Chiang Mai food paradise: ‘The best I’ve ever eaten’
Wherever you go in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, the food is outstanding, says novelist Deepti Kapoor, who shares her favourite street stalls, markets and must-try barbecue, curry and noodle dishes.
I’ve lived in India all my life, eaten everywhere from Leh to Cochin, tasted extraordinary dishes by the humblest chaat-wala and the fanciest chef, but nowhere in my land, not in Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Hyderabad or Kolkata, have I eaten so well, so cheaply, so grandly and with so much joy as in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.
Even without the food, it’s a kind of paradise: close to the Myanmar border, modern yet resolutely traditional, spotlessly clean while never sterile; easily navigable but filled with a thousand hidden treasures, urban and chic (in part thanks to the large student population from the university) but surrounded by hills and jungle.
And my god, the food! The moment we stepped off the train from Bangkok you could smell it, that glorious barbecue aroma: the mu ping (pork skewers) you can pick up for three baht (6p) on any street, the sai ua (spiced lemongrass sausages) – a Chiang Mai signature dish – you can gobble for 30p. Food was everywhere; everyone was eating – even while driving along on their motorbikes.
It was the Cowgirl who really did it for me: that was when everything about the city came together. There we were, riding past the Chang Phuak Gate not long after arriving, when we saw the queue, and at the end of the queue the cart, and behind the cart the Cowgirl, immaculately made-up beneath a Stetson hat, wielding a cleaver above a mountain of pork, a ridiculous grin on her face.
She became my champion, the city-saint of sanuk, that Thai philosophy of taking pleasure in all that you do. And what pleasure. The Cowgirl’s khao kha mu – stewed pork knuckle over rice, served with a boiled egg, raw garlic, pickled mustard greens and chilly vinegar – was a revelation; love at 30 baht, the perfect one-plate meal.
I began to take things seriously then, researched all I could, even corralled Michelin-starred chef Andy Ricker, the US champion of Lanna (northern Thai) food into having coffee with me. I learned from him how the geography of the region created the city’s unique cuisine. Relatively isolated, its culinary development came without ready access to the coconut milk, palm sugar, and fish sauce that was so prevalent in central and southern Thailand. In their place: herbs, roots and plants from the jungle, filling the spicy Lanna meals – which traditionally used wild game, snakes, frogs and grubs – with sour, bitter and pungent notes.
One of the most famous dishes in this tradition is laab, a punchy, smokey (in some cases raw) mincemeat, offal and blood salad; another is nam prik ong, a tomato pork dip akin to a ragu – excellent versions of both are made by the sisters of Sorn Chai restaurant, opposite Thapae Gate. But Chiang Mai, and the love I developed for it, wasn’t only about Lanna food. The Cowgirl’s dish, the khao kha mu, isn’t Lanna after all. Neither is the exceptional fish and chips that Dee (who goes by only one name) serves from the fryer attached to his motorbike (his father ran George’s chippie in Clapham), nor the fine Beast Burger from the gourmet van off Nimmanheamin.
No, it was everything hurled together: a gleeful fusion of climate, landscape and character, the student buzz mixed with the rural pace, the fact that you can get from one side of the city to the other on a bike in 15 minutes. The fact that you can pretty much pick any point on the map, go there, and eat something outstanding. It was in this way that the barren forecourt of the 7-11 in a nondescript neighbourhood transformed into a food market at night; the way a fried-chicken vendor was open for business at 7am; how there was no call for a sit-down restaurant with windows and doors because everything wonderful was happening on the streets.
Take Warorot market, take Chiang Mai Gate, take Nimmanheamin on a Friday night, where the back-end of a pick-up truck parks beside a bar and serves grilled oysters and steak. Take the road we lived on near the temple of Wat Chet Yot: come sunset, the staff of one beauty salon set up a gas burner and a mookata grill (a cross between a hot pot and a Korean barbecue) on the pavement and began to drink beer and cook meat for themselves. Across the road, a tailor was doing the same. And you knew – you just knew – that you could join them if you smiled hard and wanted to. A little further up, at the shop where we bought our morning fish-rice porridge, the family were barbecuing together, the young daughter directing her elder brother by means of a piggyback ride. It all seemed to blur together: family, work, play, religion and commerce, on every little alleyway and road, and always, at the heart of it, food. It’s a way of life or rather, life itself. I’m sure my Cowgirl would agree.
