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There’s a reason that the northern Thai capital of Chiang Mai is popular with visitors not only for scenic temples, mountains and waterfalls, but also for Thai cookery classes. This green, traveller-friendly city, often described as a much slower-paced version of Bangkok, also happens to be a foodie’s paradise.
And it’s no wonder: with plenty to tell northern Thai cuisine apart from the fare that’s popular in other regions of Thailand, there’s enough to chow down on that visiting Chiang Mai solely for the food isn’t such an out-there idea. These are some of our favourite northern Thai dishes, along with top spots to devour them in the Lanna capital.
Perhaps the most well-known dish in the northern Thai cuisine repertoire, this is no ordinary noodle soup. Egg noodles come swimming in a hearty, coconut milk soup base with hints of red curry, alongside most commonly a chicken drumstick (khao soi is also served with an array of other meats, especially beef), all topped with a generous helping of a second kind of noodles – this type fried until they’re crispy. Top everything off with a healthy garnish of lime, chilli jam, pickled vegetables and fresh red onions, and you’ve got the makings of a truly irresistible breakfast, lunch or dinner (or all three, if you’re anything like us!)
While khao soi can be hard (but not impossible) to find in Bangkok, especially at a restaurant that does the dish justice, in Chiang Mai it’s among the most common everyday street foods. The names of a few khao soi specialists do the rounds of foodies as serving the very best version of this noodle soup, but for us (and we’re in good company here!) there’s no getting past that dished up at Khao Soi Khun Yai, or Grandma’s Khao Soi, a humble little setup wedged between two temples on Sriphum Road.
It seems grandma isn’t much of an afternoon person, so to taste her khao soi you’ll need to be here early – she does a roaring trade with locals at lunchtime, when you’re likely to find the place packed out, and it’s not unusual for the khao soi to sell out shortly after that, by early afternoon.
Monday to Saturday, 10am-2pm; Beside Wat Kuan Kama temple, Sriphum Road
Once our khao soi cravings are satisfied, if there’s another northern Thai dish we’re crazy about then it’s gaeng hunglay. This rich, meaty curry goes heavy on fatty cuts of pork belly (yet the sign of an inferior bowl of this is for there to be absolutely nothing but fat – that’s going too far!) in a broth made of the unique, red-curry-descended hunglay curry paste, and plenty of coconut milk.
Unlike just about every other Thai curry in existence, julienned fresh ginger also makes an appearance here – for our tastebuds in just about as generous quantities as possible – and adds a tangy spiciness that cuts wonderfully through the fatty meat. So too do cloves of pickled garlic, which again gaeng hunglay just wouldn’t be the same without.
We’ve also seen gaeng hunglay recipes by well-known Bangkok-based chefs calling for dried makwaen, a wild northern Thai pepper that’s comparable to the Sichuan variety. But, when we picked some up at Chiang Mai’s famous Warorot fresh market (it can be tricky to track down in Bangkok), a bunch of local women at a neighbouring clothes stall laughed in our faces at the idea of adding it to gaeng hunglay, insisting the only dish they would use it for is gaeng pakgard, a clear soup with Chinese cabbage leaves.
As for where to eat gaeng hunglay in Chiang Mai, you’ll find it touted in markets across the city as well as at smaller, lower-key rice-and-curry stalls and restaurants, where you can simply point at the curries and stir-fries you want ladled over a plate of rice. But we’re particular fans of the gaeng hunglay at Tong Tem Toh, a sit-down restaurant in Chiang Mai’s trendy Nimmanhaemin area that’s a tad pricier and more upmarket than our usual street food recommendations, but which definitely doesn’t compromise on hardcore flavours and which serves up a simply dreamy bowl of gaeng hunglay. Back at Warorot market, Dumrong is a take-away rice-and-curry stall where the gaeng hunglay comes with enthusiastic local recommendations – just note that the stall’s sign is only in Thai script.
Tong Tem Toh, Daily, 11am-11pm; 11 Nimmanhaemin Soi 13
Another Chiang Mai favourite, nam prik noom is a fiery green chipotle-like chilli paste that’s eaten as a dip to accompany snacks like herb-infused sai ua northern sausages, or kap moo deep-fried pork crackling – or, slightly more healthily, simply with crudité-type fresh or steamed vegetables. While nam prik noom is well-known and enjoyed across Thailand, its roots are in the country’s north, where it remains especially popular. It’s common for nam prik noom to be added to the spread of dishes for a shared meal, alongside stir-fries, curries, salads, soups and the like – in much the same way as other types of nam prik chilli pastes, and indeed other dishes altogether, are included in sets of dishes at mealtimes all over Thailand.
We challenge you to walk very far in Chiang Mai without coming across bags of kap moo dangling from stalls and waiting to be sold – and where you find kap moo you’ll likely also come across nam prik noom and sai ua. Tong Tem Toh (above) is once again a good choice to taste these dishes in a sit-down setting, while countless stalls at Warorot market and other markets across Chiang Mai sell all three items bagged up and ready to take home (or scoff on the street!)
While kanom jeen rice noodles are popular across the country, ladled high with soupy curries and garnished with all manner of fresh and pickled vegetables and perhaps a hard-boiled egg or two, the predominant types of curry eaten with them varies wildly between Thailand’s different regions. Where elsewhere you might expect to find green curry, nam ya kati fish-based coconut milk curry, or nam prik satay-like peanutty curry, in Chiang Mai and elsewhere in northern Thailand you can be certain that the local kanom jeen topping of choice is nam ngiaw.
This thin, gravy-like broth takes its name from the dok ngiaw flowers that go into the curry base. The soup goes heavy on the tomatoes, alongside pork or beef, plenty of chilli, and a healthy dose of the kind of congealed pig’s blood you’ll find in many of the best versions of green curry. If you’re a particularly squeamish eater, this might not be the dish for you! Lam Duan Fah Ham has a particular following for its khao soi – the story goes that the owners even claim to have invented the dish – but it also serves up a mean bowl of kanom jeen nam ngiaw.
Daily, 9am-4pm; 352/22 Charoenrat Road
What’s your favourite northern Thai dish? Where have been your most memorable meals in Chiang Mai? Let us know in the comments!
Nam ngiaw photo by Alpha; all other photos by Chris Wotton.