Some Things I Approve Of in Chiang Mai – Sausage, Khao Soi, Night Markets

khao soi accompaniments

Khao Soi

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.

Yes please.
Yes please.

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.

chiang mai art market

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.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.
Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

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.

chiang mai sausages better
Died and found myself alighting in Pork Heaven.

 A Dizzying Array of Delicious Pork Products

chiang mai pork rinds
Thai pork rinds.

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.

Tamarind leaf salad.
Tamarind leaf salad.

Isaan Food

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.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or "salsa) with tomato and eggplant.
Nam phrik (Thai dip or “salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

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.

issan bamboo shoots
Bamboo shoots in coconut milk with pork.

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.

Some Thoughts on TEDx Chiang Mai

What I always thought TEDx was like.
What I always thought TEDx was like.

I have somehow never attended a TEDx conference before. TEDx is the independent wing of the TED Conference, which was founded by Chris Anderson and other Silicon Valley illuminati types back in 1984, and have been gathering in repute and international popularity ever since.

Owned by the nonprofit Sapling Foundation, the motto of TEDx is “Ideas Worth Spreading” – a moniker that is both positive and makes it sound vaguely like something to do with getting a cold. The events, wherever they’re held, seek to create an environment where a lot of people who are interested in innovation, big-picture ideas, and wearing avant-garde turtlenecks can meet each other. Technology experts, social change agents, artists, performers, and the merely curious are all mean to mix under one big tent.

Selife time at TEDx.
Selife time at TEDx.

The format, if you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, is pretty simple: people get up and talk for a limited amount of time about something they’re really passionate about. Invited by event organizers, their talks are usually accompanied by slides, and there’s no Q&A period. Dramatic music plays as each attendee mounts the stage, and there’s atmospheric, moody lighting. TED talks of various kinds are collected online and transcribed, and many have become exceedingly popular and influential on the Internet – you’ve seen them, trust me.

The event was first brought to Chiang Mai four years ago as two neighborhood events, whose attendance are capped at under 100, per organizer Rob Evans, a long-time expat who helped the first events come into being. The first full-scale TEDx Chiang Mai, permitted to use the city name, took place in 2013, and the 2014 edition saw almost 700 attendees, with a good mix of Thai and foreign attendees.

Per the press release, TEDx Chiang Mai was out to “create a portfolio – an overall good composition.” And it was intentional that some of the speakers were more obscure. “We want you to hear their ideas, connect with them, and connect with each other,” as the release went.

TEDx organizers.
TEDx organizers.

What did I think of it? I only stayed for the talks during the first portion of the day, but I liked the relatively fast, punchy nature of the talks – they didn’t drag on too long, and time limits were strictly enforced. It was interesting to hear from Thai designers, business people, and entrepreneurs, and I gained a lot of info about people I should reach out for further stories about the entrepreneurship scene here. It was reemphasized to me once again that Chiang Mai is a surprisingly cool little city – sort of the Boulder of Thailand, with slightly fewer hipster beards.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 8.03.25 AM

Particular shout-outs to Puey Ounjai, who discussed the benefits of combining an artistic sensibility with art – his engaging style and anecdote about a friend introducing him at bars as a “sperm expert” were much appreciated. I also got a kick out of Thai designer Ploypan Theerachai and her THINKK Studio, who discussed her design firm’s emphasis on light-hearted play, as well as designer Pitupong (Jack) Chaowakul of Supermachine Studio, whose droll observations on the nature of Bangkok urbanity – right down to those ubiquitous, slightly intimidating wires over the streets – were very amusing and well received.

This saxophone is made of plastic and I love it.
This saxophone is made of plastic and I love it.

However, I think the TedX format is TOO talk-heavy. More networking time is always a plus. If connectivity and networking are the goal, it’d be nice to have either a longer lunch break or slightly more commodious breaks in between sessions to chase people down and hand out business cards. The after-party was a good time but the booze did run out rather quickly. Regardless, I got some good connections and am looking forward to following up. Also, there was this fantastic plastic saxophone that sounded exactly like the real thing….

