Northern Thailand Food 101
Top Things to Try
- Sticky Rice (Khao Niao)
- Som Tum Tad (Green Papaya Salad)
- Khao Soi
- Sai Au
- Gaeng Hunglay Pork Belly
- Nam Phrik
- Sweet Sticky Rice
- Cha Yen (Thai Iced Tea)
For the Brave – Do you dare to try the creepy and the crawly…
Hello fellow Chronicfoodies,
Forget what you think you know about Thai food. Like many countries around the world, we often lump the cuisine under one big umbrella. Indian and Chinese food are two great examples of what I mean. The two most populous countries have regions that have varied cuisines that are often influenced by climate, geography and more often than not, religion. To say that food from Thailand is green curry beef and pad thai really does not pay homage to the great diversity of food in this delicious country. Most may have heard of Chiang Mai, one of the more populous cities in Thailand and a place I had the pleasure of exploring in the Summer of 2016.
One of my heroes of food, Anthony Bourdain said of his first trip to Thailand that he didn’t realize that he saw the world only in “black and white” and when he arrived in Thailand, he saw colour for the for the first time. The food in Thailand is “off the hook” and my two trips there thus far barely scratched the surface. Can’t wait to return but next time, I may never return home…
I’m not going to cover Southern Thai food on this blog as it is the Southern region’s food that most outside of Thailand would be familiar with. I want to cover the flavours of Northern Thailand and I assure you, the food is something to write home about. When I was there in the Summer of 2016, I took a cooking class and a food tour and I can’t emphasise enough how important it is for a foodie like me needs to be signed up for these things. Totally worth every penny spent!
Jusep’s Favourite Place to Eat in Toronto for Northern Thai Food
Toronto is littered with Thai restaurants but when it comes to getting memories of my time in Northern Thailand, there is only one place I go and only one place I recommend: Pai Northern Thai Kitchen.
I’ve hosted two private events at Pai and working with Chef Nuit and her husband Jeff is always a great treat! It becomes even more delicious knowing that Chef Nuit was from the Northern Thailand region of Pai, hence the name of the restaurant. Most of the items on my list below are found on the Pai menu so if you’re in Toronto, seek out these delicious eats! I assure all who read this that the food is legit and can’t be missed. #1 place I recommend to all my out-of-town guests who are looking for recommendations in the downtown Toronto area.
Taste of Northern Thailand
Sticky Rice (Khao Niao)
Before you can even begin talking about Northern or Northeastern Thai food, you have to begin the journey with “sticky rice”. Often referred to as “sweet rice” or “glutinous rice”, this fundamental staple is a must and without, it is not a meal. As a Korean, sticky rice had a very different meaning and when I first was introduced to Northern Thai “sticky rice” I assumed it was going to be similar. NOT EVEN CLOSE! Making sticky rice is a process that is taken very seriously and the rice itself functions as a utensil. The rice is firmer and hands are used to shape it into a small cup shape that is then used to pick up other foods to pop into the mouth (see photo to the right). It’s fun and if you go to eat some Northern Thai food and don’t have the sticky rice, you really haven’t had Northern Thai food.
Something to consider when you eat foods from various places where rice is a staple… The food is often strong and intense which is done intentionally and why rice is such a great compliment to the food. Rice tempers intense flavours so you can enjoy the dish that would be otherwise pretty strong. I’ve noticed that people will try a dish and dislike the intensity of flavours when eaten by itself. Without mixing and having the rice along with it, you miss out the great wonders rice brings to each bite.
Sum Tum Tad (Green Papaya Salad)
This fruit salad will throw off anyone who thinks that this salad is going to be fruity and sweet. This staple is by far the most popular thing you’ll find in every street corner and do be careful as this salad has some heat to it. The main ingredient is of course papaya but the fruit they use is unripened so the fruit when julienned is firm and tart. Mixed with fish sauce, fresh lime juice, garlic, long bean, tomatoes, cilantro, green onions, dried shrimp, Thai chilis and topped with crushed peanuts… so so yum! Of course, there are variations but this pretty much covers the standard Sum Tum Tad. A compliment is, of course, sticky rice so get ready to get your fingers messy!
There is so much happiness in this bowl of yummy egg noodles swimming in a coconut curry broth. Next to green papaya salad, Khao Soi is certainly up there in popularity and a staple of a dish you can find in Northern Thailand. Origins may be from Burma (Myanmar) which borders the West and Northwest of Thailand but for those in Northern Thailand, this is a favourite and has become a favourite of mine. Don’t be surprised to find two kinds of egg noodles in your bowl of khao soi as it is common to have both the boiled and deep fried egg noodles in the dish. After I take a few slurps and bites is when I like to add the squeeze of lime in the broth as the sour and citrus makes the flavours pop! This is a dish that is so easy to fall in love with and a must try.
