The Unexpected Culinary Haven of Chiang Mai

To be fully transparent, I had not heard of Chiang Mai prior to typing into Google the ever-so-nuanced “where to go in Thailand”. I was already familiar with the nightlife of Bangkok and James Bond-stamped-beach in Phuket, but I wanted to surprise myself with other possibilities. When Chiang Mai popped up I was intrigued.

Unlike Bangkok and other southern Thai cities, Chiang Mai’s menus have nary a pad thai or coconut-based curry in sight. Lanna cuisine is what’s dished out, which takes just as many notes from the neighboring countries of Myanmar and China as it does to the rest of Thailand. Ingredients are harvested from the mountainous region of Northern Thailand, meats are grilled and fermented, fresh herbs are plentiful and the rice is sticky. 

Upon mentioning the city to a foodie friend of ours who’d visited in the past, they expounded on the many ways that a visit to Chiang Mai beats a stop in Bangkok, and drafted up a list of their favorite restaurants in town, many of whom boasted a dinner bill under $10. Game on.

My husband and I arrived in town at midnight and ate a hotel breakfast in the am, so come our first proper meal in the city we were amped. Our first choice was Khao Soi Khun Yai, a famed soup of the area, but upon our arrival at 1:30pm we were met with a “sold out” sign and a closed gate. Lesson one, this town’s institutions are not to be trifled with. Come early or prepare for disappointment. 

We took a twenty minute walk to The House by Ginger — A Michelin guide, Lonely Planet recommended restaurant with plush velvet couches and meals served in Willow patterned china. The food was delicious (who knew watermelon with fish salt was so satisfying?), but it felt a bit too sterile. More like a gentrified Seattle eatery than a spot situated just off a busy moped-filled Thai road. 

It didn’t help that the restaurant had an attached “lifestyle shop” or that the couple dining next to us was a fifty-something British couple whose husband made a habit of blowing their nose at the table. For those seeking good food in a luxe space this is a great spot, but for someone trying to get a feel for what Lanna cuisine is, this shouldn’t be the first destination. 

Instead of letting reviews dictate dinner, we strolled around our neighborhood until a place spoke to us. We stumbled onto Lert Ros where whole fish and banana-leaf-parcels were grilled outside on charcoal-filled drums.  We couldn’t resist, took a seat, and ordered from a binder stuffed with sun-bleached laminated pages. Within fifteen minutes we feasted on roasted tilapia, papaya salad, banana leaf fermented pork sausage and laap moo (minced pork with lime, chili, herbs and fish sauce). 

Service was good, food was delivered quickly and everything tasted spectacular. It was everything I wanted. I spent six days in Thailand and this came to be my favorite meal. 

To polish the dinner off we ordered our first mango sticky rice in Thailand and I almost passed out I was so happy. It was a simple dish: sticky jasmine rice mixed with sugar and coconut milk, topped with half of a perfectly ripened mango and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, but it was so sublime that within an hour of paying the bill we craved more mango. The twee looking cafe “Fruiturday” called to us and we ordered a second mango sticky rice that was neatly presented and served with a small carafe of milk, but less satisfying than earlier. 

Over the next week I’d eat mango sticky rice every day and I soon came to realize that the most satisfying renditions directly correlate to how hot the eater is. Sticky rice in the evening is great, but sticky rice in the late afternoon or early evening as a respite from the heat and weary feet is a blessed experience.

That night we slept with bulging, gluten-filled bellies and woke with a mission: To see as many wats (temples) as our feet could carry us to (within reason) and to eat lunch at the previously sold out Khao Soi Khun Yai, one of the city’s most revered khao soi eateries. Unlike South and Central Thai cooking, Lanna cuisine does not rely on coconut. Khao soi, is an exception. The dish could be described as a thinned down coconut curry, with an oily chili broth packed with a dealer’s choice of meat and boiled egg noodles, topped with crispy noodles. 

Khao Soi Khun Yai resides just outside the perimeter of the old city across from Wat Lok Moli, one of the more popular temples in Chiang Mai. Even with this tourist proximity it would be an easy-to-miss spot. The eatery is unseen from the busy Sri Poom road. Travellers must enter what appears to be a large parking lot and head determinedly to the open air awning ahead. Underneath it sit dozens of tourists, waiting for a bowl of steaming hot soup on a 90 degree day.  

The menu is limited — Beef or chicken/pork khao soi. Beef is sold out for the day, so pork it is. At the counter my husband and I order two bowls which put together come to less than $3USD,  then plunk down at a table next to a thirty-something Canadian couple. Placed in front of me twenty minutes later is a bowl filled with a curry colored broth speckled with oil, topped with crispy egg noodles and served with a side dish brimming with shallots, mustard greens and lime wedges. 

