A Culinary Journey Through North Thailand

  • Dinnertime at Baan Rai Yarm Yen

    Dinnertime at Baan Rai Yarm Yen

  • Roasted green-chili dip with deep-fried pork skin at Haan Tung Jiengmai

    Roasted green-chili dip with deep-fried pork skin at Haan Tung Jiengmai

  • Set in an old Lanna-style wooden house 20 minutes from downtown Chiang Mai, Huen Jai Jong is noted for its authentic northern cooking

    Set in an old Lanna-style wooden house 20 minutes from downtown Chiang Mai, Huen Jai Jong is noted for its authentic northern cooking

  • A vegetarian stir-fry at Raan Jay Yai

    A vegetarian stir-fry at Raan Jay Yai

  • Raan Larb Pa Than specializes in laab flavoured with dashes of beef bile

    Raan Larb Pa Than specializes in laab flavoured with dashes of beef bile

  • The same restaurant serves unctuous curried egg noodles (khao soi)

    The same restaurant serves unctuous curried egg noodles (khao soi)

  • A street-side table at Huen Phen

    A street-side table at Huen Phen

  • A stupa at Wat Chedi Luang, in the heart of Chiang Mai's moat-ringed Old Town

    A stupa at Wat Chedi Luang, in the heart of Chiang Mai's moat-ringed Old Town

  • Aunt Priew cooking up a storm in her Chiang Rai kitchen

    Aunt Priew cooking up a storm in her Chiang Rai kitchen

  • Crispy pork in gravy on rice (khao moo krob) is the main draw at Guay Jam Sam Kasat in Chiang Mai

    Crispy pork in gravy on rice (khao moo krob) is the main draw at Guay Jam Sam Kasat in Chiang Mai

  • A dining terrace at Baan Suan Rim Ping, a riverside restaurant designed by architect-owner Chulathat Kitibutr to envoke a northern Thai village

    A dining terrace at Baan Suan Rim Ping, a riverside restaurant designed by architect-owner Chulathat Kitibutr to envoke a northern Thai village

  • A pork-satay stand in Chiang Mai

    A pork-satay stand in Chiang Mai

  • Stir-fried water spinach (and cold beer) makes a regular appearance on tables in northtern Thailand

    Stir-fried water spinach (and cold beer) makes a regular appearance on tables in northtern Thailand

  • Thailand Northern

    Thailand Northern

Click image to view full size

A dining terrace at Baan Suan Rim Ping, a riverside restaurant designed by architect-owner Chulathat Kitibutr to envoke a northern Thai village

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.

Crispy pork in gravy on rice (khao moo krob) is the main draw at Guay Jam Sam Kasat in Chiang Mai

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.

Share this Article