Sai Ua or otherwise known as Chiang Mai sausage is grilled pork with a delicious mix of spices and herbs that is eaten with sticky rice. Added to the flavours is kaeng khua, a common red curry paste that is foundational in several Northern Thai dishes including this delicious sausage. I’ve had many kinds of sausages in my life but the flavours found in this delicious snack is all over the place but sings in your mouth with absolute harmony. It’s a strong flavour but makes all the sense in the world when you have it with the sticky rice. If you love sausage, you will love Sai Ua
The first time I tried this was on my food tour through Chiang Mai and had with sticky rice. Nam Phrik is another great staple and essentially like a hot sauce paste. General ingredients are fresh or dry chillies, garlic, shallots, lime juice and often some kind of fish or shrimp paste. Again, the flavours are fantastic and when eaten with sticky rice, the balance of flavours and textures are simply amazing.
Gaeng Hung (pork belly curry)
It may not be any surprise to my regular readers that I’m a fan of all things pork and pork belly is my kryptonite. My first bit of this dish took me to the moon and back. An adoption from Myanmar, this is another favourite of Northern Thai residents. Because of the origins being from Myanmar, there are strong Indian influences where this dish is littered with a lot of various spices and herbs. Tender and the flavours are just simply out of this world. I’ve been told that it is common to see this dish with pork ribs as well but for me, I am more than happy to stick with the pork belly as there is just something about having that delicious fat melting in my mouth while being taken on a flavour rollercoaster.
Dessert – Sticky rice filled with filling
Easily missed, this delicious sweet goodness can be overlooked as it is wrapped in a banana leaf. However, this is something you will find on the streets quite easily and an absolute must. Essentially, it is sweet sticky rice that is filled with something sweet like mango, banana, black bean and taro but you could also find it with a combo too. Cheap and crazy delicious! The banana leaf brings out a lovely aroma as you stuff your face with this sweet goodness!
Beverage – Cha Yen
I feel that Thai Iced Tea or Cha Yen is starting to get noticed and becoming a lot more easily found in Toronto at the many Thai restaurants. I love this drink and can have it every day without hesitation. I often favour unsweetened iced tea but Cha Yen is something that belongs in a category all to itself. I had this 3-5 times a day while in Thailand and on those hot and humid days, it really does hit the spot. Black tea with condensed milk and sweetened along with a healthy portion of ice, nothing cuts through the humid days of Summer than this smooth, rich and delicious iced tea!
For The Brave
When people ask me what the craziest thing I’ve ever eaten, I always respond by sharing my experiences of eating various bugs in my travels. I’ll be the first to tell you that it is not even close to the most difficult thing I’ve eaten, however, for those in my circles, bugs always get the best reactions. There is no shortage of options in Southeast Asia to get your fill of protein from bugs and it is not as bad as many would believe. However, I completely understand why people get squeamish but for those who have a history of living very modest lives, bugs provide a great source of protein and if you can get over the mental challenge, they can become a snack that can be appreciated and enjoyed. Really!
Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak (stewed pork leg)
I’m an Anthony Bourdain fan and I watched the episode where he went to Chiang Mai a couple of times before I headed over there and one place I had to go was to see the woman in a cowboy hat to eat her Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak (stewed pork leg). It did not disappoint and even on a cooler, wet and dreary night with rain dumping down, the lines were long and steady the entire time I was there. She was even kind enough to have a photo taken with me which was a real highlight. Although I met some travellers, most in the line were locals who were out on the town looking to get their fix of this amazing stewed pork leg. Can’t tell you much about the magic that the pork leg is stewed in but whatever magic she performs, I was just glad I had the chance to be a recipient of her delicious eats. Slow cooked pork on a bed of rice with garnishes to add the salty, sweet, bitter, spicy hot and sweet to go with the savoury meat with flavour tones I still can’t fully describe. If you’re ever in Chiang Mai, don’t hesitate to pay the woman in the cowboy hat a visit. You won’t be disappointed.
When I was told by my Cambodian friend that I’ve not truly had Thai food unless I got my fill of the flavours of Northern Thailand, he was not at all kidding. I purposely avoided trying any “Northern Thai” food in Toronto so that my first experience was where it all originates. Having done a cooking class and food tour in Chiang Mai, I was blown away and have to now say that Chiang Mai has become one of my top five places I’ve ever eaten. I’ll be going back again one day, I know that. Until then, I will visit often in my dreams.
Till next time my Chronicfoodie friends…
Jusep, the Chronicfoodie
Chopsticks+Forks is a Toronto Food Tour company that celebrates the great ethnic diversity of Toronto by taking guests on food adventures tasting the flavours of the world, one delicious bite at a time.