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.
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.
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!