When people go to Chiang Mai, they usually want to eat the local food — aharn muang. Not all Chiang Mai-ers are as infatuated with northern Thai fare, of course, but as a resident of Bangkok — where good northern Thai cuisine is as hard to get as a pair of rubber boots — there was no way I would not hit all the typical places that one goes to for this food. Anything else would be a waste of time.
Now, I am a northerner. Yes, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and yes, my dad would make kanom jeen nam ngiew and call it “Thai spaghetti” in order to get us to eat it. But having grown up with a dad from Chiang Rai and a mom from Chiang Mai, I feel pretty qualified to figure out what is northern Thai food and what is not. What drives me crazy is that a lot of times, people do not know what northern food actually is. I hate this about myself, that this petty little thing drives me crazy. But it does.
So when a guy who is couched as a “northern Thai food expert” calls the central Thai dish yum samun prai (lemongrass spicy salad) northern, it drives me crazy. When some other dude asks me if, while on my trip up north, I ate mieng kum (a DIY central Thai appetizer of betel leaves, sometimes Chinese kale leaves, with dried shrimp, cubed lime, chilies, what have you), that drives me crazy. When yet another person asks me if khao chae (cold rice porridge with deep-fried sides eaten in the hot season) is northern I … you get the point. Many people don’t know what aharn muang is, Thai people included.
I think this is because northern Thai food — with the exception of khao soy — isn’t particularly friendly. It lacks the sweet-tart overtones that make central Thai food so appealing, or the in-your-face sour-fire that Isaan food boasts. It’s salty and heavy; it has weight and gravitas and a bitter backbone, echoed by all the lawn clippings and this-should-be-in-a-compost-pile tree leaves that usually accompany it. It’s flecked with blood and bile, fat and parts — we Northerners do love our pig parts. All this, because we live in the mountains where it is “cold” — the weather dips below 30 degrees C sometimes OMG! The further north you go, the more “northern” food gets. Chiang Mai is actually aharn muang lite.
Yet I do love Chiang Mai. I have been there twice in the past three weeks: first, with @ChefMcDang, who was filming something I can only describe as an “unnamed chef competition series” (I was designated Shirt Holder); then, with my mother’s family, meeting up for the annual katin, which is essentially an opportunity to “make merit” at the family temple. Both times were thinly-veiled grabs at eating as much northern Thai food as I could.
Yes, I am that person: next to the food table at parties, hiding in the kitchen at big get-togethers, in the self-styled “market” next to the temple during prayers. But would you blame me?
Every year, there is khao soy and kanom jeen nam ngiew. There is pork on skewers grilling over an open flame, hunks of grilled chili dip (nam prik num) wrapped in banana leaves, soft, comforting bowls of fried noodles, garnished with purple orchids. Som tum, muang-style, flavored with nam pu, or the juice from pulverized field crabs. Yum pakkad dong, or a spicy salad made out of pickled cabbage. No, not everything is northern, but it is served with a gracious smile, ravenous cousins poking you from behind with their bamboo baskets, waiting for their turn. And it is FREE … as long as you are willing to wear a pa sin (old-fashioned sarong), and make awkward small talk at various intervals.
So that was a place I would call very familiar. But I made a new discovery too, thanks to the New York Times story on “northern Thai food” in Chiang Mai. I am glad I read it (thanks @DwightTurner!), or I would not have found out that Krua Phech Doi Ngam (125/3 Moo 3, Mahidon Road) has some of Chiang Mai’s best northern food, better than (dare I say it?) even Huen Phen.
Not to mean that it’s perfect. There’s that lemongrass salad, which is award-winning, apparently, but, uh … not Northern. Nice recipe though! There is their insistence on calling what is basically a beef version of Northern gaeng om a gaeng jin hoom, which is a different dish entirely, usually made of fatty pork stewed with turmeric and lemongrass until the juices evaporate and all that is left is a salty and (you guessed it) fatty glob. There is the nam prik pla rah (chili dip with Thai “anchovies”), marred by the strange addition of cherry tomatoes.
But there is also everything else, which is pretty pretty good. In fact, it’s great, even the faux gaeng jin hoom, which I wish I had taken home on the airplane — stewed-til-tender slivers of thick, melt-in-the-mouth beef in a deliciously unctuous sauce. The chicken gaeng om (here, with the same base as jin hoom), pepped up with the addition of chicken livers. The fabulous thum kanoon (pounded young jackfruit), which makes Huen Phen’s version an anemic, sad little pretender.
So next time I go to Chiang Mai, there may be a new must-go-to in town, alongside Lamduan Faham and Aunt Ton’s house and, yes, Love At First Bite (I hate that I like this place, but what can I say? I love pie). Even better: the hordes snapping up all the food in front of your eyes at Huen Phen are, strangely, absent at Krua Phech Doi Ngam. All the more food for me.