Eating My Way Through Chiang Mai
Growing up, my family often ate at the now-defunct Sukhothai Restaurant in Megamall, a popular Thai establishment in 1990’s Manila. My dad loved Thai cuisine; the hotter, the better. Even as a child, I was no stranger to the aromatic and spicy dishes of the kingdom: tom yum soup, all kinds of curry, chicken pandan, and pad thai to name a few.
It wasn’t until I first visited Thailand in 2014 that I was finally able to try authentic Thai dishes. I went to Bangkok for 2 two-week job training, and spent as much of my free time as possible trying all the local delicacies I could get my hands on. Naturally I wanted to dine on all the food I was already familiar with growing up. I wandered the streets of Bangkok on weekends sampling various local street food and ate at a few great restaurants, one of which is Issaya in Bangkok (highly recommended!).
But it wasn’t until my recent trip to Northern Thailand that I realized I barely scratched the surface when it came to Thai cuisine. Visiting Chiang Mai completely outdid my expectations of Lanna (northern Thai) food. Everything I tried was a pleasant surprise to my palate.
Pack Your Appetite
It was late in the evening when I arrived at Chiang Mai from Bangkok. I was tired and hungry, but after checking into our AirBnb I set out to the night market across Chang Phueak gate for a late night dinner. Even if I was ravenous, I took my time walking – I couldn’t help but stop to admire the golden temples and eye-catching graffiti along the way.
My first experience with Lanna cuisine did not disappoint. It was almost 10pm when I reached the night market. Locating the famous cowgirl of Chiang Mai was easy; she’s a lady who makes a legendary dish called khao kha moo chang phueak which is a delicious meal of roasted pork legs (and other parts). She’s hard to miss: her stall is conveniently located at the front of the market, and she dons a signature cowboy hat that makes her stand out among the other vendors. Let me tell you; she’s a celebrity in Chiang Mai for good reason. The incredibly tender and flavorful pork is served over rice with sides of hard boiled egg, stewed Chinese broccoli, and pickled mustard greens. Season with some chili vinegar and you might just forget your name. I downed my khao kha moo chang phueak with some ice cold Leo beer and I was set for the night.
For lunch the following day, I set out to try SP Chicken, another popular restaurant. The vertical charcoal rotisserie, roasting chickens to perfection, catches your attention at the restaurant entrance. The specialty is called gai yang and it’s chicken done right; juicy, flavorful, and best enjoyed with hot rice. The servers place different dipping sauces on your table, but my favorite was a house sauce of chili, fish sauce, green onions, lime juice, lemongrass, and red pepper flakes. Each bite was of tender chicken, crispy skin, hot rice, and explosive sauce made this easily one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever tried in my life.
Another epic meal in Chiang Mai was khao soi gai from Khao Soi Mae Sai, a rich coconut curry noodle soup served with chicken, although beef and pork are also available. Khao soi gai is served with boiled and deep-fried egg noodles, topped with freshly-squeezed lime juice, shallots, and mustard greens. Each bite of this dish is an experience in contradicting textures, aromas, and amazing flavor: there’s the crunchy deep-fried noodles, silky smooth boiled noodles, fragrant coriander, tender chicken meat all tied together by an earthy, bright curry broth. Despite the blistering heat in Chiang Mai, this dish felt like a hug. I still dream about khao soi gai. (Tip: order some takeaway butterfly pea juice from the little shop across Khao Soi Mae Sai for the ultimate refresher between bites of this dish!)
So Much Food, So Little Time
Come for the sights, stay for the food – that might as well be the slogan of Chiang Mai, because the food alone is worthy of a visit. You’d be hard-pressed to find a mediocre dish anywhere here.
Chiang Mai’s night markets are an adventure on their own. The Warorot market in particular stands out for the sheer variety of cheap (skewered meats start at PhP 15) and top-quality food. You know that the standards are high, because locals frequent Warorot to buy food to enjoy at home.
The Warorot market has a dizzying array of dozens of stalls selling not only Lanna food, but also wider Thai cuisine. There are no seats or tables here, so don’t expect to sit down: just eat as you go or take away. I spent almost an hour exploring the many stalls of the market. My dinner was basically a hodgepodge of random but extremely delicious bites from the market: deep-fried pad thai, Chiang Mai sausage, grilled barbecue, and chicken skin. I wanted to eat more, but I had no more space in my belly – and no more time!
The lively walking street night market on Sunday evenings is a shopper’s paradise too. Spend your evening shopping for pasalubong while munching on food from the seemingly hundreds of vendors spread throughout the market. There’s fresh fruit, chicken curry empanadas, fish balls, sausages, noodles, salad… I could go on.
What I love the most about Thai food is its simple, unpretentious nature. The best meals are often found in the most unassuming of stalls on gritty streets, where tourists are invited to dine next to locals in outdoor seats that are void of any ambiance. Street side dining in Thailand is Spartan at best when it comes to the set up. Diners only need to wait 5 minutes at the most for an order, even at the busiest times. In these parts, the food takes center stage and nothing else matters. They never promise, but always over-deliver.