Khao soi is my favorite noodle dish in Asia, and that’s really saying quite a lot, considering the dizzying biodiversity of noodle soups in this region of the world. Thought to be of Burmese origin, the dish has been modified in Northern Thailand, and is, I think, superior to the original.
The essential deal here is a combo of spicy and richly flavored coconut milk broth flavored with a pungent curry paste, tender chicken or pork, chewy yellow noodles, and a topping of crispy deep fried noodles, sometimes substituted with fried pork skins. With a bowl of khao soi, you’re also given pickled cabbage, raw shallot, lime juice, and usually additional chili paste, which can be applied to taste.
The final result, with plenty of lime juice and supplemental chili in my case, is among the more sublime lunch specialties in the world – a perfect mix of spicy, sweet, tangy, and crunchy. I’ve found myself managing to work in two bowls of the stuff a day in khao soi country, especially as every restaurant seems to make it in a slightly different way. Chicken is usually the more common variety on offer, especially as it’s considered a Muslim-influenced dish, but I’m partial to the pork version when I can get it. Sometimes, chunks of blood are also thrown into the broth as well, especially up near Chiang Rai. You are welcome to quietly pick them out.
Hunting good khao soi is a pleasant endeavor, but I can suggest a little cafe right off the city wall with excellent khao soi. I didn’t get the name, but you’ll see it on the left if you are headed towards Arak Road Lane 5 on the main Arak Road (on the side of the city walls), right after you pass Sinharat Road Lane 2. Here’s a Google Maps link to the approximate location.
I came upon the place after unsuccessfully hunting another khao soi joint, and was glad I gave it a whirl: deliciously flavored, thick broth, and pork chunks as well as meatballs in the soup. I believe I *maybe* paid the equivalent of $3.
Saturday Night Market
Chiang Mai is home to a number of well-known universities, and with higher education, comes hipster kids with weird aesthetics and a burning desire for pocket money. This means that while the Saturday Night Market on Wualai Road (near the Chiang Mai Gate) does contain the usual assortment of generic Thai crapola – wooden frogs, obscene key-chains, those horrid elephant pants – there’s also a pleasing variety of interesting stuff, produced by young, local artists.
I usually come away from here with a pleasant selection of eccentric, cheap things. This time, it was a tote bag with watercolor paintings of fish on it and the word “Mackerel,” as well as a large sticker of a tiger’s head with “FUCK COMIC SANS” written on it. It’s the vastest night market I’ve ever run across in Asia, bustling along until well after 10:30 PM, and walkable for what seems like almost a mile. Tentacles of night time commerce spread off into the side streets from the main event, prompting pleasant wandering out of the heat of the day.
The Saturday Night Market also has a nice selection of food stalls, with authentic Thai specialties and not-so-authentic, as well as buskers and performances. The vibe of the event is perhaps its biggest selling point, with a particular, local energy that is quite fun to jump into as a visitor. Finally, there’s spectacular people-watching — well, if you like seeing backpackers clash with Thai hipsters, annoyed looking elderly food sellers, and befuddled looking middle-aged Aussies in singlets. And of course you like that, everyone with any taste likes that.
A Dizzying Array of Delicious Pork Products
My family hails from the Southern United States, a part of the world with a deep, spiritual relationship with eating pigs. Northern Thailand shares this intense porcine affinity with Appalachia, and Chiang Mai’s food markets offer a delightful array of pork products, all at highly reasonable prices and with intense flavoring.
A particular standout is sai ua or Northern Thai sausage, produced with a combination of minced pork, curry paste, herbs, and Thai spices. The end result is a delightfully fresh and unexpected snack that is likely unlike anything you’ve tasted before, at least if you hail from the West. Sai ua is usually sold in long links, and is typically eaten plain, although some clever person needs to take this Thai hot dog concept to the slavering, food-truck besotted masses of Silicon Valley or Portland.