Why You Should Pay Attention to Political Unrest in Thailand – UN Dispatch

protests thailand


Thailand Has Ousted Its Prime Minister – Here’s Why You Should Care 

It’s over: Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has finally been ousted by a Thai court after a contentious and occasionally bloody political standoff that has dragged on since last summer. In office since the summer of 2011, Shinawatra rode the Thai political tiger for as long as she could — but was eventually brought down by allegations that she transferred a bureaucrat illegally for her own political ends.

Yingluck is now the latest political casualty in the ongoing battle between “red shirt” supporters of the Pheu Thai party and her exiled brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the “yellow shirts,” who largely are composed of Bangkok residents and wealthier, urban Thais.

Already removed from power, her troubles don’t end there: she was indicted by Thailand’s anti-graft body over a rice subsidy scheme, and may be impeached by the Senate if found guilty.

Read more at UN Dispatch….

Little Serow: Isan-style Thai food For the Tragically Hip

 Washington DC is lamentably short of half-decent Thai restaurants, but there is one exception: Little Serow.

Little Serow is a curious beast, a fixed-menu walk in restaurant that serves intensely authentic Isan-style Thai food to a decidely chic audience. It is apparently owned by a husband-wife team of Westerners who went to Thailand, liked the food, learned how to cook it, and opened a restaurant.

This therefore almost falls into the genre of Nostalgic Anthropology Restaurants, which actually tend to be quite good in my experience.

The dining room is dark and colored a minty green one usually associates with bubblegum: there are no Thai antiques or plinky traditional music in evidence. Walk-ins only: expect to wait for you seat if it isn’t a weekend, standing around among the Converse-wearing crowd.

Little Serow also isn’t particularly cheap: about $45 a person for the fixed menu. A good deal in DC, a bit horrifying for me as I got used to spending up to $2 a plate for the same stuff whilst living in Cambodia.

However, the ingredients are more expensive here and few people know how to make this stuff, so I’d be a jerk to begrudge them. The wine list is quite excellent. I suggest prosecco or another kind of sparkler. Prosecco works with really pungent Thai food, as it tuns out. Same reason it works with caviar, I guess.

Little Serow’s pretense and coolness would be tiresome as hell, but as it turns out, the food is pretty great. I haven’t had flavors like this since I was last in Northern Thailand and Cambodia – in fact, I’ve never had Thai food like this in the USA at all.

Oh god, I’m so glad pork rinds are becoming cool again. I ate a ton of them as a little kid – BBQ flavor, the only kind that would do – and was so happy to arrive in Southeast Asia and realize people loved them there too. This would be the Isan equivalent of chips and salsa while watching the game with your boys: pork rinds dipped into a smoky, spicy eggplant dip. I could eat this all day.

Pork rinds are good for you. They’re low carb. Look it up. Pigs aren’t made of carbohydrates.

Glass noodle salad with lime, chili, peanuts, cilantro, and mint. This is a pretty typical, refreshing salad in Southeast Asia – something people eat riffs on in Cambodia a lot, too.

Herbaceous and refreshing, the sort of thing you could deign to languidly consume on one of those 102-in-the-shade-with-humidity-goddammit days that both Washington DC and Thailand are prone to. Little dried shrimps abound.

I should mention that if you are allergic to shrimp, don’t eat here. Just avoid Southeast Asia, really. Especially Cambodia. That’s a good way to die. (My aunt managed it, but I made sure I knew the Khmer for “IF MY AUNT EATS SHRIMP SHE WILL DIE” with accompanying knife-across-the-throat hand signal just in case!)

Now this is something you’ve probably never had before – fried rice cakes in a pungent, hot and sour lime juice and chili dressing with mint, cilantro, shallot, and I think a touch of lemongrass. As it turns out, fried rice cakes soaked in lime take on this almost chicken-nugget like texture that is rather addictive, almost meaty. A good choice for the vegetarian who occasionally feels pangs of remorse. Pungent, crunchy.

I should add I don’t find the food at Little Serow all that spicy. However, my friends claim I fried off all my tastebuds in a childhood accident so you might want to tread cautiously.

This is a Isan-style salad with ground catfish, basil, dill, lime juice, mint, chili, fried shallot, fresh shallot, and probably other spices I’m forgetting. I  happen to be a big catfish fan – blame it on the Southern genes – and Southeast Asia is in fervent agreement. Also, catfish get big enough to devour smallish people (like myself) in the Mekong, so my sympathy for the bewhiskered, muddy bastards is minimal.

