Chiang Mai, Thailand...what an interesting, unique and ridiculously delicious place! Now, there are things I love about Chiang Mai and some that I found extremely disappointing if I'm being honest. I tend to get very high expectations based on what other people say...one of the reasons I never go to the movies to see blockbusters that everyone is raving about, I'm always disappointed! I think the same thing happened with Chiang Mai...at first.
Everyone I knew told me how amazing it was and kept describing it as a "town" with a medieval-like wall around it, amazing markets and lots of historical and beautiful temples. Now, technically that is all true...but to me those words conjured up an image of a small town that I would ramble through at leisure as I wistfully fingered silk at the markets. Enter the reality of Chiang Mai. This "town" may be up North nestled in the hills of Thailand, but town it is not...it is a big, crazy bustling city! Horns honking, tuk tuks two-wheeling around corners, air thick with smog and dirt and oh so many people! Of course, it's not Bangkok...but you expect Bangkok out of Bangkok and this is not what I was expecting out of Chiang Mai. Yes there is a wall around the city (which is beautiful...especially at sunset), more beautiful temples than you could ever imagine and even an amazing and huge Sunday market (the normal nightly market, not so interesting!) where you can wistfully finger fine silk scarves...there will just be a lot of noise and commotion around you as you enjoy all of these things. But if you set your expectations correctly, as I did after a day of adjustment, Chiang Mai is a fantastic place. Particularly because of the food!
So onto the food we go!
Our first meal in Chiang Mai...where we discovered fried morning glory!
Picture this...it's about 10pm, you're in a strange new city that totally doesn't fit your expectations, but starving. You ask the nice young man at the front desk for a local recommendation with your husband telling him that you love food and we really want the authentic experience. He tests us with a few questions first and then as we prove ourselves worthy he starts scribbling in Thai on a scrap of paper hands it to you....asks you one more time if you really like spicy food...and then points you down the street with fair warning that there likely won't be any tourists there and they don't speak English. Sweet! A few blocks later we get to a road-side open air restaurant with fluorescent lights, the news on a small T.V. and lots of locals eating, drinking and generally happy to ignore our presence. We start to scan the menu only to realize it's useless, so when our waitress comes we say hello in Thai, hand her the piece of paper a bit apologetically (although she looks relieved!), order two beers and we're on our way!
What you see in the photo above is what we got...it may not look impressive but holy lord was it amazing! Super spicy hot fried morning glory, a kind of candied version (we would later discover) of Chiang Mai sausage and a delicious pork dish. So seemingly simple but all three were so full of flavor and delicious. The morning glory in particular...it was that ridiculous spiciness that is burning your lips off but for some reason you keep reaching back for more and you just can't stop yourself. So of course you chug more beer and then happily shove another bite in your mouth. Oh so good...we were searching for more the rest of our time in Thailand. Three dishes, four beers...$6 US. This is my kind of eating!
This next one might have been our favorite discovery in Thailand. I had read about this soup, that was mostly found in Chiang Mai, before we even left the U.S. and I knew I had to try it. I’m a sucker for regionally specific foods and I love me some noodles. When we got to Chiang Mai a local friend we made at the hotel told us of a place around the corner where we had to go to get Khao Soi...funnily enough it was also in my guide book and the place that I had earmarked. So my choice being corroborated by a local, we headed to Huen Phen for dinner, our bellies growling with excitement.
Unfortunately we missed the memo...Khao Soi is a lunch time dish only, so we were out of luck for dinner. We ate there anyway and had a fabulous meal, but my mind was nervously churning. We only had one day left in Chiang Mai after this and we were in a cooking class from 9am until 1:30pm and Huen Phen was only open for lunch until 3 everyday. So our only chance was to force our already over-filled bellies coming from our Thai cooking class to stretch a little bit more so we could try the famed Khao Soi from the best in the area. Were we up for the challenge? You bet! And we’re we ever so glad that we didn’t give up our quest for Khao Soi...it is now one of our absolute favorite Thai foods and I think it will be yours too!
So there are a few tricks to this soup that make it as good as it is:
- First is the broth...rich, deep curry flavors with a coconut creamy texture
- Double noodles...that’s right, there are noodles in the broth but also crispy fried noodles on top. The juxtaposition of soft and cruncy noodles is just perfect, especially for a noodle lover like me
- The “fixin’s” - the soup is served with pickled mustard greens, shallots and lime. The pickled mustard greens are a must...trust me.
- The chicken....cooked on the bone right in the delicious broth. It falls off the bone and is flavored perfectly.
Mmmm....I'm salivating just thinking about it! Here is the recipe I've used when making this at home (although I amp up the curry paste a bit)...which unfortunately you'll most likely have to make if you want to try this. I haven't found it at a restaurant in the U.S. yet but I'm still on the hunt. Let me know if you find any!
Som Tam...and a lesson in eating with our hands:
We made a friend while in Chiang Mai...this super bubbly and frienldy young woman, Nanny, who showed us around one day and even took us out for a drive to see a famous Wat (temple) up on a hill and then for lunch at a rustic little place near a market. When we got the rice and food and reached for our forks, Nanny quickly realized it was time for a lesson! She showed us, while giggling, how to grab our rice with our fingers dip it into the spicy sauce and then use it to scoop up whatever else we wanted in that bite. Messy? Yes. Fun? Definitely! It also got us some approving looks from the locals nearby...street cred.
