In Chiangmai, Zoe Perrett takes in a Northern Thai food tour – and embarks on an edible odyssey
When you’ve got 24 hours in Chiangmai and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, the best bet is to hit the ground eating – and to do so with someone who knows what’s what.
Enter Muai – my guide for a Northern Flavours food tour curated by A Chef’s Tour.
Meeting in the grounds of the Wak Lok Moli temple which I sadly arrive too late to explore (take heed and don’t do the same), we’re joined by our fellow food trippers and ushered aboard a songthaew which will take us to seven locations over four hours.
Stop one’s just a short hop along from the temple, at the Chang Phuak (Elephant Gate) market. Bourdain fans will already be aware of the Cowboy Hat Lady and her infamous khao kha moo – stewed pork knuckle – which third-generation cook Joy serves from 5pm-midnight, seven days a week to the rather large tune of 200kg daily.
It’s our first but by no means final encounter with pork, which Muai informs us is was introduced to Thailand by the Chinese – and has since become the nation’s favourite protein.
The Cowboy Hat Lady’s signature dish is a central Thai preparation in which the pork knuckle is slow-cooked with Chinese five spice for six hours; pulled into soft shreds served over rice with sour-salty pickled mustard greens – both of which do a stellar job of cutting the meat’s fatty richness.
Why the headgear? A simple move of practicality rather than a sartorial statement: the glare of a light facing the stall would get in Joy’s eyes; a problem solved by the broad brim of her eponymous hat.
Stop two yields yet more piggy protein; this time in the form of roasted crispy pork belly, cooked in red-hot, tandoor-like ovens by veteran of 16 years Chef Neng, who also does a mean roasted chicken leg. We’re told Neng cooked for the Princess of Thailand, and I suspect that what’s good enough for the Princess will almost certainly please us proletarians.
We sample both fire-licked, moist-middled meats; the pork dunked into a chilli-shallow-spring onion-coriander-roasted-rice-powder elixir; the chicken swiped through tart-sweet sauce made from tamarind, galangal, chilli, soy sauce and sugar.
On the road again, Muai says that street food really took off in Thailand around 1960 – providing busy workers with the perfect grab-n-go solution. Cheap, abundant, accessible and diverse, it’s the ultimate egalitarian eat.
According to Muai there are no set items for various meals – people eat what they like, when they like; which nicely and neatly surmises the ultra-accepting attitude I’ve encountered from Thai people regarding all aspects of life and culture.
There’s fishier fare at our next stop, where the dish of the day is salt-rubbed, barbecued tilapia – a species gifted to Thailand’s royal family by the Japanese. Its flesh is moist and tender; had with fresh herbs and veggie and yet another delicious dipping sauce, but it’s yet another porcine preparation that makes my mouth water: pork blended with sticky rice, salt and a vampire’s nightmare-worth of garlic, fermented for three days in banana leaves. It’s sour, it’s sausagey, it’s downright delicious.
As we bump along to the fourth location, Muai tells us how the beef – or rather, water buffalo – we’ll be sampling at the next stop is traditionally eaten only on high days and holidays in North and Northeastern Thailand; because historically the cattle served them better working the land than gracing the plate.
Northern laab is as far removed from its Northeastern Esarn counterpart as chalk is from cheese. The Esarn version of the minced meat salad is spicy, citrussy, and aromatic; here it’s dark and brooding – a blend of blood, meat and tendon (in this case cooked, but also available raw) seasoned with a long list of dried spices including makwaen, peculiar to this part of the world.
Akin to black pudding, the laab’s earthy, deeply-spiced character is lifted by the Vietnamese coriander and ‘fishy leaf’ (the clue’s in the name) herb served on the side.
Soup’s next; less ‘palate cleanser’ than ‘absolute tastebud tingler’. Northeastern tom saep neua is a spicy-tart-savoury galangal, lemongrass and chilli-infused beef broth in which chunks of long-stewed, gelatinous beef tendon bob. If you’re into the sticky comfort of oxtail, this one’s for you.
It wouldn’t be a food tour without a market visit, and accordingly, our next stop is Thani Market; open for retail therapy as well as stuffing oneself senseless from 6am-8pm daily. I am over the moon and back round again that the first stall we hit specialises in sai ua, aka Northern Thai pork sausage aka my absolute Achilles heel.
