cow’s milk but rather coconut milk — and the richness it provides is balanced with a squeeze of the lime included with every bowl of khao soi, a beautiful soup, well made at Habrae, and you really should eat it.

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