Forget the coconut-flavoured green curries and sweet fried noodles that typify most foreigner’s idea of Thai Food. Northern Thailand has a distinct food culture of it’s own.
For centuries, the lands of northern Thailand belonged to the Lanna Kingdom and as a result, northern cuisine is quite distinct from the rest of the country. Ancient trade with Burmese and Chinese traders brought in spices uncommon in the south. The region’s cooler weather, higher altitudes and dense forests allows for a wide variety of seasonal vegetables and mushrooms which are common in many Northern Thai dishes and contribute to the overall balance of flavour with sweetness, bitterness and sourness.
I’ve always loved Thai food but I can honestly say that it wasn’t until I visited Chiang Mai that I understood, appreciated and fell absolutely in love with it; in fact it kept me in Chiang Mai for 2 months. So, please, for the love of food, if you’re planning a trip to Thailand, go to Chiang Mai, forget the tourist activities and just take a few days to wander around the beautiful city, visit the many food markets and enjoy what in my opinion is the best food Thailand has to offer.
The Thai word “laap” basically means “to chop up” and the dish takes many forms and has many variations, but it is just that; chopped up meat, usually raw. Whether it’s beef, pork, duck or fish, Laap comes in two variations; the Isaan version, the Northeast of Thailand which is lime-spiked, fiery and mixed with an aromatic powder made from toasted sticky rice; and the Northern Thai version which is packed full of fresh herbs, a paste that’s heavy on dried spices and topped with fried shallots and garlic. Laap is traditionally and commonly served raw but you can also get Laap Khua, “fried laap”, where sliced offal is added to the meat before it’s all fried up in a wok.
I wen’t to Laap Santhitham in Chiang Mai, a popular joint with the locals and ordered Laap Khua Kai Meuang, chicken dry-fried laap and oh my god did it pack a punch of flavour. After the initial taste bud punch, I was hooked and decided to try the traditional raw version. The chef recommended I try the pork, but after suffering a parasite infection in Bali from eating undercooked pork, I decided to instead give the beef a go instead. Wow! Steak Tartare aint got nothing on this. The meat is chopped so finely that you have an unbelievably smooth and silky consistency, and along with the heavy hand of fresh herbs and spices it’s absolutely delicious. At first I was nervous about trying the raw version, but I promise, just like me, you won’t be dissapointed. The flavours will blow your mind!
KHANOM JIIN NAAM NGIEW
Khanom Jiin, noodles indigenous to Thailand are strands of fermented rice dough that are served topped with all manner of soupy curry-like dishes, the most popular and my personal favourite being Naam Ngiew. Borrowed from the Shan ethnic group, Naam Ngiew is a broth like curry, rich in flavour using intensely aromatic ingredients like shrimp paste, garlic, shallots, turmeric root and chillies. The popular Thai breakfast staple is cooked with tomatoes, minced pork, and steamed blood and ngiew blossoms before being added to tender pork ribs.
I spent days quizzing locals on where to find best bowl of Khanom Jiin Naam Ngiew and it wasn’t until my very last day in Chiang Mai, when I was hungover, riding around Old Town on my bike in the blistering heat that I found it. If you go here, I promise you won’t be disappointed and be sure to order a side serve of Khao Ngiew, baked Jasmine rice with minced pork, pork blood and sauce. Please don’t let the pork blood turn you off… it’s unbelievably tasty!!
Soi 4 off Moon Muang Road (the road that Ta Pae gate is on)
*If you need to help finding it just ask a local in the area for directions to Baan Ka
NAM PRIK NOOM
A smoky, chunky green chili relish that’s packed full of flavour but not dominated by chili heat. The relish uses banana chili-like peppers, which are grilled with shallots and garlic, peeled and then pounded with roasted shrimp paste, which gives it a lovely meaty flavour. Nam Phrik Noom is commonly served with par-boiled vegetables and sticky rice, which you use your hands to dunk into and scoop up the relish.
A friend of mine living in Chiang Mai took me to a late night joint popular with locals that doesn’t even open until about 11pm where you sit at make-shift tables to scoop between a variety of deep-fried meats, sticky rice and Nam Prik Noom. This is THE ultimate late night snack. It’s located about two blocks south of the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel. Just ask a tuk tuk driver to take you to the midnight Naam Phrik Num or the Midnight Bazaar.