We did not, however, eat the Som Tam (green papaya salad) with our hands. Because while papaya salad sounds like it might be a cool refreshing side to all of the other spicy food in Thailand that couldn't be further from the truth. So super spicy! But addictive, good and now that we're back in the states we're always disappointed with how mild papaya salad is here. So eating rice with your fingers....good. Eating super spicy papaya salad with your fingers...bad. But find a way to get that papaya salad in your mouth! My recipe that I brought back from Thailand is here.
Various street food:
I mean really, anywhere you go in Thailand you should be eating from street vendors more often than not. It's really 10 times better than what you'll get in any fancy sit-down restaurant and also 10 times cheaper. Plus, who doesn't like to support the local people and get to know them while complimenting their cooking? In Chiang Mai the street food is amazing...here are a few of our favorites:
The more traditional Chiang Mai sausage that you see everywhere (but nowhere else in Thailand!). It is seriously some of the most flavorful and amazing sausage I have ever had. It has a distinct sweetness but also has a nice heat to it and while it is a dense sausage it is so soft it almost melts in your mouth. Man I wish I could find this here in the states!
Pad Thai...you thought you knew it, but it is so much better in Thailand! At least I think so. If you really like that strong tamarind flavor and sticky texture then you might actually like it better the Americanized way, but the fresh noodles and less sticky texture works so much better for me...yum. Here's the Pad Thai recipe I brought back from Thailand.
Ah, mangoes with sticky rice...one of my favorite desserts in the entire world. We honestly ate this about 6 times during our time in Thailand, and I'm not one to repeat meals lightly! This street-side one we got served up in a plastic bag, might have been the best one though! Here's the recipe to make it yourself from our Thai cooking class.
Ok, I'm going to say it. The Thais will put just about anything on a stick and it will all be delicious! Take your pick...they'll quickly throw it on the grill as a reheat and you have a yummy yet portable snack!
More amazing street noodles. So fresh, soft and delicious. Take your pick of toppings and slurp away. I'm a noodle fiend so walking down the street and seeing noodles every where I turn is right up my alley!
Thai Cooking Class
If you're heading to Thailand anytime soon I'm sure you've heard that Chiang Mai is the place to take a cooking class if you're planning on it. So even thow we only had a few days here we managed to squeeze in a ½ day cooking class at Siam Rice Thai Cookery School. Since it is the only class I took in Thailand I don't have anything to compare it to, but I thought it was done quite well and all of the recipes led to really authentic results...even when we've made them at home. The class started with a market tour where we saw how coconut creme and coconut milk was made, learned all about local produce and ingredients and then got some time to explore on our own before heading off to class.
The class itself was held in a covered outdoor area at the instructors house which was great. Plenty of room a burner for each pair of cooks and you got to spend the day outside. After picking the 4 dishes you wanted to cook (out of about 20 to choose from!) we all got right to work, one course at a time with time to sit down and eat what we made in between cooking each course. You get to know everyone and end up sharing food so you get to try a bit of everything which is nice. If you're looking to learn how to actually cook all the way from prep to completion, this isn't the course for you since all of you ingredients are brought to you mis en place perfectly cut and ready to cook. But for those of us who already know how to prep and cook this was perfect since it focused on the actual cooking of the food .
Everything Christian and I made was delicious...from Pad Thai to Som Tam to Panang Curry and everything in between. The nice thing about the curry dishes is that they taught you how to make the different homemade curry pastes....much easier than you might think! At the end of the class you get a nice little cookbook that has every recipe you (and your other fellow chefs) have cooked so you can take it home to replicate as we've done many times. Always fun to relive your vacation back at home!
...and last, what trip to Northern Thailand would be complete without a little insect eating?!
I had to do it. Of course I did! What kind of SavoryGirl would I be if I didn't at least sample the delicacies of the regions I visited? That being said, I took the easy route when it comes to the insects I was offered while in Chiang Mai. There were scorpions, giant cockroaches, siklworms, the list goes on. So really, crickets were an easy choice! Small, crunchy (not gushy!) and a one-bite job. So, how were they? Not bad actually. I mean did I eat the whole bowl? No. Did I eat more than one? Yes...I ate about 10. If you like salty, crunchy snacks I can see how these would grow on you....especially because they are dusted in a delicious Thai seasoning. My only gripe is the occassional leg or antennae that gets stuck in your throat and reminds you that you're eating a bug...but other than that, not half bad. You can watch the video of my live reaction trying them for the first time here.
So if you love food, as you can see, Chiang Mai is the place for you. This super long run-down is honestly just the tip of the iceberg for everything we ate and fell in love with in our 3 days (yes, only 3 days...and we even fit in a full-day trek one of the days!) in Chiang Mai. As long as you expect a relatively big, busy city...this is an amazing place with phenomenal food. A must on any foodies' world tour!