Before my first trip to Thailand, I’m embarrassed to say that I thought Thai food consisted solely of Pad Thai and green curries. Ten years have now passed since I first touched down in the land of smiles and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this wonderfully diverse cuisine.
Every region in Thailand has its own style of cooking, from creamy coconut based curries in the south to grilled meats with fiery chilli dips and spicy meat salads in the north east. No other food has captured my heart more, though, than the amazing dishes from Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai’s food, or Lanna cuisine, is nowhere near as well known as the city it hails from. Chiang Mai is one of the most most visited cities in Thailand. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the wonderful local dishes go under the radar with tourists opting to dine out on the city’s various western offerings.
So can you base a holiday solely around eating Thai food? Most definitely. In fact, why else would you travel if not for food? I’ve always based my travels around eating. It’s how I first discovered this amazing Northern Thai cuisine. So use of this guide and make sure you find the best Northern Thai dishes worth travelling for and where to find them for your next trip up to Chiang Mai.
Khao Soi – Coconut Based Curry with Egg Noodles
Khao Soi is easily Chiang Mai’s most famous dish. It consists of a rich coconut milk based curry, flavoured with Indian spices, namely coriander seeds, black cardamom and fresh turmeric, poured over flat egg noodles and topped with crunchy, deep fried noodles. On the side, you’ll find fresh lime wedges, chilli oil and pickled cabbage. These condiments are there to tweak the dish to your own taste. Khao Soi is my favourite dish in Thailand, just to give you an idea of how delicious it is!
For my favourite khao soi in Chiang mai, head to Khao Soi Samer Jai, just across the river from the main town. If you’re up for a trek out of the city, try Khao Soi Style Khun Mae for a uniquely creamy version in a peaceful countryside setting.
2. Sai Ua – Northern Thai Sausage
This is the sausage to end all sausages, a meat lovers dream! Sai ua just screams Thailand from the first bite. It’s bursting with flavour from Thai staples such as lemongrass, lime leaves, chilli, galangal, ginger and turmeric. These herbs and spices are mixed with fatty pork mince and slowly grilled over coals to maximise the flavour. The shape of the sausage is reminiscent of an old English Cumberland ring.
Sai Ua is sold for takeaway everywhere in nearly every market and restaurant in Chiang Mai, one of my top choices, though, is Siri Wattana Market (also known as Thanin Market กาดธานินทร์), located a couple of kilometers north of the old city.
3. Gaeng Hang Lay – Northern Pork Belly Curry
You might not be familiar with this curry if you haven’t been to Chiang Mai. Gaeng hang lay and it’s a slow cooked curry of pork (usually belly and shoulder) soured with tamarind and flavoured with Indian spices. There are so many different recipes for this that I’m not sure I’ve had two that taste exactly the same even from the same shop!
Hang Lay has its roots in Myanmar (Burma) and tastes like no other curry in Thailand. The closest I would say would be a massaman curry without the coconut milk.
Head to Rimping Boat Noodles, located on the west bank of the Ping River for hang lay with a great view of the river.
4. Khanom Jeen Nam Ngiaw – Fresh Rice Noodles with Pork and Tomato
Probably the most eaten locally but least known dish outside of Chiang Mai, Khanom jeen nam ngiaw reminds me of a kind of Thai spaghetti bolognese. It’s a comforting dish of fresh rice noodles topped with a wonderfully rich, smokey tomato based broth with minced pork, pork ribs, dried dok ngiaw flowers and pork blood. It’s served with the same condiments as khao soi and also shredded cabbage for a bit of crunch and freshness.
You can’t go wrong with Nam Ngiaw Thapae for an authentic version.
5. Larb Kua / Laap Mueang / Lanna Laab – Minced Meat ‘Salad’
Isaan Laap (larb, laab) is one of Thailand’s most recognisable dishes, Larb kua, no so much. Unlike its northeastern cousin you’ll find no lime juice or toasted rice in the northern version. What it lacks in citrusy zing, it more than makes up for with tongue numbing punchy spices. Most notably from the use of dee plee or long pepper. Lanna laab is usually made with pork and usually contains a mix of pork mince and offal. If that doesn’t float your boat, you can find a tourist friendly (but still authentic enough) one at Huen Puen in the old city. For a unique buffalo version you can head out to a hidden garden restaurant named Charoen Suan Eak (เจริญสวนแอก). Just be prepared to point at the menu to order as there is zero English spoken here.
6. Nam Prik Noom – Roasted Green Chilli Dip
My favourite Thai dip, nam prik noom. This wonderful salsa is made by grilling long green chilli peppers, garlic and shallots over an open flame and pounding them in a pestle and mortar with lime juice and fish sauce. The result is an amazingly smokey, spicy, salty dip that’s a perfect accompaniment to crunchy fresh vegetables.
This is another you can find everywhere in the city but again, Khao Soi Samer Jai serves up a wonderful version of nam prik noom.
7. Sa Makhua – Aubergine Salad
This is a dish, even I wasn’t familiar with until my latest trip to Chiang Mai. Sa is the Lanna word for salad which is yum/yam in Thai. Where as a normal Thai salad is usually spicy, sour and a little sweet, this aubergine (eggplant) salad is very savoury. Texturally it’s great. You’ve got crunchy green aubergine, crispy fried onion, toasted sesame seeds and fresh red onion/shallot. The only place I’ve tried this salad is at the aforementioned Charoen Suan Eak (เจริญสวนแอก).
8. Jin Eng – Sun dried Buffalo
These are strips of sun dried buffalo that are reminiscent of beef jerky or South African biltong. Again, there is an Isaan equivalent in neua dad deaw, which is sun dried beef. The only discernible difference is the fact that Jin Eng is bright red (I’m not 100 % sure how they achieve this) and that it’s made with buffalo. They are very salty, a little chewy and utterly delicious. A perfect accompaniment to an ice cold beer! The only place I’ve tried these are at Charoen Suan Eak (เจริญสวนแอก).
So there you are, eight great dishes to get your taste buds tingling for you next trip to Thailand’s beautiful north. Don’t worry if you don’t have time to head to Chiang Mai, you can still find some excellent northern Thai food in Bangkok by clicking here.
This list was compiled with the help of Mick Rheault from This Is Mick. Head on over to his Facebook page to see his awesome travel vlogs from around the 77 provinces of Thailand.
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