Category Archives: Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai Interlude

The ingredients for saa pak, a Northern Thai salad

The ingredients for saa pak, a Northern Thai salad

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.

Lunch at Chiwit Thamada

Lunch at Chiwit Tamada

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.

Sarika's chicken biryani

Sarika’s chicken biriyani

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.

Saa pak

Saa pak

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 main ingredients for gang pak pung

The main ingredients for gang pak pung

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:

Northern Thai sausage at Wannapa

Northern Thai sausage at Wannapa in “downtown” Chiang Rai



Filed under Asia, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Dishes to Try Up North

Pak ki hood, blanched and served alongside nam prik

Believe it or not, I am not going to write about kanom jeen nam ngiew or the Steelers today. I know, I know. I know this makes you sad. But I must branch out. Show all my brilliant colors. Spread my wings.

So instead, I will ramble on semi-incoherently about my childhood in the era of Rama VI, back when rickshaws ruled the North and people foraged in the jungle for food. My fascinating reminiscences include memories of being abandoned at the post office as my nanny chatted up her then-boyfriend, and being menaced by a homicidal goose tethered to a pole in the middle of her front yard. Did you know geese are thoroughly unpleasant creatures? Now you do.

I also remember my Aunt Priew, who lived right next door to my grandmother’s house — easily accessible from our yard once you managed to jump over a tiny hill of ferocious red ants. Somehow, I never really made the jump and was bitten every time I tried. Yet day after day would find me once again testing the anthill because my Aunt Priew is a tremendous cook, possibly the best cook of Northern Thai food in the kingdom.  Roasted lin fa (sky tongue) beans, julienned and stir-fried with glass noodles or paired with a fatty raw larb; a touch of magorg, or water olive, added to a fiery nam prik num (roasted green chili dip) — my aunt is full of these little touches with the local produce that set her dishes apart from the rest. Now if I could just convince her to open a restaurant …

These are some of the Northern Thai dishes that are worth the long trek up to the tip of the country. They go just as well with khao suay (jasmine rice) as they do with khao niew (sticky rice). Try them for a real taste of Northern Thai food:

(Note: Please forgive the photos. They are a little … blurry. No, it wasn’t the wine.)

Gaeng om, Northern-style

Gaeng om, sort of

Unlike the light, prickly Isaan gaeng om, the Northern Thai version is — like much of the rest of Northern food — richer, meatier and fattier. The curry paste is that for a typical gaeng muang (Northern curry), with a couple of additions. There is lemongrass, galangal, dry chili, shrimp paste and garlic, plus pla sarak (kind of like pla salid, but bigger) and bakwan, which, if not Sichuan peppercorn, is something very similar, with the same tongue-numbing effects.

The tongue-numbing peppercorn bakwan

This paste is then fried in oil and augmented by fresh chilies, pork innards, bruised lemongrass and red shallot bulbs, and kaffir lime leaves and stewed, and then garnished with dill and coriander. It has a lingering meat taste that is very Northern.

Gaeng gadang

Pork “jelly” with pork rinds

Some dishes seem like they were engineered by mistake. Puff pastry is one; this is another. It’s basically a gaeng muang focused on kaki (fatty pork leg) and/or moo sam chan (three-layer pork), left out in the cold. It’s a distinctly “cold season” dish because traditionally it was left out overnight to congeal; today, it is chilled in the refrigerator and served in slices like a terrine. Very unusual and very porky.

Saa pak

Northern Thai “salad”, or saa pak

This is hands-down my favorite dish up North, but something that, aside from a few vendors in the Chiang Rai wet market, is very difficult to obtain. The reason could possibly be the 10+ types of local leaves (pak puen muang) required for a real saa pak (“spicy leaves”).

