If you dine at 10 different Thai restaurants in the United States, 10 different Thai restaurants in Australia, and 10 different Thai restaurants in Europe, all the menus would offer 90% of the same dishes-Pad Thai; Fried Rice; Green, red & yellow curries; Tom yum; Something called “golden shrimp”; jasmine white rice; chicken or pork larb, pad grapao, Pad Kee Mao, etc. You know the drill.
While those above menu choices are tasty and worth the trip to your local Thai restaurant, they represent either a Bangkok regional cuisine or a ubiquitous Thai cuisine eaten by all Thais. But those common menu items don’t represent much of what Thai people eat daily in different regions of The Kingdom, especially in the north.
Cultural Insight-Thai cuisine is a regional cuisine.
There are four basic regional cuisines of Thailand-the Ayuttaya lower basin region (including Bangkok); Esaan (Northeast Thailand), The South, and The North. Northern cuisine is the most curious and maybe even the most complex of these regional cuisines. And for the foreigner, Northern cuisine will take the longest to acquire a true taste for (can you eat it everyday?).
Please remember that I’m completely biased about Thai food. My wife is from the North and has been making me Northern Thai faire for 20 years. We live part of the year in the North with her family. At first I hated Northern cuisine. But over the years, I have come to love it. I love gang hung ley (pork stew) as much as I love hamburgers. And I really love hamburgers!
Mmmmm! App Mu, Pounded Jack Fruit and Sticky Rice
Nam prik noom (mashed green chiles), kao kap (rice chips), nam (sausage), banana blossom soup, riceberry, northern sausages, kao soi (noodle soup), mashed eggplant, pounded jackfruit, gang hung ley (pork stew), app mu, app pla, factong (squash), bitter melon soup…. The list could go on and on. These are but a fraction of Northern Thai dishes.
Cuisine = Culture. Always
Northern Thai cuisine is really Lanna Cuisine. Only 100 years ago-a mere blink of the culinary eye-what is now Northern Thailand, was a separate kingdom called Lanna. (Please see my blog entry “Chiang Rai: Old Lanna Lives“.) The Kingdom of Siam (present day Thailand from Chiang Mai south) and The Kingdom of Lanna were independent states and developed different cuisines.
Northern Thai cuisine is heavily influence by Shan State in Burma to the north. (Please see my blog entry “Onward To Kengtung“) In fact, much of northern Thai cuisine such as pounded jack fruit and gang hung ley are commonly referred to as Shan cuisine. The Shan are called “Tai Yai” in Thailand and they comprise about 10% of the population of Chiang Rai Province. Shan culture has had a profound influence on Northern cuisine.
Nam Prik Noom
This is the mashed, green chili concoction that Northern Thais put on almost anything. It’s their condiment of choice. Spicy…oh yeah! Put a little on your Northern pork jerky. Dip some sticky rice or steamed squash into it and jazz things up.
I don’t know if sticky rice came from The North or Esaan. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a staple of both regions. You will seldom find it in Thai restaurants around the world and when you do it rarely tastes right. Even in Bangkok it’s hit or miss if you want a meal with sticky rice.
There’s a defanite art to making sticky rice. It’s steamed in specially made wicker baskets which bring out its glutinous character so it sticks together. It’s sometimes slightly crunchy and has an opaque look to it.
Sticky rice is eaten by hand. In Esaan, my pillow makers (please read “About Me” if interested) roll their sticky rice in the palm of their hands to make a little ball and then pop in their mouth. Kids love sticky rice. It’s the kind of food you’re allowed to play with.
If you’ve traveled to Chiang Mai, you’re probably familiar with kao soi. Kao soi is the most easy of Northern foods to find for the tourist. Restaurants throughout Chiang Mai will serve it. In fact, kao soi is served from Chiang Mai to as far north as Chiang Tung in Burma. (We’re back to that Lanna Kingdom thing again.)
Kao soi can be translated as “street rice”. It was intended as a poor person’s lunch. It’s made of egg noodles in a mild curry broth with chicken or beef, topped with crunchy noodles. Shallots and pickled cabbage are served on the side. You can’t visit Northern Thailand without trying a bowl of kao soi.
When in Chiang Mai…
When In Chiang Mai I highly recommend the following restaurants for good traditional Northern Thai Food:
Suan Pak. 61 Moo 3, Sanambin Rd., Chiang Mai. Menu in English. If you want to try very good, traditional Northern Thai food in a relaxed atmosphere, then this restaurant is a must. It’s been around since the 1980’s, so any taxi, tuk-tuk or songtao will know its location. It’s located in central Chiang Mai, near the airport mall, so getting there won’t take long at all.
House of Yong. เฮืรอนใจ๋ยอง. 65 Moo 4 Tamboon Buakan, Amphur Sam Kampang, Chiang Mai 50130. Open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Closed Monday. Tel. 086-671-8710. This lunch restaurant could easily serve the best Northern Thai Food in the Chiang Mai area. It’s located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, (no more than a 1/2 hour drive from anywhere in central Chiang Mai) so you may need a Thai driver to find it. It’s absolutely worth the drive. You will not find many tourists, if any, at this restaurant.
When in Chiang Rai…
Jackpot! Chiang Rai holds a night market every Saturday and has a specific area for food vendors. You will see the largest offering of Northern Thai dishes and delicacies anywhere in Thailand. There is nowhere in Northern Thailand that you will find a better spread of Northern Thai food.
The night market is located in the center of town, so you’ll have no problem finding it.
Don’t be surprised or frustrated if you curl up your nose at Northern Thai food. It’s not intended for the farang palate. It’s an acquired taste for us.
It took me years before I came to love and trust this food. Any farang who claims they loved fish sauce at first taste is just not being honest. But after 20 years of marriage with my Northern Thai wife and living in Thailand for months at a time, I have come to love this food. I eat it daily-or more accurately-I eat it for lunch, diner and snacks for most of my time in The Kingdom.
If in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai give northern cuisine a try, or at least the sniff test. Don’t tell me you flew half-way round the world to eat Westernized Thai food??? So put on your adventure hat and try some of the local cooking when in Northern Thailand.
Room For Dessert?