Category Archives: Northern Thailand

Getting to the meaty part of Chiang Mai

Fish larb at Raan Larb Pa Than

Northern Thailand is a lovely place full of peace-loving people, but their food betrays a bloodthirstiness not readily apparent to the casual observer. There is the dish of light and butterflies known as khao soy and the barely perceptible calf muscle exercises called “Lanna dance”, yes, but there is also bile and blood and innards and raw meat, the stuff you see in the aftermath of a hyena attack, the stuff that people shy away from in the wet market. This is real northern food.

Raan Larb Pa Than, out past the Pa Than bridge, specializes in this type of food. Like everywhere else in the north, it’s full of fun-loving gentle northerners strapping on the feedbag big time; unlike everywhere else, this restaurant specializes in larb dee kom, or minced salad of anything considered delicious, like fish, pork, or beef (no chicken, and pork and beef also come in raw versions). A particular stand-out is their larb of freshwater fish, lighter and more delicate than its bloodier counterparts.

Our neighbor’s table

But larb is not the only thing they have. There is also saa, which, contrary to my earlier understanding, does not refer only to vegetables, but appears to be a term nearly interchangeable with yum — a spicy, tart salad made with chunks of stuff. There is lupia, yet another meat salad term that refers to combining the minced protein with blood and lemongrass to diminish any hints of gaminess. There is yaw (tripe) and jin nung (steamed bull, really) and sai tod (fried innards) alongside the usuals you would want to run to like a child to its mother like gaeng om (clear, tart soup) and som tum (minced vegetable or fruit salad). It’s a place of serious meat eaters AND drinkers — the Saeng Som was out in full force at lunchtime on a Tuesday. It’s food for people who work hard, flavored with dipping sauces and a nam prik tha dang (red-eye chili paste) spicy enough to blow steam out of your ears.

You might need this

Another spot for people who, at the very least play hard, is Midnight Fried Chicken (also somehow known as Midnight Sticky Rice, or Midnight Fried Pork, or likely anything else this place is good at) on Kamphaeng Din Road. As the name suggests, it is open like clockwork at the stroke of midnight, every day, until 5 in the morning.  The clientele reflects this accordingly: young, T-shirted hipsters out on dates or in groups, stuffing themselves with fried things right before bed, as the young frequently do. It is not a place for me, but I was here all the same, and would come again, if only for the heavenly fried pork which, in all fairness, should be the name of this food stall.

Midnight Chicken

You will probably be able to pick out this stall from the queue of hungry clubgoers waiting patiently outside; if you are lucky, as we were, you will get a table roadside instead of a table on a lower level in the back. You pick out your choices by checking the names of dishes you want (in Thai); you serve yourself water from a jug and bin of ice behind the partition. It is, to put it mildly, a down-at-home kind of place. That doesn’t mitigate the enjoyment of stuffing your face full of delicious fried meats with sticky rice and nam prik (chili paste), not one bit. So what if it’s a weeknight? Sleep in late tomorrow, and indulge tonight.

Stuff your face

(All photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, beef, Chiang Mai, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Northern Thailand, pork, restaurant, som tum, Thailand

Noshing in Nan

For years, sleepy Nan was sheltered from the rest of the country by a string of richly forested mountains that kept the northern Thai village relatively isolated. Maybe that is why the “Nan-style” Northern food bears a different imprint from that of the rest of the “spine” running down Thailand, punctuated by Lampang, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. With more Lao influence, less traces of a Burmese presence, Nan cuisine still boasts the earthy, bitter undertow characterizing much northern Thai food, but more stripped-down — think Peter Luger instead of, like, Gramercy Tavern.

An example of this might be the down-at-heel open-air shack lining the street off of Kha Luang Road named Pu Som Jiao Gow (take the right at the three-way intersection at the end of Kha Luang Rd., 50 m to the left after the turn; 080-674-1658, 054-750-486), which boasts a menu that is heavy on jaew (dipping sauce), various types of thom (boiled soup), grilled meaty bits and, because we are a-truckin’ along with the times that are a-changin’, various items stir-fried with oyster sauce.

Raw beef larb with bile

Another popular dish type on the menu: various raw meat salads such as larb kom (translated as “bitter larb”, pictured above, made so with the addition of nam dee, or bile) and saa nuea (“beef salad”. Confusingly, saa here refers only to meat instead of vegetables). In addition to jaew, Pu Som serves an additional dipping sauce called kom, liberally flavored with bile and reminiscent of liquid air freshener. There is also raw pork salad, which, to be honest, is the menu item I greeted with alarm; everyone has a line, and that one there is mine. No raw pork, thanks (unless it is guaranteed to be delicious, like naem. I have standards!)

The menu is also heavy on the thom (boiled meats in soup), all appearing to be a variation on the famed Isaan standby thom saeb (spicy, tart soup), but with varying degrees of spiciness. There is thom kom (there is never too much bile) and, if you’re a great big scaredy-cat, thom om (which is what I ordered and still very spicy), free of the freshness and dill you see in Isaan but also without the satisfyingly deep flavor of a gaeng you might find in the rest of the north.