Greenery includes thinly sliced brinjals, young mango leaves, water olive leaves, pak pu ya (“grandfather-grandmother leaves,” a kind of edible blossom), plus sliced shallots and chopped fresh tomato. It is then tossed, like a chopped or Caesar salad, with flaked fish meat which has been grilled or boiled (with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf to lose the fishiness), plus nam prik num (roasted green chili dip) and sliced water olive.

This is a dish I am going to try to recreate at home with plain old lettuce, onions, tomato and avocado. I think it could give me a little taste of home, even in the middle of Bangkok.



Filed under Asia, Chiang Rai, curries, food, food stalls, markets, Northern Thailand, Thailand

The Ugly Face of Chauvinism

I have inexplicably agreed to be on a panel at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand to discuss foreigners cooking Thai food. While I am happy to do it, I am also a little apprehensive. This is the grad student who had to give her presentations sitting down in order to keep from passing out or vomiting. This is the friend who hates talking on the phone because that form of communication is too immediate and invasive. This is one of your speakers, guys! Hopefully I have moved beyond panic attacks and am now at peace with being a gibbering idiot.

Another reason I’m worried? Because I am a great big hypocrite.

Let me explain. I have been writing a street food guide for the past year, a project I have been super-quiet about because I don’t want to jinx it (yes, I am that type of person). It’s called “Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls” and it will be out early next year (knock on wood. Fingers crossed. Turn around three times).  In it, I detail different types of stalls — yummy duck porridge; buoyant oyster omelettes; exuberant iced coconut milk desserts; extravangantly stuffed flat noodles.

And not a mention of a northern Thai noodle dish, anywhere.

I know what I’ve done. I know there is ample khao soy and kanom jeen nam ngiew to be had on the city’s streets. Believe me, given my issues with northern Thai food I have tried almost all of them. But I feel like 1.) the best ones are branches of Northern Thai institutions, so why not go to the real one, and 2.) there are so many other great stalls out there. Really, though, there is no excuse. I am guilty of culinary chauvinism. I don’t want to believe Bangkokians can make a decent bowl of khao soy, much less approach the personal Freudian nightmare that is nam ngiew.

And, I am sorry to say, this is not my only prejudice. As long as I’m laying it all out there: watching the movie “Invincible”, I was struck by how Mark Wahlberg (who plays an Eagle) had a girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) who was a Giants fan. Uh, WTF?! Because there is no, no, never, ever, never any way I would go within two feet of a Cleveland Browns fan. Sure, some of them may be nice and all, but to date or even marry one? Are you kidding me? (This from the person who still cannot show her face at Bully’s because she almost got into a fist fight with a Cardinals fan two years ago. He was almost 50! I could have taken him).

People tell me about close friends, open-minded in every other way, who turn into Asia’s answers to Glenn Beck when it comes to the issue of foreigners cooking Thai food. It can’t be done: farang lack the upbringing, the tastebud training, the turbo-charged metabolisms, the innate love of the color fuchsia.  We laugh at this, but I’m the same. I have my blind spots too.

So I want to make amends before I go on this panel. Here are the Northern Thai places I go to in Bangkok when I know I won’t be going up North for a while:

People desperate for good Northern Thai noodles in front of Nam Ngiew Pa Suk


You know what this is

Nam Ngiew Pa Suk (Soi Phiphat, 300 m from Silom, on the right side)

Not surprisingly, this is the branch of the venerable stall in Chiang Rai. It also serves khao soy (which I find kind of bland) and khao ganjin, or what my friend calls “crazy purple Shan rice”: rice steamed in pork blood and garnished with deep-fried garlic and fresh coriander. But the nam ngiew is almost as thick, rich and meaty as the original, and very popular, unlike many other Bangkok stalls where it’s the nam ngiew that is neglected in favor of the more well-known egg noodle dish.

Maan Mueng (Ramkhamhaeng 112)

This is a good Northern Thai restaurant overall. They do everything well here: super nam prik num (roasted green pepper dip), nice gaeng ho (a sort of “goulash” of leftovers including glass vermicelli noodles and pork), and yes, a good khao soy. The nam ngiew is sort of unusual here — a thick fermented bean base that has a deep undertow of near-fishiness. I love it. A shame it’s so far away.

