After visiting Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a great place to relax and try some amazing new cuisine.
While most visitors to Chiang Mai slurp up a bowl of the region’s signature khao soi (egg noodles in curry broth), few venture beyond it to sample some of Thailand’s most unique and tastiest cuisine. Unless you’ve spent some time up north, chances are you’ve never tried northern Thai food. It certainly isn’t advertised, and is nothing at all like tom yum, pad thai, or gaeng kiao waan green curry and the other Central Thai dishes you are used to eating.
So what is Thai food like in the north? Northern Thai cuisine is less spicy than southern Thai or Isaan cooking, and it isn’t as sweet as the dishes from the central plains. It also is normally eaten with sticky rice, the same as you find served with som tam papaya salad and grilled chicken in the northeast. Much of northern Thai cooking combines influences from the neighboring Shan State in Myanmar along with northern neighbor Laos.
In our Portier Gastronomy section, we’ve listed some of the best spots to dig into some fantastic northern eats. If it is all new to you, perhaps choose from some of the dishes below and find something brand new about Thailand to get excited about.
1. Gaeng Hang Lay
This is a Burmese Shan dish that is made with slow cooked pork belly or beef simmered in ginger, turmeric, peanuts, and a bit of shrimp paste. Unlike curries from the south and central Thailand, it doesn’t use coconut milk and derives all of its fantastic taste from the long-stewed meat.
2. Kanom Jeen Nam Ngiaw
When folks are told that this stew-like dish is made from dried chilies, meat bones, tomato base, and congealed blood cubes, they shy away from it. But the description does not do this northern favorite justice and it is one of the most beloved dishes for the Chiang Mai locals. It’s one of the spicier dishes you’ll find up north and is normally eaten for breakfast or lunch, much like khao soi. Places like Lam Duan Fa Ham (see our Locals Love section in Gastronomy) serve excellent nam ngiaw alongside of bowls of khao soi, so you can try both if you visit. The smoky and tangy stew is often served with kanom jeen (rice noodles).
3. Larb Kua
You may be familiar with larb, the Thai meat salads that mostly hail from the northeastern region of Isaan. These blend minced meat with lime, fish sauce, garlic, shallots, and herbs to create a flavor packed dish. In northern Thailand, fish sauce and lime are omitted. Instead, spices like cumin, cloves and prickly ash - a Thai variety of the Szechuan peppercorn but without the spice - are added. Ground sticky rice powder rounds out the flavor and the result is a balanced, spicy larb that is rooted in Chiang Mai's Lanna Kingdom heritage and the old spice trade route through China.
4. Nam Prik Noom
Nam prik noom is kind of like a Mexican salsa. It's a green chili paste used for dipping vegetables and sai oua sausage just like its northern dip counterpart nam prik ong. The green color comes from the green chilies and cilantro. The best part of northern Thai-style dips for the unfamiliar is that because fish sauce isn't added, they aren't fishy like other nam prik dips you'll find in other parts of Thailand.
5. Nam Prik Ong
Everyone tends to love nam prik ong, as it’s essentially a Thai version of Bolognese sauce. The flavor packed dip is made using tomatoes and ground pork, along with dried chilies, tamarind paste, shallots, garlic, and fish sauce. It is served with fresh vegetables, such as cucumbers, boiled cabbage or cauliflower, and okra, and also eaten with pork skin cracklings or sai oua sausage. How about mixing some nam prik ong with pasta to create your very own fusion dish?!
6. Sai Oua
The round coiled sausages you see on the grill at Thai markets are the northern sai oua sausages. The sausages are flavored with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal Thai ginger, and are slightly charred outside. They pack a real flavor punch and are eaten with nam prik dips and sticky rice. A cold beer is the perfect accompaniment. If you want to take some sai oua home with you, the Mengrai shop next to the Holiday Inn Chiang Mai makes some of the best in town. You can also pick up some great ones from the vendors in the Siri Wattana (Thanin) Market, which is a great destination in and of itself.
Want to sample a wide array of traditional northern Thai fare in a truly traditional manner? Consider going to a khantoke dinner. This feast is named after a round wooden pedestal tray adorned with carvings and furnished with lacquer - a khantoke - on which lots of authentic northern Thai dishes are served. You'll also be entertained by classical Lanna music and dance, so it really is a celebration of all things Chiang Mai and northern Thailand. Remember to ask your concierge for a recommendation and reservation - it's an experience you don't want to miss!