Ground catfish happens to be fantastic, especially when combined with a lot of pungent spices and eaten out of lettuce cups. I wish I could order this up for lunch. It’s somewhat like a larb gai salad with catfish, by ways of comparison. My favorite dish at Little Serow. Am having occasional dreams of making it myself. Of course, I must first grind a catfish.

Chinese broccoli with fried s,melts in an oyster sauce. I love Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, to an extent that many people find somewhat confusing as most people would probably not regard a cruciferous vegetable tantamount to, say, miniature buttercream cupcakes with likkle sugar heart on them. But love it I do. I especially love it if you put much misunderstood and delightful fried smelts on top of em’. Just eat the heads, they won’t kill you, you weenie. Full of calcium. And eyeballs. Those too. 

Charcoal glazed pork-rib with onions and dill in a semi-sweet chili sauce. This is the dish everyone lauds at Little Serow, apparently, and it’s definitely pretty good. Certainly reminiscent of stuff I’ve eaten from smoky, late-night meat stalls in Cambodia and Thailand, sexed up a bit. (It would be difficult to secure a license for a whole pig food truck here in Washington, I wager, though I am also 99% certain some clever little shit has made the attempt).

Nice and tender meat, although I actually prefer it a little chewier. But that is a truly minor complaint on my end.

Dill is not something we associate with grilling too  much in the USA – most of us restrict its use to salmon and perhaps Green Goddess dressing – but it happens to be insanely popular in Vietnam, and widely used elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Ok, so what exactly differentiates Isan food from the stuff you might reasonably encounter at a mall Thai-food stand? Well,  Isan food is heavily influenced by the pungent, herb-filled cuisines of Laos and Cambodia, and that’s definitely in evidence at Little Serow, where every dish is full of vibrant, occasionally challenging flavors that rarely get much air-time in trendy US restaurants.

Americans for some reason don’t really go in for Eau de Aged, Pungent Fish Mashed With Chilis and Tiny Little Bones. Shocker. (This is not something you would be served at Little Serow, relax).

Isan food is also known for being even spicier than the Bangkok-style Thai food we usually encounter in the USA, which is really a feat, as Thai food in Bangkok can easily be blow-the-roof off hot if you ask nicely. I know that the only time in my life I have thought food was going to actually kill me occurred when I unthinkingly told a little old Lao lady at a Bangkok food stand to “make my papaya salad spicy.” Jesus God.

Yelp seems to indicate that a lot of people try this place out and fail to get it, but I’m happy to admit that this is not among the easiest cuisines in the world to fall in love with – pungent, spicy, just-plain-weird flavors are the order of the day. Don’t go in expecting to order chicken pad thai, in other words. Not that there’s anything wrong with that venerable, delicious dish.

I have a lot of beef with people who desperately attempt to find THE MOST AUTHENTIC version of whatever cuisine. Authenticity is nice and all, but in the case of, say, Isan style food, Really Authentic usually involves a lot more wild frog, insects, and breaches of hygiene. (I won’t get into what REALLY AUTHENTIC Khmer food as served through a US lens might be like). Taste should really be everything. I can appreciate Little Serow, but I can also appreciate a dynamite chicken pad thai.

Thais Worry About International Image in Wake of Bangkok Bomb Scare

Thai Bombing Vs Thai Tourist Industry – UN Dispatch

Bangkok, Thailand.

Thailand is circling the wagons after a recent terrorist bomb scare in the heart of Bangkok—and some Thais are questioning if their nation’s relatively laissez-faire approach towards international visitors is the right one.

The swift police response hasn’t been mirrored by the Thai government, however, which appears to be focusing much more on damage-control than it is on solving the problem, or acknowledging serious gaps in Thailand’s security network exist.  Many have piled on Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, who said in a Feb 14 press statement that the attacks “were not acts of terrorism” and the bombers were merely assembling weapons for use in other countries – although he proceeded to request terrorists refrain from using Bangkok as a staging ground for any future violence.

Read more at UN Dispatch….