Chiang Mai attracts millions of tourists from all over the world each year, visiting the region to see temples, experience one of the many attractions available such white water rafting or cycling, and to sample the world famous cuisine. Different regions of Thailand boast their own distinctive flavours and feature their own signature dishes. Southern Thailand has a heavy focus on seafood dishes with food influenced by muslim traditions and cooking styles. The north-east is characterized by spicy salads such as Som Tam (papaya salad), Laab, and cured / raw meats and the central plans heavily feature freshwater fish recipes, sour soups and curries. Chiang Mai is no different with its food being influenced by Myanmar, China and Laos, as well as the kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.
Chiang Mai’s geography has played a hand in shaping the unique cuisine with herbs, roots and plants from the jungle being prevalent over coconut milk, palm sugar and fish sauce from a time when these ingredients were less accessible than in other parts of Thailand. The cooler climate too meant some vegetables and herbs were better suited to Northern cuisine. Today, with its diverse population food in Chiang Mai has fused with other regions and global destinations to provide an amazing array of dining options, some of which we are going to look at in more detail below.
The best way go on a culinary adventure around Chiang Mai is on a bicycle. There are markets, hidden eateries, restaurants, food carts and cafes everywhere you venture and a bike will allow you to explore far more than conventional vehicles or on foot. Often market vendors or street stall sellers will give you a free sample so don’t be shy to ask! Of course when exploring the city on bicycle you can also visit some attractions such as the famous Iron Bridge, Thapae Gate and the many temples such as Wat Lin featured in the video.
Classic Chiang Mai Dishes
Some dishes are a must-try during a visit to Chiang Mai, the most well known and popular being Khao Soi – a soup made with wide rice noodles, coarsely chopped pork, tomatoes, fermented soy beans, chillies, shallots, and garlic, then topped with pork rind, bean sprouts, chopped scallions, and chopped cilantro.
According to some sources, Khao Soi became popular when Chinese Muslims (Yunnanese Muslims) moved to the north of Thailand and lived in Chiang Mai in the late 19th or early 20th century and introduced coconut milk and other spices to the more traditional soups. Other sources say it was the Burmese who introduced Khao Soi to Chiang Mai. Either way, today it is the go to dish for visitors as well as locals living in Chiang Mai and aside from the countless restaurants serving their variation of the dish. It is easy to find a vegetarian, vegan or halal version of the dish as well to cater to the needs of the consumer.
Chiang Mai Sausage
Another popular dish usually served as a starter or a snack to be eaten on the go is the Chiang Mai sausage, known as ‘Sai Ua’. Sai Ua is also popular in other areas of northern Thailand as well as Myanmar. The name comes from ‘sai’ meaning intestine and ‘ua’ to stuff or fill. The sausage usually contains minced pork meat, herbs, spices and red curry paste and is grilled over a charcoal BBQ and often served with sticky rice.
Another delicious dish famous in Chiang Mai, but perhaps lesser so than Khao So is Khanom Jeen Nam Ngiao, which is another type of noodle soup / curry which originated in Myanmar and Yunnan province in China and now a staple in Northern Thailand. The dish has a characteristic spicy and tangy flavor with the main ingredient being dried stamens of the cotton tree blossoms. These are cooked with chili paste, dried fermented soy bean (thua nao kab), tomatoes, ground pork, pork meat and cubes of congealed pig’s blood in a pork broth. It is served on top of khanom jeen (fresh rice noodle) along with some vegetable, fried chilies, and Kab Moo (fried pork skin). Whilst not suitable for vegetarians or vegans it is a dish not to be missed so don’t let the difficult sounding name put you off trying!
Chiang Mai Sweets
It is not just main dishes that Chiang Mai is famous for, there are a number of sweets that are very popular for visitors to Chiang Mai, one being Pork Sa Ku (steamed tapioca ball with pork). Many vendors have their own recipes and locals are often loyal to one particular vendor. You can often see this sweet being made out in the open with the sweets steaming away in small carts outside shops. It may seem unusual combining sweet with savory and having meat in a desert but it is normal practice in Chiang Mai.
If you’re a fan of smoothies and / or coffee then you’re in for a treat! Thailand in general has an incredible variety of fruit, all of which can be used as an ingredient for a smoothie and its difficult to walk more than 100m without finding a stall selling fruit smoothies. Locals tend to like it sweet though so don’t forget to request less syrup or no syrup if you prefer it more natural tasting. Coffee is grown throughout Northern Thailand and there has been an explosion of new coffee shops in the last few years. Whether it be a simple street stall or uber trendy coffee shop there is something for all tastes. Don’t forget to visit the Trailhead café for a delicious smoothie or coffee as well!
For a unique experience, try to visit Sala Mong Osot – a very old pharmacy in the old town which sells a delicious hot herbal drink for just 5 THB! The drink is made from a variety of herbs such as pepper, cumin, ginger and cinnamon and is said to cure a variety of ailments from joint pain, high blood pressure and stomachache. The recipe has been used for generations and it is nice just to drink a cup on the street watching the world go by.
When you visit Chiang Mai, be sure to spend some time sampling some of these delicacies and see why people from all over the world consider the food in Chiang Mai some of the best they have experienced. You can experience some of them with a guided city cycling tour with Trailhead Thailand so visit www.trailhead.co.th for more information.