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