Chilli-spiked and flavoured with allsorts of aromatics including lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, garlic and ginger, sai ua is basically chorizo that went travelling on its gap year and came back with a Southeast Asian accent – and this one’s got perfect pronunciation.
Our food intake has been pretty protein-heavy thus far, so a visit to the fruit stall is warmly welcomed – although the durian not so much by some members of the party.
Despite the ‘unusual’ aroma which sees the spike-encrusted fruit banned from trains, planes and hotels, IMHO durian is delicious; boasting a creamy texture which envelops the tongue like panna cotta or clotted cream, with a flavour not unlike an just-short-of -too-overripe mango. More universally appreciated are sapodilla – nature’s own sticky toffee pudding, and marian fruit – a seasonal treat occupying the centre of a mango-plum-peach Venn diagram.
Sugarcane juice is initially too sweet for my palate, but when mixed with a good slosh of lime it’s a fresh-to-death bev; supremely refreshing and feeling weirdly colder than a still-liquid drink has any right to be.
Muai bustles us round the covered market, pointing out specialist laab butchers and fermented fish sauce vendors, all the while gathering more stuff to sample.
We stop to watch a trader knock us up a stir-fry similar to the liang leaf one I love from the South. This shares the same egg-oyster sauce-soy-garlic-sugar seasoning, but uses gurmar/gymnema leaves unique to Northern Thailand. Sampled raw, they’re bitter, strong and peppery, so I’m unsurprised when Muai tells me they’re frequently used in the treatment of high blood sugar.
Stir-fry dished up, we gather round a table for a deliciously random picnic: the leaves; tamarind, sugar and garam masala-gravied Burmese pork hanglay curry; date-like fresh tamarind from the pod; deep-fried crickets and silk worms (inoffensive, with a similar nutty, sweetish flavour to a prawn shell).
For dessert there’s fermented rice with coconut and black beans in bamboo; sun-dried rice crispy cakes with a modest swirl of palm sugar which, owing to the historic price of sugar in the North, are one of the only indigenous sweet snacks; khanom tom (coconut balls filled with palm sugar and caramelised coconut); gooey little khanom tuay coconut puddings; and the universal favourite: khanom buang – aka crispy crepes filled with soft meringue and salted egg yolk.
It feels like the finale but it’s not: next we’re headed to the area of the city that’s home to the Shan community who migrated from North Myanmar. According to Muai, there are 200,000 Shan people in Chiangmai who retain their own language, culture and cuisine.
In the restaurant which Muai says was the city’s first Shan spot, we tuck into a fermented tea leaf salad. Captivated by the beguiling oniony, chilli-y, sour flavour and the pleasing crunch of deep-fried lentils, peanuts, chickpeas and sesame seeds, I find it hard to turn my attention and fork to the bowl of sliced-pork-topped noodles, but I do my duty and mmmmmmm boy am I glad I have.
Perfectly chewy-gooey, the handmade wheat-and-egg noodles are not sauced as such; just lightly coated in a giddingly gorgeous, white-pepper-spicy slick of something or other. The bowl of broth on the side is to be sipped separately rather than poured over; bites and slurps interspersed with nibbles of pickled mustard greens.
Absolute satiation is fast making its way over the horizon now, and when we pass an open-air gym on the way back to the songthaew I’m only half joking when I ask Muai if it’s our final stop.
But we’re here to consume calories, not burn them – so it’s onto the seventh and final stop; or rather, back to the market from whence we started, where we’ll end on a literally sweet note with a bowl of bualoi.
This sweet soup originates from the Central region, and features chewy balls of sticky rice and tapioca flours boiled in sugar syrup. Here, we have it ladled into bowls with purple sweet potato chunks – but myriad other inclusions are available, including the not-usually-popular-with-farangs option of a poached egg.
Stirring the syrup together with the unsweetened coconut milk which is poured atop each serving yields a silky, salty-sweet sauce punctuated by the slippery-chewy balls and starchy, savoury taro chunks, and I soon find myself scraping the bottom of my bowl.
Trying to walk rather than waddle, I bid my tour-mates farewell and head for my guesthouse, studiously avoiding eye contact with the crispy pork that’s eyeing me from another street food stall. Loads of food, loads of knowledge, loads of places to discover and revisit at leisure: there can’t be many better ways to spend four hours in Chiangmai than on A Chef’s Tour.
MAKE IT HAPPEN