Meal times in Chiang Mai are often among the highlights of a trip. Like its art, language and cultural heritage, Chiang Mai food is distinct from its cousins to the south and east. A much more pronounced influence from Burma and China is evident in northern cuisine, resulting in milder curries and the heavier use of ginger and turmeric. Khao Niao (sticky rice), instead of steamed rice, is the main staple at every meal and goes very well with a range of nam prik (chilli dips) unique to northern cuisine.
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Khao Soi (Egg Noodle Curry)
Rich and savoury yellow curry noodle soup, served with spring onions, pickled cabbage and slices of lime. The egg noodles are of the flat variety, with a small handful of deep-fried portion added on top and also crushed into the broth for a toothsome texture. Choose from chicken, pork, or beef Khao Soi. Usually the portion is quite small, so you might end up ordering another bowl to fill up your stomach.
Not a single dish but a signature Lanna dining experience. Served in a low teak tray that doubles as a table, the khan toke comprises a range of northern-style side dishes and a basket of sticky rice. Diners sit on the floor, and dig in with one hand. The modern version of khan toke is accompanied by a series of cultural performances such as folk music, finger-nail dance and tribal dances.
Sai Oua (Grilled Herb Sausage)
A fiery starter dish, sai oua is northern-style sausage made from ground pork, dried chilies, garlic, shallots and a range of pungent herbs and spices. It looks very similar to northeastern-style sausage when seen on a charcoal grill but tastes drastically different – sai oua is more meaty and rich with herbal aromas as well as chilies.
Nam Prik Ong/Nam Prik Nume (Red/Green Chilli Dip)
This green and red chilli dip duo is the most well-known among all the northern-style chilli dips. Made with roasted chilli spur peppers, the green chilli dip, or nam prik nume, is fiery and will leave your tongue burning after only the first bite. The red chilli dip, or nam prik ong, tastes slightly milder, with a tomato-based paste mixed with ground pork, chopped coriander, spring onion and dried bird’s eye chilies. Both are usually eaten with crispy pork skin, steamed vegetables, or sticky rice.
Gaeng Hang Lay (Burmese-style Sweet Curry)
A yellow curry with a tamarind-based soup, pork chunks, shallots and shrimp paste. Its origins are in Burma, but the adapted northern Thai version uses less oil. With no coconut cream as the ingredient, the texture is less thick than green curry and rich with spices. Some might find gaeng hang lay an acquired taste, but, for us, it's a real winner.
Kanom Jeen Nam Ngeow (Rice Vermicelli with Soybean Curry)
Perhaps the most exotic looking among all the kanom jeen (spaghetti-like noodles), this popular northern dish consists of the kanom jeen in a pork-soybean curry (nam ngeow), served with fresh vegetables, kaeb moo (crispy pork skin), dried bird’s eye chilies and a range of local condiments. The soup tastes rather light and refreshing, unlike other rich, coconut cream versions found in other regional kanom jeen dishes.
Miang Kham (Bite-sized Wrapped Snacks)
A traditional finger food, miang kham is a fun, do-it-yourself starter dish. One serving consists of fresh betal leaves (for wrapping), sweet syrup and a variety of fillings, usually sliced shallots, fresh red or green chilies, diced ginger, diced garlic, diced lime, dried small shrimp and roasted grated coconut. One bite can have all or some of the fillings – it’s totally up to you.
Tam Khanun (Young Jackfruit Salad)
Refreshingly spicy, nutty and flavoursome, this healthy northern dish will wake you up from any slumber. The young, green jackfruit is boiled until tender, then shredded and stir-fried with a garlic-dried chilli-shrimp paste base and a handful of herbs. Take one bite and the rich sweet, sour, salty and nutty tastes will explode in your mouth.
Larb Kua (Pan-fried Spicy Meat Salad)
Larb in northern Thai cuisine has more spices in it than the northeastern version. Beef, fish, pork or chicken meat is chopped up together with blood chunks and innards, then a quick stir in heated cooking oil (oil roasting), along with dried chilies, larb curry, blood chunks and a handful of herbs and spices. The dish goes best with warm sticky rice.
Gaeng Hoh (Mixed Curry)
The name means ‘all mixed up’, and that’s what this dry curry dish is all about. Traditionally fashioned from kitchen leftovers, Gaeng Ho today is usually made from fresh ingredients. Fermented bamboo shoot, red curry paste, hang lay curry paste and kae curry paste combine to make the base ingredients. These then are mixed with a good variety of herbs and vegetables, pork belly meat, glass noodle, shrimp paste and chilies.