Before visiting Thailand, I dreamt about its flavors. Reading my guidebook before that first trip, I glanced at where to go and what to do before reading the (brief) food section over and over. I couldn’t wait to be in a placed filled with my favorite kinds of dishes and ingredients – spicy crushed chilies that have a way of catching you in the back of your throat while still making you want more, tangy lime, salty fish sauce and slightly sweet coconut milk… My book said all this was fresh. Everyone ate and snacked throughout the day. What destination could be better?
Fast forward five years from that first trip and I’ve now spent the past three years living in the northern town of Chiang Mai – a wonderful community and arguably one of the best places for food in the entire country. Sure, you can get excellent curries, zesty salads and restorative noodle soups throughout the country, but nowhere else is the access to food so easy, the quality so high and the prices so cheap. Thanks to Chiang Mai’s compact layout, farming history, tourism draw and thousands of university students, the city seems to have incredible food wherever I look. I can’t go more than a few meters without coming across another street cart, market stall or restaurant – day or night.
A number of Thai dishes are common throughout the country, but each region boasts its own distinct flavor, ingredients and meals based off of the area’s crops and cultural influences. In the south I’ll find dishes doused with turmeric and coconut milk and plenty of seafood, while favorites like somtam (spicy green papaya salad), gai yang (grilled chicken served with sweet chili sauce) and khao neiow come from the country’s northeastern Isaan region, close to Laos.
In the north, an area where recipes have been influenced by Burmese and Chinese dishes, I’ll see heartier dishes filled with jungle herbs, pork and often bitter or sour flavors. A good example of this is the highly popular khao soi. A creamy yellow curry soup with a touch of coconut, khao soi is Northern Thai food’s shining star and a hit with locals and foreigners alike with chewy egg noodles topped with the rich curry, sliced shallots, lime, pickled cabbage and a sprinkling of crispy fried noodles.
Other must-try dishes include gaeng hung lay, a Burmese-influenced curry using pork belly, khanom jeen, fresh sticky rice noodles bathing in watery curries then topped with chilies, bean sprouts and other greens, and yum moo yor, a Thai-style salad made with steamed pork sausage. Along with moo yor, flavorful pork sausages known as sai oua and naem are common cooking ingredients or standalone snacks. Stuffed with lemongrass, galangal (a kind of ginger) and kaffir lime leaves, sai oua is a great example of Northern Thailand’s earthy, and funky, flavors as is naem, a tangy fermented sausage. Thick chili dips such as naam prik ong, a roasted tomato and pork concoction, and naam prik noom, made from onion, garlic and plenty of green chilies, are popular snacks and drinking foods eaten with steamed vegetables and another one of the region’s specialties, keb moo – fried pork rinds.
So where do you find all these Northern Thai treats?
Local Fresh Markets
Chiang Mai is packed with fresh markets selling meat, produce and some prepared foods 24/7. The trick to finding Northern Thai staples like grilled sai oua, fresh naam prik noom and packaged naem ready to cook is knowing what you’re looking for or being willing to try some unrecognizable treats. The chili dips will be ready to go in little single-serving bags and you’ll notice the dark sai oua coiled in large spirals. Additionally, at markets where there are street stalls set up for dinner, like at Chiang Mai Gate, you’ll be able to order dishes including khao soi, kanom jeen and fried rice with naem – delicious!
Northern-Thai restaurants near Nimmanhaemin road
There are restaurants specializing in Northern Thai cuisine throughout the city ranging from street stalls to sit down family affairs, however one of the easiest areas to find Northern favorites is in the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood located on the west side of town. Restaurants like Tong Tem Toh, Little Lanna and Khao Soi Nimman, which specializes in different versions of the famous curry, are all safe bets. While they cost more than your average street stall eats, you’re still getting a deal and a great meal.
Between the locals, college students, expats and tourists, Chiang Mai has a wide range of drinking establishments to fit most tastes and in Thailand you do as much tasting as you do drinking during a night out. Thais love to nibble while they’re throwing back the whiskey and salty, crispy Northern Thai snacks like the naam prik noom with keb moo, and fried chicken ligaments known asen gai tod do just the trick. Larger bars will usually have their own kitchens cranking out the goods, but even at smaller places you won’t go hungry thanks to entrepreneurial food carts bringing popular snacks straight to you.
BIO: Originally from Seattle, Alana Morgan has been living, working, writing and traveling in Thailand and Southeast Asia for the past four years with no plans to settle down anytime soon. Read more at Paper Planes