Maan Mueng's nam ngiew

So there. Two places I go to again and again. And not in the hopes I find something to complain about, either. I would have tried for three, but let’s not push it.

Have a good weekend. Unless you are a Baltimore Ravens fan.


Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Chiang Rai, food, food stalls, noodles, Northern Thailand, restaurant, Thailand

What nam ngiew means to me

Proper pork nam ngiew at Pa Suk in Chiang Rai

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

Everyone has a dish that reminds them of their childhoods. This — and the “last meal” that a person would select were he or she able to choose — are two of the most illuminating things you can know about a person, telling you how they see themselves, and how they grew up. I’m not the only person to think this (although there is no “childhood meal” book — I mean, we have the TGI Friday’s menu for that); in 2007, photographer Melanie Dunea asked some of the most famous chefs in the world what meal would be their preferred parting shot, and the result was “My Last Supper”.

It turns out chefs are as varied as regular people when it comes to what they want, and the setting: Daniel Boulud likes Versailles, Gordon Ramsay likes home. Jacques Pepin, characteristically elegant, wants a hot dog; BLT chef Laurent Tourondel, a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Some even chose soundtracks, with U2 making an appearance (why? If it’s post-“Unforgettable Fire”, I shake my head and judge).

I really don’t know what my last meal would be. I used to say a cold lobster with mayonnaise; sometimes I think I prefer meatloaf with a side of mac and cheese. But neither of these dishes says anything about me. The dish that figures most prominently in my childhood, and the one I keep coming back to again and again in Bangkok (like a culinary Don Quixote, or an idiot) is kanom jeen nam ngiew, a Northern Thai dish of minced pork and/or beef and dried ngiew blossoms.

Nam ngiew at Yui Lee on Sukhumvit Soi 31

It is a widely accepted fact that good Northern Thai food is hard to find in Bangkok. This is not just a bunch of Northerners pissing and moaning about Central people mucking around with beloved old favorites (although there is some of that). For some reason, something is lost in translation that isn’t when it comes to any other region in Thailand, be it Isaan or Southern Thai. It’s not heat: actually, Northerners cannot compare to Southern Thais when it comes to spicy food. I think it’s the shortcuts that people are tempted to take with northern food, which features a lot of cut or shredded herbs and painstakingly put-together pastes (plus a lot of fatty cuts of pork to combat the “cold” weather). I cannot tell you how many nam ngiew noodles I have had missing the dried dok ngiew, or ngiew flowers, which resemble sawed-off broomsticks. The fact they still serve it without essential ingredients suggests laziness, and disrespect to the customer.

Yet I haunt every food stand serving nam ngiew, and order it at restaurants when I know I shouldn’t; against all logic, I want to find The One that will bring me back home. Home to New Castle, Pennsylvania, where I wanted to dine on cavatelli (“cavads”) like everyone else in my predominantly Italian-American town, and look forward to wedding soup or pasta fagioli (pronounced “fazool”) on holidays. Home, where I would see my dad in his pajamas stuffing his own sai oua on the floor of our kitchen and feel unaccountably embarrassed. Home, where my dad would have to refer to nam ngiew as “Thai spaghetti” to get us to eat what he cooked after a 14-hour work day. And it does resemble bolognese, after a fashion (possibly a reason why I LURVE spaghetti bolognese). But it’s much, much better — meaty and rich and a little bit macho, and, if you’re from Chiang Rai, skimpy on the girly tomatoes that effete Chiang Mai-ers use to balance out all that heft (Chiang Mai people, I jest. My mom’s family is from Chiang Mai).

