With a mother from Chiang Mai and a father from Chiang Rai, this is the food of my childhood. Although I grew up on the Pennsylvania–Ohio border in a small town where kitchens brimmed with Italian-American favorites like stuffed manicotti and wedding soup, at my family’s house, roasted chicken bits bathed in garlic and fish sauce ruled the roost. Friends who came over to share our meals were taught how to pun khao, or roll bits of sticky rice into a ball while eating with their hands. Many nights were spent with bowls of “Thai spaghetti,” my father’s term for his khanom jeen nam ngiaw—rice noodles in a stew of minced pork, fermented soybeans, and cubes of congealed blood.
So even though we moved back to Thailand years ago and settled in Bangkok, treks up north remain a thrilling prospect for me. And it doesn’t hurt that Chiang Mai, the country’s second-largest city and erstwhile capital of the Lanna kingdom, is a first-rate food destination, featuring everything from the simplest taro fritter to Japanese fusion and classical French, not to mention the homegrown fare at which it excels.
A burly, chili-laced mix of culinary influences from China, Laos, and Myanmar, Northern Thai food—aharn muang—is often confused with the tarter, spicier, and more populist cuisine of Isan, the hardscrabble rural region to the southeast. But while it shares a staple—sticky rice—and a similar aversion to sugar, the food of the north is richer and milder due to a relatively cooler climate, and more reliant on the myriad vegetables and plants that sprout easily from the fertile mountain soil. There’s also an earthy, muted bitterness that expresses itself in dishes such as laab muang, a minced-meat salad that figures as one of the north’s best-known dishes.