Taste your way through Thai food in Chiang Mai

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

With its vibrant markets, plentiful food stalls and world-famous umami, the food culture of Thailand is not to be missed! Follow us on a food tour in Chiang Mai and dig into the wide variety of Thai (or are they?) dishes, authentic family recipes and wide assortments of exotic fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs!

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We meet our local guide Pondtip at a popular breakfast joint just a stone’s throw from the Three Kings Monument in the heart of the old walled city of Chiang Mai. Food being very affordable, many Thai people head out in the morning for a traditional Khao Man Gai, a plate of steamed rice topped off by chicken, either fried or boiled, and accompanied by a chicken broth. Khao Man actually means “oily rice” as it is cooked in the chicken broth, making it high in protein to keep anyone going for the day. In this non-pretentious restaurant, tables are occupied by locals of all ages, slurping the chicken broth, enjoying the fried chicken they dip in a sweet sauce, getting a small kick from the slightly spicy sauce made of fermented beans and ginger served with the boiled chicken, or munching on small pork skewers served with a peanut-based saté sauce.

As we head out in the street, a scent of warm bananas prompts Pondtip to stop at a small food stall to satisfy our sweet tooth with a Khao Niew Bing: a banana (or other versions such as tarot or black beans) is wrapped in a sticky rice slowly cooked with sugar and coconut milk, the whole thing wrapped in a banana leaf that is put on the grill. A small and satisfying bite!

Strolling by one of the many richly-decorated temples dotting the old town and its surroundings is a reminder of Chiang Mai’s rich history: the “new city” actually came off the ground on order of King Manrai in 1296 as the capital of his Lanna Kingdom, or literally, “The Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields”. Pondtip explains: “Rice is our staple food and we adopted many dishes from other countries. Also, it was not until 1932 that Chiang Mai became part of Thailand so what we refer to as Thai food today actually consists of many different recipes originating from today’s China, Myanmar, India, Cambodia and Laos, and adapted to Thai tastes over the centuries.”

The famous Khao Soi (“cut rice”) is the perfect example. Coming straight from Myanmar, rich coconut milk has been added to this red curry base to adapt it to Thai taste, and it has become Chiang Mai’s signature dish. As its name indicates, the rice has been cut out from it and replaced by egg noodles, served boiled in the curry sauce, and fried to top off the dish to add crunchiness. The most traditional version we are savouring in this third-generation family-run restaurant where the recipe would have been created, is with a chicken leg which meat falls of the bone. Simply squeeze a lime in, and add the pickled cabbage and onions served on the side into the curry… De-li-cious!

Dishes served at the Khao Soi Lumduan restaurant are specialties from Northern Thailand. Most ancient northern recipes would not feature coconut milk as the fruits grow in the south – it used to take no less than three months to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai before the 1922 train line! The Gaeng Hung Lay is another must-try: a pork belly curry slowly cooked in an abundance of spices, and a sauce of garlic, tamarind, and ginger. To quench our thirst, a refreshing and surprisingly blue Nam Anchan is served: despite its colour, this iced-tea is all natural and healthy (but for the plenty of sugar that tends to always be added to any dish or drinks in Thailand!) obtained from steeping the deep blue butterfly pea flower which grows about anywhere in the area!

Most of these restaurants get their supplies from the Warorot Market. Well-known amongst locals for fairly-priced textiles and dried fruits and nuts, it is also the place to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs in what is known as the Chinatown of Chiang Mai. As we stroll the stalls, some fruits stick out: the astringent snake fruit with its prickly skin, the lychees-looking longans, the large pomelos eaten with chili powder, the tiny pineapples from Chiang Rai, the hard to distinguish red from white dragon fruits, and the infamous durian – probably the preferred fruit in Asia banned from trains, hotels and more for its foul smell! “These are Mung-Khut or in English mangosteen,” Pondtip exclaims enthusiastically while she buys a few of her favourite fruit to taste. We peel them and eat the white toes which soft texture is reminiscent of mandarin while the taste evokes the sweetness of a peach and lychee.

Inside the market hall, dried fruits, nuts, fried pork skin – a local delicacy –, candies and more are piled up. A queue leads to a stall: we take a closer look. The Sai Ua, the delicious Chiang Mai pork sausage stuffed with kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and chili peppers seems to be very sought after at this specific location. If only we could eat some more! Hot or cold with some sticky rice that is easy to pick with one’s fingers… It will be for later as take-away is always an option, even for the most improbable dishes given the right amount of plastic bags and elastics! Just like the Khao Niaow Ma Muang, probably the most iconic Thai dessert? Also known as mango sticky rice!

Only a short tuktuk ride away, across the Ping River, the atmosphere is quieter. We peacefully stroll a temple ground amongst Buddha statues and street dogs, as the temple is dedicated to the year of the dog. It is a nice contrast from with the bustling market. However, we are not really here to take in the serenity nor discuss religion: we quickly move to a small shop where a whole family is busy flattening, steaming, and folding a rice dough. Behind them, tables are covered with plastic boxes filled with darkish balls to take-away. They are clearly getting ready for rush hours! An old man brings some Saku Sai Moo to our small table. The sweet tapioca dumplings are stuffed with a mix of ground pork and peanuts. Take a leaf of lettuce to wrap them in, dip them in a sweet sauce and add a small chunk of a fresh green chilli pepper for a kick. Addictive! As we are savouring the snack, chatting with Pondtip, locals on scooters keep stopping in front, grabbing a box and going. Most shops function in the same way: they close down once sold out, so it is good to arrive early at locals’ favourites.

It is often in the most unpretentious joints run by local families that the best food specialties can be tasted. Often surprising, all the more in a country using a different alphabet and where English is spoken only in touristy places, it can be difficult to really dig in as the authentic Thai food scene is in the streets, at food stalls and on markets. What a better way to explore the smiling northern Thai culture than to taste your way through Chiang Mai, identifying foreign influences, uncovering local delicacies and maybe even learning how to cook yourself these delicious recipes?

Travel tips:

  • Make sure to hop on a food tour when you visit Chiang Mai with Chiang Mai Foodie Tours, the local company that initiated food tours in Chiang Mai. And do yourself a favour: arrive on an empty stomach!
  • We recommend the morning tour in order to taste the best specialties (stalls close down when sold out).
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!

For more in Thailand, click on the images below:

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