When most foreigners think of Thailand’s cuisine, they imagine Pat Thai and red curry. Can’t blame them: Bangkok’s region, Central Thailand, is where the seat of power–and most Thai food we see in the West–originate from. I couldn’t find Chiang Mai food in Tampa for the life of me!
This is why very few people outside of Asia are familiar with the fact that there are three other distinctive regions in the country: each with its own geography, available ingredients, and culture.
Today, I’m excited to introduce you to my favorite Northern Thai dishes, spotted while exploring Chiang Mai this summer.
Chiang Mai Food: My Favorite Northern Thai Dishes
Northern Thailand incorporates Chiang Mai and the mountainous vicinity, including the jungle that borders Myanmar and Laos. Here, more plant-based, bitter ingredients dominate–including spices such as turmeric and ginger. Pork, freshwater fish, and sticky rice instead of steamed rice are also staples.
Note to vegetarians: don’t be afraid! Northern Thai dishes, rich in spices, can easily become meatless without compromising much of their taste (except for fish oil and shrimp paste).
Unlike popular belief, coconut is not as common in North Thailand. As such, most Northern Thai curries lack that thick coconut milk goodness.
Nothing to be alarmed about, though!
Soups are still a staple, along with boiled and steam ingredients. Again: all packed with flavorful herbs and spices.
Below, my favorite Northern Thai dishes where to eat them.
SAI UAH AND MOO TOD
Sai uah is a spicy pork sausage filled with lemongrass–a strong herb that you will either love or hate. In my opinion, it’s the most delicious of all Asian herbs.
Moo tod, on the other hand, are sweet, almost nutty pork pieces that are fried until really crunchy. It is too good for words.
Where to eat it: my local guide, Rain from Chiangmai Food Tours, confirms top-notch sai uah and moo tod is found at Sai Uah by Auntie Pun. They prepare fresh batches every morning, at 4 AM! Outside sign is in Thai, so save this photo to ensure you get to the right place.
Not only can you not talk about Chiang Mai food without mentioning khao soi, but the thick curry soup happens to be my favorite Thai dish of full-time!
Interestingly, this dish contains coconut milk–a rarity in Northern Thai cuisine, as I just explained. Yet, it’s easy to understand why Chiang Mai’s most popular soup is a bit out of the norm: it’s been influenced by several cultures.
Khao soi is closest to Burmese ohn no khao swe–a coconut milk curry soup made with a mix of both fried and boiled egg noodles. Likewise, khao soi is believed to have been influenced by the Muslim Chinese, as it is typically served with either chicken or beef– not pork.
A broth packed with coriander, turmeric, ginger, shallots, chilies, curry powder, and cilantro. It’s so simple, yet so zestful!
Where to eat it: I highly recommend trying Chiang Mai’s signature dish at Khao Soi Khun, located immediately on the left of Wat Mon Tien. Rain, my local tour guide, assured me this is the best khao soi travelers can get within the Old City’s city walls–and I attest to that!
Another Northern Thai specialty is ab moo–pork, eggs, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, coriander, turmeric, garlic, pepper, shallots, and shrimp paste mixed and then wrapped in a banana leaf. It is first grilled, then baked.
Foreigners could be put off by its pasty look, but certainly not by its enticing aroma!
Where to eat it: toward the back gate of Chiang Mai University on Suthep Road you will find not only great ab moo, but a fantastic array of cheap street eats every night! Totally worth the 10-15 minute taxi or scooter ride from the Old City.
HANG LAY CURRY
This Burmese influenced, tamarind-based curry soup has a fascinating history. Even though it is made with pork, it was still considered a holy food in neighboring Myanmar–where only monks were allowed to eat it.
Fortunately for us laymen, hang lay curry is now accessible to the masses. Its spice mix, however, was adapted in Northern Thailand. There, the recipe utilizes less oil, is thinner than green curry, contains no coconut cream, and has a peculiar taste due to its strong tamarind-shrimp paste combo as well.
May not be everyone’s favorite, but I encourage you to give it a try. You might fall in love with it like I did!
Where to eat it: nothing like sampling hang lay curry at the beautiful garden of Hinlay Curry House. Relaxing, affordable, authentic. On 8/1 Nha Wat Kate Road, Soi 1, Chiang Mai.
LAAB MOO AND PED
Yes: yet another outstanding pork dish, mixed with an aromatic mix of herbs, including zesty shallots and kaffir lime leaves! My mouth waters remembering it and I’m not even that keen of pork (yes, really). Other ingredients include chilies, fish sauce, and cilantro.
You don’t have to try laab moo, though! Laab recipe is used with other type of meats as well, such as beef or even duck (ped).
In contrast, Isaan (Northeastern Thai) versions typically add rice for thickness as well.
Where to eat it: while many street carts in Chiang Mai can dish out decent pork laab (moo), I highly recommend the duck version at Weera Laab Ped in the Old City (33 Soi 7 Sirimankalajarn, Nimman).
NAM PRIK ONG AND NAM PRIK NUME
Tongue-burning foods might not be that common in Chiang Mai, but they still got a few! Case in point? Their most popular, unique chili dips.
Nam prik ong, a Northern Thai red chili dip that looks like Bolognese sauce, is my personal favorite. It’s made with dried chilli leaves, galangal, shrimp paste, shallots, garlic, and tomato pound into a mortar–then fried in oil along with minced pork and even more tomatoes. It’s also milder, thanks to its sweet tomato base. So flavorful though, still packing enough kick!
Nam prik nume, on the other hand, will bring you to tears–either of joy or pain. I couldn’t handle the burn, but any lover of fiery food sure will. The roasted green chilli spur dip will kick your taste buds right on the first bite, too.
Where to eat it: built over stilts in the jungle, Huan Huay Kaew Restaurant not only serves some of the best nam prik ong in town, but its architectural design will leave you thinking it is an attraction in itself. Speaking of which: it happens to be conveniently located on the road to famous Doi Suthep at 31/2 M.2. T.Suthep, Huay Kaew Rt., Chiang Mai.
After so much spice, you need a sweet drink to cool of those taste buds. Even though I’m quite picky about fruit juices, I love longan.
The fruit, while part of the lychee family, is delicately sweet–no tart, sour bite at all. It also happens to be an immune booster!
Logan juice is best served on the rocks after a hot, humid day exploring Chiang Mai.
Where to eat it: between Lane 8 and 9, Old City of Chiang Mai.
Another wonderful sweet, found virtually anywhere in Thailand, is khanom sodsai. Again we have coconut making a special appearance, even though it is absent from many traditional dishes in Chiang Mai.
In fact, khanom sodsai packs lots of it.
Coconut cream, coupled with a stuffing of shredded coconut soaked in palm sugar and rice powder–all wrapped in a banana leaf. Then, it is dipped in a sesame-sugar pixie powder. Oh joy.
Where to eat it: my favorite place in China mine not only to eat khanom sodsai, but to also have an unforgettable afternoon tea experience is the quiet library of the Makka Hotel. It’s one of the quietest, most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been to anywhere in the world.
What are your favorite Northern Thai dishes? Share them below!
Many thanks to Rain and the team at Chiangmai Food Tours for an unforgettable, complimentary introduction to Northern Thai Cuisine. I was not paid for positive reviews, however. All comments and recommendations put forth on this article are my honest opinion. Moreover, historical facts and descriptions have been cross-checked.