Curious to learn about cooking in Thailand beyond the overly sweet fare offered in Western restaurants, Haan Palcu-Chang visits Chiang Mai to immerse himself in its diverse culinary culture
The first job I ever had as a cook was at a Thai restaurant in Vancouver. The aromas, tastes and flavours I experienced in that kitchen instilled in me a passion and curiosity for Thai food that has led me all over the world. I've worked in a Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in Copenhagen, I've searched the streets of Bangkok for the perfect bite, I've run out of Heathrow Airport on a four-hour layover to have lunch at London's revered Som Saa restaurant.
The real dream, though, ever since I started cooking Thai food, has been to truly experience Thailand – to visit for several months, study the language, make Thai friends and eat every delicious thing the South Asian country has to offer. I finally had a chance to do this over the winter when I spent two months in Chiang Mai.
The thing that sets Chiang Mai apart from a place like Bangkok is how obviously diverse it is. Its location in the northern border regions of Thailand make it home to several visible ethno-cultural groups. There are hill people from the surrounding mountains, Burmese, Burmese Chinese, Laotians, Indian Thais that arrived as economic migrants in the late 1800s, and the largely integrated but still culturally distinct Thai Chinese that have been in Thailand for generations.
This intersection of cultures leads to some exceptionally delicious and unique food. Only a few meals into my culinary exploration of Chiang Mai, I realized that my understanding of Thai food – based so heavily on the culinary traditions of Bangkok and its western interpretations – was more or less in tatters.
In much of traditional northern Thai food, you see a not-so-subtle shift away from the trademark brightness and acidity of dishes found in the capital. There is a wonderful, complex earthiness to the cooking in Chiang Mai. Food tastes of the jungle and mountains that surround the city.
Punchy chili relishes are served as condiments for anything from fried chicken to boiled squash, and are as ubiquitous as they are varied in their taste and preparation. The liberal use of fish sauce gives a pleasing umami funk to stews of bamboo and glass noodles. Pomelo salads, found at many roadside stands, are made unexpectedly savoury with fermented shrimp paste, salted crab and galangal powder, a spice made from a ginger-like plant. Rich, satiating soups of pork bone and mountain greens are given depth and a subtle sourness with the addition of boiled ant eggs. Rice and pork blood are steamed in banana leaves and served alongside raw shallots, fried chillies and shallot oil. This is not the overly sweet "Thai" food found in North America.
And then there are the foreign influences that have made their way into the food of Chiang Mai: Burmese curries, redolent with spices and streaked with fragrant deep-red oil. Rice noodles with chickpea porridge, fried garlic and fiery pickled vegetables from the Yunnanese that made their way to Thailand via China and Burma. Hot, golden samosas fried at markets by Thai Muslims are probably Indian in origin, but are served with vibrant lime- and garlic-infused sauces that could only come from Thailand. And from the hill tribes to the north, there is glutinous rice steamed in bamboo and speckled with legumes or banana.
The recipes that follow are my attempt to capture this inspiring variation. I can't take credit for these dishes. I was taught them by Thais who I befriended, then harassed, then begged to have them invite me over for cooking classes.
One thing to note: Thai food, more than any cuisine I have cooked, is about feeling. These recipes are guidelines, nothing more. Taste your food. If you want something saltier, make it saltier. If you think something needs more or less acidity, that's fine too.
This dip can be served either warm or at room temperature with an assortment of blanched vegetables including green beans, squash, cabbage and chayote.
When making chickpea tofu, tasting is essential. As long as there's a tacky, floury taste left on your palate, it still needs time on the stove.
Sai oua is a northern sausage found all over Chiang Mai. It's usually in a casing, but I've altered the recipe so it can be made into burger patties. It's just as delicious, but more accessible to the home cook. Serve them with rice and veggies.
Food styling by Michelle Rabin. Prop styling by Wilson Wong/P1M.ca.
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