A great restaurant to try Nam Phrik Num is Tong Tem Toh in Nimmanhaemin. The restaurant which is popular with locals serves up a wide variety of Northern Thai dishes and they have a Northern Thai Hors d’oevre platter that has Nam phrik Num and Nam Phrik Ong, another chili relish of dried chillies, tomatoes and pork that’s served with a variety of northern Thai pork sausages like Sai Oua, boiled eggs and par-boiled vegetables all for about 150Baht. (picture of platter at top of page)
*You can also get Nam Phrik Noom at any local market, like the night market at Chiang Mai gate.
Tong Tem Toh
11 Nimmanhaemin Road. Soi 13
Suthep, Meuang, Chaing Mai
PH: 05389 4701
This is not your average sausage, it’s loose and crumbly and explodes with flavour when you take a bite. This Herbaceous pork sausage is particular to Northern Thailand and was traditionally made with the discarded odds and ends of pigs. But thanks to it’s appealing flavour, there aren’t enough odds and ends to supply the demand anymore, so it is typically made with minced fatty pork, along with a paste of shallots, cassia bark, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and other herbs and spices. The coils of meat are grilled over a low fire and you’ll find the best at the markets. Perfect with beer, sticky rice and Nam Phrik Noom.
Khao Soi was the first Northern Thai dish that I ate in Chiang Mai, and from the first mouthful a love affair was born. I literally spent weeks, scouring Chiang Mai trying dozens of bowls that the city had to offer, and by the time I left I had eaten so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if I had Khao Soi running through my veins.
Unlike other typical northern Thai food, Khao soi uses coconut cream for the broth, bone-in chicken or beef instead of the ubiquitous pork, and tender wheat egg noodles rather than rice flour. Sitting a top the aromatic and rich orange-tinged broth are crunchy deep-fried noodles and on the side you’ll have a small plate of pungent accompaniments like pickled mustard greens, hunks of raw shallots and wedges of lime; all of which you’ll want to add to the dish to suite your personal taste.
Every restaurant has their own rendition, so it’s almost impossible for me to pick a favourite. Khao Soi Prince has a lovely version that is subtly spiced, only slightly sweet and rich but not overpowering. Khao Soi Lam Duan, an open-air establishment more than 70 years old serves up a richer, pork-and-chicken-based broth that only has a touch of coconut cream. Then there is also the Khao Soi Restaurant on the corner of the road across from the Three Kings Monument in the Old City. They do a Khao Soi with crispy pork and… well let’s just say that I was making some strange noises at the table reminiscent to that infamous restaurant scene in the movie When Harry met Sally.
Khao Soi Prince
105-109 Th Kaew Nawarat, Chiang Mai
PH: 05324 244,
* You might want to call ahead as the restaurant is frequently closed for Muslim holidays.
Khao Soi Lam Duan
352/22 Charoenraj Road
near Wat Fa Ham Temple,
GAENG HANG LAYOh man. Even as I’m writing this, I’m almost drooling on my keyboard. This decadent and moorish curry has tender hunks of pork shoulder and fatty pork belly that’s been simmered for well over an hour until it reaches a heavenly rich and silky consistency. Historically Burmese, the use of tamarind, pickled garlic, palm sugar and Indian curry powder give it the perfect balance of sweetness, sourness and a slight salty tinge. It’s almost like a red curry on spice steroids. This dish is found all over Northern Thailand and because it’s easier to make in large volumes, it’s often associated with communal eating. You’ll need a big hunk of sticky rice with this to dunk into the flavoursome broth… don’t waste a drop!
You can pick up great Gaeng Hang Lay at the markets or head to Tong Tem Toh in Nimmanhaemin for a good bowl.
Tong Tem Toh
11 Nimmanhaemin Road. Soi 13,
PH: 05389 4701
If you have any questions about Northern Thai food, need clearer directions or would like additional recommendations just flick me an email. I want everbody to experience how incredible Northern Thai food is so I’m more than happy to help wherever I can!