I’ll admit that hot soup on an afternoon where I’m susceptible to third degree sunburn may not sound like a great idea in theory, but the broth manages to be both spicy and soothing. The chili starts each bite with a brief moment of “I’m on fire!” then the citrus and coconut quell the flames into a manageable burn. Paired with an ice cold Coca-Cola, this lunch gives me the energy I need to walk out of here and…into bed for a mid-afternoon siesta. 

Khao Soi is rejuvenating, but not enough to crush the languidness that comes with unforgiving sun. 

One nap, dip in the pool and espresso boost from Ristr8to cafe later, my husband and I are taking a seat in Anchan Vegetarian Cafe in the trendy Nimman neighborhood. 

The cafe has that unfussy boho feel that instinctively makes you go “yep, this place is low on meat”. One wall is half turquoise, half creamsicle orange, while the opposing wall features a daily  smoothie and dessert menu written onto a chalkboard bordered with a wildflower mural. 

Anchan’s menu is extensive and divided into categories for curries, stir fries, thai salads, thai omelets and onward. We order the jungle curry with Thai basil and tofu, green mango salad and Anchan fried rice. I’m a sucker for ordering whatever the namesake dish is, figuring that’s what the establishment is most proud of. 

Portions were large, but I love feeling full in that “healthy” kind of way where even though you just consumed a brick’s worth of food you feel good about yourself because it’s mostly brown rice and vegetables. Surprisingly, my favorite part of the meal was a cinnamon and ginger iced tea that has a spicy zing I really need to recreate at home.

Like those preceding it, the day was a scorcher. It’s everything travellers want in a tropical destination — No clouds in sight, sunshine for days on end, 90 degrees. Ideal beach weather. Less than ideal trudging-through-city-streets weather. After wating it up in the morning we spent the early afternoon wandering through Buok Hard Park’s flower show, and at 1pm I was nearing toddler levels of sleepiness as I walked through the shimmering asphalt streets. 

This is where SP Chicken swoops in and saves the day. While Lert Ros may be my favorite meal in Thailand, this is my second. There’s not a lot to choose from in this beloved Old Town spot — The menu features barbequed pork ribs, a spicy shrimp soup (tom yam koong) and a spicy Vietnamese meatball salad, but that’s not what the people come for. They come for the beautifully simple roast chicken.

Glorious it is. The chicken is tender and salty and paired with a sweet chili sauce is already enough to write home about. However, accompany that with a bowl of sticky white rice, a plate of papaya salad dotted with fiery red chilis and an icy Thai Singha lager, and there’s nothing wanting in the meal. It’s savory and sweet, refreshing and spicy. 

The whole lot of half a chicken, rice, salad and beer is enough to feed two people and adds up to less than 8USD, making this the perfect spot for both foodies and backpackers. 

Our last dinner before jetting off to Bangkok in the morning was back in the Nimman neighborhood at Kinlum Kindee, a restaurant that prides itself on their authentic Northern Thai Lanna cuisine. The space was chic with a hipster lilt (think a doodle mural beside the bathrooms and menus with images featuring perfectly manicured hands holding a piece of pork cracklin’), but the food remained unfussy and classic lanna staples were unfussed with. 

We ordered as much food as we deemed reasonable, winding up with a Thai feast. On the lighter side was a small bowl of nam prik, a chili dipping sauce of chilies, shallots and garlic finished off with lime juice and shrimp paste, which was accompanied by a plate of steamed green vegetables. There was sticky rice (a given at this point in Thailand), and a sua pork and chicken sausages, stuffed with so many herbs and spices they almost dominate the meat they’re paired with. Finally, larb moo. 

Carl and I are used to cooking brighter, southern renditions of laap that feature plenty of lime juice, toasted rice, mint and cilantro for a bright, fragrant dish, to which, the Northern style larb moo is the emo sibling. In place of lime, there’s garlic. In lieu of mint and cilantro, there’s cinnamon and cumin. This feels less like a hot weather dish and more a meal for Christmas eve, but we eat it on an 80 degree evening and somehow, it works. 

The next day we took a morning flight to Bangkok where we’d spend the next 36 hours visiting temples, hopping on and off  water taxis and getting lost in the seven-story Terminal 21 shopping mall, while stuffing ourselves with congee and more mango sticky rice. 

Bangkok is an explosion of the senses, but I found myself missing the restrained Chiang Mai and all the flavors it holds. 

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