Thom om

And then there is awful. Oh, I mean offal! I usually like it, especially liver (here grilled and dressed in a yum-like sauce — yes, I’m talking about thub waan) and tongue (here referred to as lin yang, thin slices of beef tongue grilled). But I must admit, I have never had the pleasure of encountering a plateful of pigs’ lungs until this trip, where they are steamed and referred to as maam nung, resembling something a bit like boudin noir but spongy, with the slightest hint of springiness, tasting so gamey as to recall the deepest, glow-in-the-dark depths of the sea: the stuff you find in the opened crab shell, the dead man’s fingers and the like. That is maam nung. I managed two pieces.

It was one of the more adventurous meals I’d had in a while, made more so by having a giant bottle of Chang Beer to myself  (honestly, is there really no other size?) and having to navigate a crowded street crossing (watch out for that bicycle!) on the way home. In a few days, I look forward to returning to Japan, where my biggest challenge will be to keep myself from breaking a bone out on the ski slopes. Nihon ni ikoo!

Steamed lungs

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, Isaan, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand

Chiang Mai Diary

Aunt Tui's roses in bloom

When I decided to start research for a second book, this one for, basically, all of Thailand ex-Bangkok, I knew it would be a big undertaking. Nosing out Bangkok’s street food stalls took a year; this one … could take more. More months of 5 lunches and 3 dinners a day, more weeks registering a steadily rising number on the scale, more nights of clutching at my belly as I struggle to digest (I know, I know. Pity me! Pity me!).

Well, screw that. I’ll tell you now: I want this done by year-end. I’m no spring chicken, and I am no longer pregnant, so I can no longer hide all the extra poundage behind the “but I’m pregnant excuse!”. Maybe I don’t have that much time left before my digestive system finally rebels once and for all and explodes. Long story short: I will have to eat more, now.  What better place to start than Chiang Mai?

It’s obvious where out-of-towners eat when they come to the “capital of the North”: the usual suspects, Lamduan Faham (either branch), Samoerjai, Huen Phen. What they eat: khao soy, roasted young chili dip (nam prik num), deep-fried pork (moo tod). I decided I would do all I can to avoid that for the time being. You already know these places, right? There must be some culinary gems that all yinz guys have overlooked!

Apparently, “hidden culinary gems” means this:

Chicken rice at Khao Mun Gai Hailum

And this:

Chicken rice at Gied Ocha

Yes, I had a whole lot of khao mun gai. Inexplicably. Because, I think you all know this, chicken rice is not in any way a Northern Thai thing. It’s a “way north…er…east of Thailand” thing (my geography isn’t too good). In my defense, it’s a little different here in Chiang Mai: the rice is fluffier and less fatty, and, well, the chicken appears to be too. Two stand-outs were Khao Mun Gai Hailum (to the right near the entrance of Rotfai Road, 053-242-833) and Gied Ocha (41-43 Intawororos Road, 053-328-262-3); the former a bare-bones haven for chicken rice purists who are picky about both their rice and their chicken, the latter a sunny, welcoming favorite where the owner — a former lottery winner, yes really — still patrols the dining room, barking out incomprehensible orders to a beleaguered and obviously very clever Hainanese chicken rice-making station in front.

On the same road as Gied Ocha stands a fish noodle-and-rice porridge stand called Sa-Ard (33-35 Intawororos Road, 053-327-261) that, as full as I was, turned out to be among the most delicious fish noodle places I’ve been to (I am not a fish noodle fan). The broth, perfectly clear and a bright, fresh slick of seafood; an assorted array of fish meatballs of various shapes and degrees of deliciousness; a bowl heavy with lettuce and deep-fried garlic. What I’m talking about, when I came to and remembered to take a photo:

When I was done with my fish meatball gow low

Other good things: Isaan sausages, both stuffed with rice and with woon sen, or glass vermicelli; deep-fried bananas, encased in a lattice of batter and coconut flakes; som tum muang, or “Northern-style” grated green papaya salad, flavored with tamarind juice instead of lime (is that really what makes it Northern?); and thu-ka-ko, rounds of taro tossed in flour and deep-fried, a street snack you actually honest-to-God can’t get anywhere else, apparently.

But where’s the Northern Thai food? What am I, made of stone? Of course I had some. First, at a Disneyland-style “Northern Thai” restaurant where the food swung through some very un-Northernlike extremes of flavor to accommodate the Bangkokians who want their Northern food to be as highly spiced as Isaan; then, at a restaurant my dad directed me too, promising that the food would be just like what I would get from my Aunt Priew (this is very high praise).

Huen Jai Yong (near Sankumpang intersection, 086-671-8710, 086-730-2673) might be hard to get to, and it’s definitely a restaurant, not a street food stall, but it’s worth it to call and ask for those directions (I am useless at directions. Can you tell?) This is Northern food: flavorful yet a little mellow, yummy but not pandering  (too sweet, too spicy). Don’t miss out on the saa pak, a “salad” of minced vegetables that recalls salty and tart without overly favoring either, or the thum makuea, mashed Thai eggplant bearing a mellowness that defies its fierce appearance.

Mashed Thai eggplant at Huen Jai Yong

But as good as Aunt Priew? Sorry. No.

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Filed under Asia, Chiang Mai, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand