Unique, memorable and highly enjoyable, Thai food is very much a reflection of Thailand itself. Thai food is an expression of the values of Thai culture: tradition, family and enjoyment. The intricate flavours of Thai food have become rightly popular around the world and the chance to sample this delectable cuisine is one of the main draws for many visitors to the Kingdom. Although the enterprising Thai people have brought their cuisine to the four corners of the earth, there is still no better place to sample the diversity and deliciousness of Thai food.
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Chiang Mai Food and Northern Thai Food
At its most basic, Thai food consists of meat and vegetables in some kind of sauce served over rice. From this simple formula a seemingly endless combination of foods is derived. The four basic flavours of Thai food are sweet, sour, creamy and salty with plenty of spice on top. The secret to Thai food is finding the right balance between these four flavours and then making the whole thing as hot as you can stand.
Thais love their condiments and no Thai restaurant is complete without the standard array of four on every table. The four Thai condiments that every visitor learns to know and love are sugar, salty Nam Pla (fish sauce), spicy Prik Pon (crushed chilli pepper), and a sour and spicy vinegar with chilli peppers. There is no right or wrong way to season your food as everyone's taste is a little different. If you feel completely lost simply turn to someone at the nearest table and ask for help. It's not considered rude and Thais are happy to help. In fact, don't be surprised if they invite you to join them for a meal.
Rice is proverbially the staple of all Asian cuisine and it is of vital importance to Thai food. Eating is never mentioned without assuming that rice is involved somehow. Whether it's been steamed, fried or pounded into noodles, if you're eating a Thai meal, there's most likely rice on your plate. Usually Thai meals will be accompanied by a plate or pot of kaao (steamed rice), over which the dishes are served. In the North, however, kaao niao (sticky rice) is more popular. Kaao Niao is rolled into a ball and eaten with the fingers, often with a dipping sauce.
Chiang Mai Specialties
The cuisine of Thailand varies greatly from region to region. Most of the better known Thai foods come from the central plains, the area that surrounds Bangkok. As with its art, language and 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 Soi in Chiang Mai
The signature dish of Chiang Mai is undoubtedly Khao Soi, a mild yellow curry soup that is as much a symbol of the region as Doi Suthep. Khao Soi, usually made with gai (chicken), is a rich and savoury broth filled with soft thin noodles and topped with crunchy Chinese egg noodles that are crushed into the soup, providing a toothsome texture. Khao Soi is traditionally served with spring onions, pickled cabbage and slices of lime.
Traditionally all Thai food was eaten with the fingers and many northern specialties are still made to be eaten this way. Kanom Jeen Nam Ngeow is a popular dish that consists of small spaghetti-like noodles (the Kanom Jeen) served with fresh vegetables and a pork-tomato curry (Nam Ngeow). Kaeb Moo (pork rind) is often served with this and many other northern finger foods. Nam Prik On, too is an appetizer that originates from the north. Similar to Nam Ngeow, it is a curry sauce made from ground pork, tomatoes and vegetables. It is usually scooped up with Kanom Jeen or Kaeb Moo.
Chiang Mai Sausages
Chiang Mai is the home of two distinctive styles of sausage: Naem and Sai-ua. Naem is hand rolled sausage with a strong garlic flavour. You can find it being roasted over an open fire on food carts across the city. For a steaming wake-up call try it with fresh chillies. Sai-ua is a pickled pork sausage made with chillies for an added kick. Either sausage is popular as a snack or an appetizer.
There are several curries and main dishes that are unique to the northern region, many of which made their way to Chiang Mai from Burma during the period when that nation occupied the northern city. Although the Burmese were driven off much of their culinary legacy remains. Northern curries tend to be much milder than their more southerly cousins. Gaeng Hang Lay is a popular dish made from pork, tamarind and turmeric. No chilli peppers in this recipe, so dig in. For maximum watering of the mouth enjoy it traditional style-a ball of sticky rice, meat and curry all in one bite.
Noodles are a perennial favourite of the Thai menu and the national dish is Pat Thai, stir fried noodles with peanuts and shrimp, garnished with lime. Other popular noodle dishes are Pat Sii-Yew, wide rice noodles in soy sauce, and Pat Kii Mao or 'Drunken Noodles' which is a spicy dish of wide noodles with vegetables. Noodle soup is also very popular, and is eaten anytime of the day. Hot broth is served with a variety of different noodles and meats including several kinds of meatball.
Thai curries are one of the most popular and recognizable dishes on the Thai menu and visitors who don't try them all at least once are missing out. Thai curry is less pungent and heavy than Indian curry, using coconut milk to give it a much creamier flavour and consistency. Gaeng Kiao Waan is a green curry with a sweetish flavour, while Gaeng Pet is a spicy red curry soup. Gaeng Pa-naeng is a dry red curry that is much thicker than the other types. One of the most well-known Chiang Mai specialities is Khao Soi, which is a yellow curry soup that uses much less coconut milk, resulting in a more savoury and less creamy flavour than most other curries. Whatever the colour, curries are best enjoyed by spooning them over rice rather than eating them like a soup. Stir fries play a significant role in Thai cuisine, as well. Combinations of meats, vegetables, oils and spices are pan fried in a wok and served piping hot. Popular stir fried dishes include Gai Pat Ma Muang (fried chicken with cashew nuts), Moo Tort Gra Tiem Prik Thai (Fried pork with garlic and pepper) and Pat Pak Boong (fried morning glory with oyster sauce). These are eaten in the same manner as a curry-by spooning them over rice.
Thai desserts are usually cakes made of pounded rice or some combination of fruit and flour in syrup. A Chiang Mai favourite is Kaao Niao Ma Muang, sliced mango with sticky rice and condensed milk. The thin pancakes called Roti are another favourite, especially when made with bananas and topped with chocolate sauce. If all else fails, the lovely variety of tasty fruits is always handy to cap off a meal.