MY FAVOURITE STREET STALLS AND RESTAURANTS
Cherng Doi and SP Chicken
It’s impossible to choose between Cherng Doi and SP Chicken – both make stunning versions of the north-east Thai (Isaan) barbecue chicken dish kai yang. The former, in a cosy garden setting, grills boneless strips to crispy-outer and tender-inner perfection; the latter roasts whole small birds on a customised spit at the front of its Old City restaurant. Both serve delicious dipping sauces on the side: Cherng Doi’s sour-sweet tamarind one is sublime. For full pleasure, eat your chicken with khao niao (sticky rice) and a som tam (raw papaya salad). The two restaurants have a wider range of Isaan dishes, too.
• Cherng Doi, Suk Kasame Road, Nimmanhaemin, +66 81 881 1407; meal for two £5. SP Chicken, Samlan Road Soi 1, Old City, +66 80 500 5035; meal for two £5
Khao soi is Chiang Mai’s famous noodle soup, made with boiled and deep-fried egg noodles in a chicken or beef, coconut curry broth, served with lime, roasted chilli, mustard greens and shallots. To get a sense of the dish’s Chinese-Muslim origins, head to the bustling, canteen style Khao Soi Islam, where the broth is light and the noodles are spaghetti-like. My favourite, though, was Khao Soi Khun Yai, a small cart-and-tables set-up on a patch of waste-ground beside Wat Kuan Kama. The broth is glorious: fragrant but subtle, rich but not oily, and the perfect balance between spicy, sour and sweet.
• Khao Soi Islam, Charoenprathet Road Soi 1, +66 082 392 0142; meal for two £2-£4. Khao Soi Khun Yai, Sri Poom Road, next to Wat Kuan Kama, Old City, North Moat; meal for two £1.60-£3
Warorot evening market
You could pick other food markets (Sompet, Thanin, Chiang Mai Gate, Chang Phuak Gate) and be as deliriously sated, but the night-time street food at Warorot remains special to me. This is the place I discovered sai ua (Chiang Mai sausage), nam prik ong (chilli tomato pork dip) and kaeng khanun (jackfruit curry). The 30 or so stalls are a lively introduction to Lanna and wider Thai cuisine, and because locals come to pick up food for home, the standards are consistently high. Just don’t expect to sit down: eat on the move or take away.
• Chinatown, off Chang Moi and Wichayanon Road. Day market 5am-6pm, evening market 6pm-10pm
This always busy, family-run noodle shop is a bastion of authenticity in the voguish Nimmanheamin district. I came here regularly for its signature yellow noodle soup with stewed beef – a hearty, warming, deeply satisfying bowl for only £1.30. Other branches in the city are run by other sons of the founder, who himself came to Thailand from China on a bicycle 60 years ago, selling noodles along the way. But Mr Pipatanasukmongkol’s remains my go-to place. It also does a great curry rice.
• 26 Soi 11, Nimmanhaemin Road, +66 814729619; meal for two £4
Burmese Restaurant and Library
As wonderful as the intense spices and meats of Chiang Mai can be, sometimes you need a break. We discovered the no-frills Burmese Restaurant and Library (there is no library) in one of those moments. Aon, the laconic Shan-Burmese owner, is at the wok every day, juggling dishes in the glow of the 7-11 convenience store. We loved the tealeaf and tamarind salads, came back for the eggplant curry and topped it off with Shan-style tomato fish rice. There are meat dishes too: its beef and potatoes is a simple pleasure of a plate.
• Nimmanhaemin Road, next to 7-11, opposite Salad Concept, Soi 13; meal for two £4