Yet another delightful Northern sausage product is fermented pork sausage (sai krok Isan), which is made with a combination of pork and rice – for you Louisiana people, it’s essentially Thai boudin with a tangy, funky additional kick from the fermentation process. It’s completely addictive and I find it very difficult to step away from stalls that sell it, usually packed into small balls that can easily be scooped up with a cabbage leaf and a fresh, incendiary green chili.
Also worth seeking out are meaty pork rinds, which are of course nothing more or less than deep-fried pork skin. Much of the world seems to find the idea of merrily consuming fried pig epidermis to be deeply disturbing, but both my noble Southern ancestors and the people of Northern Thailand consider them to be a marvelous delicacy, perfect with a beer or three. Not all pork rinds are created equal – some are fresher and meatier than others, while some feature a nice dusting of spicy chili – so it’s worth experimenting from Chiang Mai’s sundry meat-selling ladies. If I can, I like to toss them with some vinegar-based hot sauce, in the finest New Orleans style, but they’re quite delectable without.
It’s tragic, but the Isaan food typical of Northern Thailand and adjoining regions of Laos is very little known outside of Southeast Asia. True: it’s spicy and often features ingredients that can charitably be described as eccentric, but I’m very partial to its freshness and unabashedly pungent nature. Pungent, rustic-style fish sauce, chili, pickles all sorts, fresh herbs, sticky rice, and smoky flavors are all typical of Isaan food, as well as “jungle” curries more reliant on herbs than they are on rich coconut milk and large quantities of meat.
If you’ve had and enjoyed tangy, eye-bleedingly spicy papaya salad (som tum) before, you’ve had a bit of exposure to Isaan food. In the Lao and Northern style, it’s made with more fish sauce and chili than the versions you’ll find in the South. It’s been written that Isaan food is so aggressively flavored in an effort to make residents of the traditionally poor region be content with padding their meals out primarily with sticky rice. It sounds legitimate enough, especially when one takes into account the fact that sticky rice has a habit of expanding in one’s stomach.
Pleasingly, Chiang Mai is a great, central place to sample good Isaan food in all its variety, and there’s tons of restaurants to choose from. Some places may bill themselves as Lanna or Northern Thai in lieu of Isaan, but there’s considerable overlap in style between them.
Considering that most Isaan restaurants are fluorescent lit mom-and-pop affairs – which is fine, but sometimes you’re perversely interested in a hint of ambiance, or at least clean tables – I was particularly impressed with the contemporary design of Tong Tem Toh, a Northern Thai restaurant located close to Chiang Mai University.
Up the almost painfully hip 11 Nimman Haeminda Soi 13, it’s popular with young Thais, and has an extensive menu of dishes that are distinctly hard to find elsewhere – though in the evening, there’s plenty of charcoal grilled meats on offer for those in your group with cowardly palates. Always be sure to emphasize that you want your food spicy when dining as a Westerner in Isaan establishments,, as Thais, usually correctly, assume that foreigners can’t hang.
I’m fascinated by the array of nam phrik (Thai “dip” or “salsa”) specialties available in the North, which are a handy answer to Mexican-style salsa bars. Here, we enjoyed a bowl of nam phrik ong, which is best described as Thai bolognese: minced pork, tomato, and smoky chili, served with fresh vegetables for dipping and scooping. It was entirely addictive and I’m learning to make it. The menu also has nam phrik num, a green Thai “salsa” made with roasted green chiles that would fit in beautifully on any given enchilada.
We also tried fresh, herbaceous tamarind leaf salad with a fish sauce dressing and a liberal topping of pork rinds, as well as bamboo shoots cooked pork and a little bit of coconut milk and chili (which could have been a little warmer). Joining these dishes was a tasty serving of egg, rice, and pork sausage (jeen som mok kai) with peanuts and fresh garlic on the side, as well as a tasty version of sai ua with lots of pungent flavor.
Best of all was the Northern style pork belly curry, with big chunks of tender, fatty pork in a complex, smoky-tasting sauce, with peanuts and tamarind juice and a bit of coconut milk. We offset everything with little balls of sticky rice from nice woven bamboo containers, and a hefty quantity of Chang beer.