So where is the best place to get this very special dish? My house, where I keep two bags of sauce at all times. Also, Chiang Rai’s Pa Suk, which probably has the best nam ngiew on earth (sorry, Chiang Mai). The sauce comes in pork or beef versions (beef is VERY beefy), with fermented rice noodles (kanom jeen) or regular guay thiew (rice noodles). Also, they offer a wide variety of pork rinds (kaab moo) because no bowl is complete without them.

Beef nam ngiew at Pa Suk

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

But where in Bangkok? Ah, well, other people are probably better guides. (This one is good.) But I urge you to do something really crazy. You can do it yourself. Alas, the Duangnet family recipe is out of bounds. But if you don’t mind the tomatoey Chiang Mai style, here is the recipe from my great-aunt, Jiao Sri na Chiangmai.

Nam Ngiew (for 10)


1. Nam Prik: Grind the following together well

Dried pepper,     30 pieces

Dried Bird Chillis,   30 pieces

Shallots,    0.2 Kilo

Garlic,     0.1 Kilo

Shrimp paste (Kapi),   0.1 Kilo

Lemon Grass,    3 pieces (stems)

Salt,     1 tablespoonful

Grilled dried pickled bean paste, 0.2 Kilo

2. Next, boil until slightly soft:

Pork spare ribs, cartilage parts, 1 Kilo, cut into 1 inch pieces. Save cooking liquid.

To cook:

  1. Fry “Nam Prik” in hot vegetable oil in a big pot until it “smells good” (the inside of your nose tickles). Add 1 Kilo of ground pork and the cooked spare ribs. Stir until cooked. Add the soup from the cooked spare ribs. Then add 1 Kilo of cherry tomatoes, add cooked pork blood in pieces and 0.1 Kilo of dried “Ngiew Flowers”. Add 0.2 Kilo of Black Tao Jeao.

Boil in medium temperature until well blended. Before serving on kanom jeen, add fish sauce and lime juice to your taste.

  1. Serve with:
    1. Deep fried chopped garlic
    2. Chopped shallots
    3. Cut shallots
    4. Cut limes
    5. Cut pickled greens
    6. Ground deep-fried dried chillis

Bon appetit!


Filed under Asia, Bangkok, beef, Chiang Rai, food, food stalls, noodles, Northern Thailand, pork, Thailand

Road trip up north, Part Deux

Before I lull you back to sleep with my blatherings on how I spent the past weekend, I wanted to show you what Northern food really should look like, thanks to @SpecialKRB’s great pics.

Goniew in Nakhon Sawan's stewed duck

Last of the khao soy at Khao Soy Islam in Lampang

Nam ngiew at the incomparable Pa Suk in Chiang Rai

Pa Suk's khao ganjin

Whenever I go up north, I always make sure that I have both khao soy and kanom jeen nam ngiew — they are like the bookends to Northern Thai food: one fatty and rich, the other dense and pungent. To my mind, Chiang Mai has the best khao soy (the stalls in Chiang Rai are far too bland), but the only place to have nam ngiew is Pa Suk in Chiang Rai, where it’s made properly, with few tomatoes and with plenty of chili.

Contemplating a vat of beef nam ngiew

A trip home also isn’t the same without a gigantic breakfast of deep-fried pork, young crushed green chilies (nam prik num) with accompanying boiled veggies, saa pak made of a young fern available only during the rainy season, Northern Thai sausage (the famous sai oua), and macerated roasted eggplant, a Northern Thai version of baba ghanoush (the thum kanoon, or pounded young jackfruit, wasn’t available for some reason. And we had to actually steal the pork larb from the elders’ table). I love these dishes and actively seek them out whenever I am anywhere that claims to serve Northern Thai food.

Northern breakfast buffet

What we did not actively seek out, but what managed to find us, courtesy of a highway-side minimart: an appalling line of new-flavored Pringles chips that will set your hair on end. Tasting like a mix between bubble gum and room deodorizer, these chips (which are, no doubt, only available in Thailand) riff on the Thai fondness for the borderline between salty-sweet: lemon-sesame, blueberry-hazelnut, and most horrifying of all, softshell crab. It was the first, second, and third times, respectively, I was unable to finish a single potato chip.

