It’s been a while since I posted, and for that I apologize. I have an excuse: I have been working, and so unused to actually having to do something productive with my days that I have been unable to do almost anything else. Whatever free time I have had lately has been spent eating and obsessing over Beyonce’s “Formation” video. Writing anything beyond what I’m being paid for has been too tiring to contemplate.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have the time for a quick weekend jaunt up to Chiang Rai. Because if the opportunity presents itself to taste my aunt Priew’s cooking yet again, obviously I will take it. And my friends will take it too! We all headed up to Chiang Rai, determined to eat as much of our way through my hometown as possible.
One of our first stops was at Chiwit Tamada (“ordinary life” in Thai), which I’ve always thought was a strange name for this place. That is because it is not ordinary at all. It is frankly beautiful, a burgeoning restaurant/cafe/spa/Ralph Lauren ad that now takes up two renovated colonial-style houses by the river, set in lush gardens that would make any green thumb weep in appreciation. As a result, everyone and their second cousin who has ever trekked up to the Golden Triangle wants to go there, and the line is out of this world. To snag a table here without a reservation, be prepared for a long wait, for either a seat or for your food. All the same, the fact that it remains so packed — in a town where the locals are usually too cheap to eat out — says something about how truly transporting the surrounds are.
Naturally, no trip up North is a trip well trodden without some khao soy. We thought we might try something new by darkening the door at Sarika, a Muslim curried egg noodle specialist located on the way to the airport. Here, the broth is extremely thin — more like a regular bowl of soup noodles and less like a curry — which makes it a lot less satisfying for those of us who are drawn to the dish for its coconut milk-enriched taste. A lot more popular with our table was the khao mok gai, a Thai-Muslim chicken biriyani that actually had some flavor in the turmeric rice and in the chicken meat, thanks to a healthy smattering of deep-fried shallots, a sweet chili dipping sauce and a bracing oxtail soup metallic with chilies.
But of course the main event was aunt Priew’s house. I have a couple of dishes I request every time I go there, and this time, aunt Priew was kind enough to give a cooking demonstration of both. One dish, saa pak, is only available in the cold season and incorporates 12-15 different types of (mostly seasonal) greens, including mango leaves, slivered Thai eggplant, macerated water olives and a very tart local tomato that is hard to find anywhere else. What really makes this dish, however, is the dressing: the flaked flesh of a grilled fish (in this case, tilapia), with the pounded flesh of roast chilies, shallots and garlic. It’s a real labor of love to make this dish because it’s so time-consuming.
The other dish I always request is gang pak pung, a sour, clear soup based on a broth brewed from sour fermented sausage (naem) and bulked up with the (again seasonal) bud-like vegetable known as pak pung. Aunt Priew tells me the most important part of this dish, surprisingly, is the naem used to flavor the broth, not the vegetable itself.
The finished ingredient looks like this:
The table was heaving with plates of food by the time aunt Priew was finished cooking. Besides the vegetable salad and sour soup, we also had nam prik nam pak, a chili dip of pureed pickled vegetables that I’ve written about before:
Then there is gang gradan, said to have been invented when someone set out a soup during the “intense” Chiang Rai cold season and awoke to find that soup frozen through. Being a cost-conscious Northerner, they cut it into slices and served it. Voila, gang gradan.
In actuality, I think this dish has Chinese origins. The dish resembles the jelly kha moo (pig’s trotter terrine) that my husband’s Chinese-Thai family likes to eat at family gatherings, garnished with Tabasco and, of course, lots of Maggi. My friend Tawn tells me his father is fond of making a dish known as moo nao (“cold pork”), which has Teochiew origins. There are probably variations of this dish all over the world.
For dessert, we had something that my father is always requesting from aunt Priew: khao niew na nga (black sesame sticky rice), which is a two-parter: the rice itself, mixed with roasted black sesame seeds, and the accompaniment, blocks of pulverized sesame mixed with sugarcane juice for a very, very slight and fleeting sweetness.
No meal is complete, of course, without some moo yaw (steamed Vietnamese-style pork pate), sai oua (Northern Thai sausage) and sticky rice. Completely stuffed, we managed to toddle our way back to our rooms at the Wiang Inn, but not before a long walk downtown in an attempt to feel less like walking sai oua ourselves.
Addicted to that feeling of fullness, I have since been consoling myself by stuffing my face with more food than I’ve had in weeks. I hope that this means I’m turning a corner, and that the wintertime blues will soon be behind me. I have Chiang Rai to thank for that.
We are already planning our next trip up North: