With its spicy and aromatic counterpoints of flavour, and the lively textural contrasts it affords, the food of Thailand is certainly one of the world’s most entertaining and engaging cuisines. Influenced by India in the use of herbs and spices, and cooking techniques from the Chinese, the Thais over the centuries have added innovations that have resulted in an original and diverting collection of dishes.
The diversity of the food across the spectrum in Thailand, is something that is relatively unknown to people who have little knowledge about the true depth and richness of the cuisine. Food in central Thailand has long been celebrated across the globe, but the real gems lie in the North. When one encounters the treasure trove of Northern Thai food, it is almost like opening a door into a completely new and spectacular universe of culinary delights unknown to the world.
There is no shortage of food in Chiang Mai. The ubiquitous rows of street vendors perspiring over steaming bowls of noodles or coils of fatty sausages, bustling outdoor markets where inscrutable soups and stews are set out in trays, and street stalls with secret treats begging to be discovered by intrepid explorers.
SP Chicken has long had the reputation of serving the tastiest chicken in Chiang Mai. The restaurant offers food mainly from Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand. The plump chickens are brined, marinated, stuffed with an aromatic filling of lemon grass and garlic and slow cooked over searing hot charcoal. The food is nothing short of delicious.
A trip to Chiang Mai without a bowl of Khao Soi would be incomplete. For many, the first taste of this national dish is a watershed moment. Khao Soi is one of Northern Thailand’s most iconic dishes. It is a deep, sweet, salty and fragrant curried noodle soup that has been thickened with a generous scoop of coconut milk and is topped with a mound of crispy, wavy egg noodles. According to locals, the best place to get a bowl is at the famous Khao Soi Lam Duan Fah Ham. The sweltering hot afternoons are matched by the steaming bowls of ruddy, pork-and-chicken-based broth. The exotic flavour is derived from a curry paste mixture of dried and fresh chilies, anise, coriander seeds, and turmeric. These scrumptious bowls are finished with an elegant crown of crunchy noodles. It comes with slow cooked chicken and a small condiment dish filled with sliced purple shallots, mustard greens, deep red chili paste, and a wedge of lime. Though much of northern food can confront newcomers with challenging flavours, Khao Soi is different. It is exciting without being intimidating.
Kaeng Hung Leh is a beguiling balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy. Drawing influences from Burma, the dish uses a good heft of turmeric. It is subtly sweet and tangy with a kiss of heat, and if properly slow cooked then each bite should melt gloriously in the mouth. This Burmese style dish features large, fatty cubes of pork belly in an oily reddish-brown broth. Shreds of softened, julienned ginger and soft peanuts can be found clinging to the meat and speckled throughout the saucy goodness. The broth is transporting. It is deep, rich, fragrant and heady. Mop it up with handfuls of sticky rice and be taken to a gastronomic haven.
Take one bite of Sai Ua and you will immediately forget bratwurst. This Northern Thai sausage can be easily spotted in Thai markets and restaurants in Chiang Mai. The pork sausage contains numerous herbs and has the pleasing sour tang of a gentle ferment. The exterior is usually crisped up over an open flame, offering a contrast to the softer middle. This golden interior reveals a kaleidoscope of colours provided by turmeric, red and green chillies lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and more. Pretty speckles of green and light yellow mesmerise delighted consumers. The taste is every bit as complex, aromatic and delicious as this list of ingredients suggests. It is smoky from the grill and has a slight tingle of heat from the added chilies. The numerous night markets are good places to indulge in this ubiquitous snack. Head down to Suthep Road by Chiang Mai University or at Chiang Mai Gate for more options too. Have these sausages with Nahm Phrik, a delicious dipping sauce served with a handful of fresh vegetables. There are many varieties of Nahm Phrik, all unique and sometimes punishingly spicy.
It is not difficult to see how one might be especially enamoured of the food of the north. The curries, devoid of coconut milk, but full of local flavoursome wild mushrooms are an experience in themselves. An intimate journey into the distinctive aromas and exciting flavours of Thai cuisine starts in Chiang Mai. Be warned though, you might never want to leave.