In your darkest nightmares

A blow to the tastebuds to be sure, but we rebounded in Tak with a riverside trip to Kieng Thai, a lovely open-air restaurant popular with whisky-swilling local officials and famed for its clear — and authentic — spicy lemongrass soup, or thom yum (I’m no fan of coconut milk in the broth). Also devoured: tiny deep-fried Thai sardines, lightly poached fish with a lime-chili dipping sauce, a spicy-tart yum (salad) of mushrooms and raw fermented pork (naem), a whole river catfish and stir-fried morning glory with chilies.

Lunchtime in Tak

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Filed under Asia, Chiang Rai, food, food stalls, noodles, Northern Thailand, pork, restaurant, Thailand

Road trip up north, Part I

Waiting on a bowl of noodles in Nakhon Sawan

A terrible, unexpected thing happened that necessitated a trip up north (what a horrible sentence, I know. It will have to make do). What this … happening … underlined was that, if you can forgive the old saw, life is short, and that it should be spent doing the things that make you and the people you love happy.

So that is what we did. Maybe this was just an elaborate rationalization that people like us concoct in order to feel good about eating our feelings, but when faced with the tiny little fishballs adorning the snow-white egg noodles at Goniew in Nakhon Sawan after a crappy 24 hours and a long road ahead, the way of least resistance is also the tastiest.

Duck stewing in a vat at Goniew

Goniew is a marvel in more ways than one (and easily found. Ask anyone in Nakhon Sawan and they will tell you where it is). Not only does it offer some of the tastiest, cutest little fish meatballs around, but it also serves up a gorgeously braised bowl of duck noodles, duck and barbecued or crispy pork on rice, and a decent Hainanese chicken rice. It also offers daily noodle specials (our day, an unusual choice: duck beak noodles). And it is open at 7 in the morning, an oasis in the desert of highway minimarts after a 4:30 wakeup call with no breakfast in sight and a heavy heart.

Khao soy at Khao Soy Islam

To me, khao soy is one of the more interesting dishes in Thailand. Often mistaken for something Burmese, people are sometimes puzzled as to why they can’t find something similar to this dish in Burmese restaurants. But it’s actually “Haw”, a Chinese-Muslim group originally from Burma that gradually settled in parts of northern Thailand, bringing with them this delicious soupy mix of spice and starch. Their Muslim heritage explains why the dish, if authentic, comes in only beef or chicken, and the Chinese part possibly explains the inclusion of egg noodles.  Strangely, the “Haw” attained a reputation for bland food despite the invention of khao soy. Even now, northern Thais call something bland “haw”.

Certainly not “haw”: the thick, pungent stew-like concoction available at Khao Soy Islam in Lampang, famed for its horse-drawn carriages and the coin-shaped rice cakes cooked in watermelon juice. Both chicken and beef versions are similarly earthy, almost musky, but the beef — which appears to have been marinated in something strong and aromatic — is almost gamy, thick with spice.

A steamerful of ganjin in Chiang Rai

Finally, at our destination, Thailand’s northernmost city and my birthplace: a quick, hurried meal at Pa Suk, the city’s best and most well-known purveyor of that hard-to-produce noodle delicacy, kanom jeen nam ngiew. It’s hard to go wrong with either the pork and beef versions (pork is milder and fattier, beef more pungent), and both kinds are full of strength and authenticity — finally, after months of weak-kneed imitations back in the capital! But my favorite is khao ganjin, modeled after the Shan dish in which rice is cooked in pig’s blood and steamed in banana leaves. Here, it is served with green onions and deep-fried garlic oil, a punctuation point to the perfect “welcome home” meal.

Pork nam ngiew at Pa Suk


Filed under Asia, beef, Chiang Rai, chicken, duck, fish, food, food stalls, noodles, Northern Thailand, pork, Thailand