Dig into the savory secrets of northern Thai cooking. Story and photographs by Austin Bush
Published on Jul 30, 2013
The home-style cooking in the hills of northern Thailand is packed with seasonal produce and an impressive array of spices and yet it is arguably the country’s least-known cuisine. Which is a shame, for if you’re a fan of pork, earthy flavors or anything deep-fried, it could easily become your favorite. Unlike its southern counterpart, its curries and soups rarely feature coconut milk, and instead of fiery fresh chilies, dried spices are used to give dishes tongue-numbing or smoky flavors. The palate, among the milder in the region, is of Burmese and Shan origins, no doubt due to the centuries of exchange (and warfare) between the former kingdom of Lanna and its neighbor to the west. Here we dish up the mouthwatering multi-course medley you can expect at dinnertime in and around Chiang Mai.
Nowhere is the Burmese influence on northern Thai food more evident than in gaeng hang lay, a thick, rich ragout typically made with fatty pork belly, seasoned with a masala-like mixture of dried spices and tamarind extract, and studded with whole garlic cloves and slivers of ginger. It is one of the more common and revered dishes in the region.
A northern variation of the classic Thai papaya salad, yam som oh is made from pomelo that is pounded with a wooden mortar and pestle along with fresh chili, thin slices of lemongrass and eggplant, and nam puu. The latter, a pungent, slightly bitter fermented paste made from the tiny crabs that live in rice fields, adds a distinct depth.
If you ever find yourself lost in Thailand, you can probably pinpoint your location based on the kind of nam prik, chili-based “dips,” on the table. Up north, it’s bound to be nam prik num, made from the eponymous prik num chili that, along with garlic and shallots, is grilled and pounded into a spicy, stringy paste. Nam prik num is usually served with steamed vegetables and deep-fried pork rinds.
Think pork rinds and you may conjure up images of U.S.-style junk food, but Thais have been frying up khaep muu since long before Americans jumped on the bandwagon. The crispy pork puffs feature as a side dish, garnish or element in various chili-based dips.
Laab, the ubiquitous Thai-style sour and spicy minced meat “salad” is a different creature all together in the north. Here, the lime juice is replaced with a mixture of dried spices, highlighting prickly ash and long pepper. The meat (generally pork, beef or buffalo, but fish and chicken versions occasionally sneak onto a menu) is mixed with blood and offal. And the dish is always served with a plate of bitter herbs and vegetables.
Sticky rice, or khao neung, is the traditional grain here. The glutinous short rice is steamed, not boiled, in water, served in small bamboo baskets and eaten with the hands—the perfect vehicle for sopping up the local dips, soups and sauces.
Another dish emblematic of the north is sai ua, a type of sausage stuffed with fatty pork and a bouquet of fresh herbs ranging from Kaffir lime leaf to lemongrass. Grilled in large coils or deep-fried, it pairs well with nam prik num.
Northerners may have a pork fixation, but they also love their veggies, and mustard greens in particular seem to pop up in every meal. They’re eaten raw with laab, served steamed with nam prik, or added to jor phak kaat, a hearty pork soup. It’s not the most attractive dish, but the herbal, slightly sweet flavor is sure to win over skeptics.
-Where to eat local-style northern food-
Chiang Mai’s Krua Petch Doi Ngam does northern laab in an approachable setting (267 Mahidon Rd.; +66 53 204 517).
Phu-Lae, in Chiang Rai, (673/1 Thanalai) cooks all the staples in air-con comfort.
In the remote province of Mae Hong Son, head to Banpleng Restaurant (108 Thanon Khunlum Praphat), an open-air place where you’ll find delectable versions of all of the dishes mentioned here.
Authentic northern cuisine can be tricky to find in the Bangkok, but Gedhawa (25 Sukhumvit Rd. Soi 35; +66 2 662 0501) serves up serious khao soi in a charmingly old-fashioned location.