Chiang Mai is an exhilarating destination for foodies. Gourmands looking to sample the eclectic dishes for which the Rose of the North is renowned will find everything from hole-in-the-wall noodle shops to chic dining venues offering signature Thai curries, chilli pastes, noodles and fish and meat specialities. These dining experiences are enhanced by a profusion of eateries serving food from around the world.
There are some variations in the dishes typically served in the North and elsewhere in Thailand. One major difference is that sticky rice is a staple of the Northern diet whereas in Bangkok steamed jasmine rice is more common. Thai specialities on menus in the north invariably include spicy som tam salads, the potent tom yam soup, kuay tiew noodle soup and pad Thai fried noodles.
The ubiquitous som tam salad is made from grated unripe papaya. Chillies, fermented fish, dried shrimps, salted field crab, long beans, garlic and fish sauce are added to the concoction before it is pounded with a pestle and mortar. Tom yam gung is spicy prawn soup with chillies, lime, and lemongrass providing its tasty tang. This dish can be ordered with chicken, fish or seafood instead of prawns.
Khao man gai is Thailand’s version of chicken over rice and comes with its own range of taste enhancing condiments. Kuay tiew is a cheap and delicious menu option found everywhere. Meatballs, pork, chicken or seafood come in a steaming broth with flat or string noodles. Pad Thai is another firm favourite. The noodles are sautéed with egg, dried shrimps, tamarind sauce and chunks of tofu. The finished item is served with fresh spring onions, bean sprouts and pounded peanuts.
What locals refer to as ahaan dam sang is another delight of Chiang Mai’s cuisine. The phrase translates as made to order and includes a number of popular choices. Pad krapow is chilli and basil leaves and is commonly ordered with pork, chicken or squid and served on rice. Khao pad is fried rice and comes with the choice of prawns, seafood, pork or chicken.
NORTHERN THAI CUISINE
Chiang Mai’s most famous dish, khao soi, is a must try when visiting the city. The dish is basically egg noodles in coconut cream curry soup. It is garnished with shallots, lime, chilli sauce, pickled cabbage and a choice of chicken, beef, meatballs, prawns or as a vegetarian dish. Khao Soi Lam Duan is one of several eateries on Charoen Rat Road noted for their versions of this Chiang Mai favourite. They also serve up satay sticks and peanut dips.
When choosing to dine at Northern themed restaurants in Chiang Mai, other staple menu items tend to include sai ua spicy sausage, keb moo crispy pork skin, nam prik noom and nam prik ong, laab muang spicy meat and geng hanglay curry. These come with sticky rice and fresh vegetables. Nam prik means chilli paste and the ong version is tomato and pork based while the main ingredient in noom is green chillies. Geng hanglay is piquant and concocted from pork, chilli paste, ginger and peanuts.
TRADITIONAL KHANTOKE DINNER
One way of getting to grips with Northern Thai cuisine, dining etiquette and culture is to go for a traditional Khantoke dinner. The Old Chiangmai Cultural Centre, Khum Khantoke and Khantoke Palace are the principal venues providing authentic Lanna style dinner and entertainment.
All three are designed to depict the teakwood Lanna palaces in days of yore with lots of carvings and olden-style pillows. When dinner guests enter they are asked to remove their footwear in keeping with local customs. Hostesses dressed in colourful cotton and silk blouses replete with ornamental sashes greet guests with a wai before leading them to their tables.
Although diners do have the option of dining at tables with chairs, the authentic experience is to sit on the floor and around a low circular tray raised about 30 centimetres off the floor. This gives easy access to the bowls of Northern specialties laid out on them. The Northern style of eating is to roll up a small ball of sticky rice with the fingers and then use it to scoop up food from the bowls.
As soon as diners are seated comfortably, the entertainment begins. The different dances vary slightly with each venue but generally include ram dap (sword), fon lep (long fingernail), Thai lue and flame worship. The dancers are lithe, graceful and the sight of them enacting choreographed dances is the perfect complement to the feasts Lanna royalty and dignitaries used to enjoy. Our recommendations for the best places for a Traditional Khantoke Dinner.