When you settle down somewhere, your life tends to take on certain patterns, especially when it comes to cuisine. My Chiang Mai food habit is a soup called yen ta fo. I discovered it in the first few weeks I was here, and happily ate it for months before being informed that the 'black tofu' I was so cheerfully munching away on was in fact congealed pig's blood.
Today when I order my favourite squid and noodle soup, I never forget to say "mai ow luad" (hold the blood), but I'm still pretty much willing to try anything once. That said, when you are hungry and in a hurry (and when I'm hungry, I'm always in a hurry), it's sometimes easiest to just select from the limited number of dishes you already know about. And once you do this a few times, it becomes a habit. That is, until someone shows you the light.
In Chiang Mai, a city known for having some of the best street food in the world, a bit of knowledge and bravery can be the key to unlocking a treasure trove of culinary delights. And luckily, one friendly and entrepreneurial local has decided to turn our general lack of street food smarts into a great new business venture, one that is guaranteed to broaden your gastronomic horizons, whether you are a pad thai loving rookie or a jaded veteran whose favourite hobby is ranting about food on thaivisa.com.
Chai, a seasoned Chiang Mai tour guide from a Karen village near the Burmese border, has been leading intrepid tourists on remote jungle treks for years. Now, he has transitioned his local know-how into an entirely new and seemingly unprecedented venture: Chiang Mai Street Food Tours.
Tours take place in morning and evening sessions at the markets just north and south of Chiang Mai's Old City, and provide a fun and laidback way to learn everything you ever wanted to know about Northern Thai street food, including common Thai food phrases (did you know that the way to say 'that smells bad' in Thai is 'men'? Ha!), local eating etiquette and habits, and a detailed listing of Thailand's top street food dishes, including photos, descriptions, and transliterations so you can order all by yourself.
One Thursday evening, with empty bellies and open minds, intern Mai and I set off to rediscover the tastes of the city we call home. Below is a sampling of some of the tastiest dishes we tried. Note that I did not include the spicy chicken feet salad (but for the record, I ate an entire toe and a half before throwing in the towel).
Pad gra pao gai kai dao (Thai basil chicken and fried egg): According to Chai, this tasty concoction is one of Thailand's most significant day-to-day dishes, which can be served with any protein you like-from squid to pork to tofu. Stir-fried Thai basil compliments the saltiness of the meat, which is topped with a runny egg and served on a bed of rice.
Kanom jeen nam ya (coconut milk curry with rice noodles): Hard to find unless you are in the know, this traditional northern dish features slightly fermented rice noodles in a sweet, rich and spicy coconut curry often mixed with fish. Luckily, Chai knows exactly where to take you to find it. Add your own pickled greens, bean sprouts, egg and pork rind to taste (and to ease up on the spiciness).
Khao ka moo (soy sauce pork): Just when I was missing my good old_fashioned Texas barbeque, here comes this equally delicious meat-lovers fix, traditionally using pork knuckles but also available with chicken (just substitute the moo for gai). Great piles of protein are slow-cooked for hours in a savoury blend of soy sauce, sugar and cinnamon five-spice until they are falling off the bone. Served over rice, drizzled in pork broth and topped with your choice of chilli sauces at the table.
Kanom krok (coconut rice dumplings): This very traditional Thai dessert is disappearing from Chiang Mai's street food scene, says Chai. He's not sure exactly why, but it probably has something to do with the younger generation's rejection of all things old-fashioned. Luckily, a few staunch suppliers are keeping the tradition alive, and Chai knows where they dwell. A mixture of coconut, egg, and rice flour is poured out of a tea kettle and into a circular griddle that looks like a combination between an egg carton and a waffle iron. The result? Ever-so-sweet, soft little dumplings that melt in your mouth - only a baht or two each!
Lao khao (Thai rice whisky): If you look around the local street food markets, you won't fail to see small tables of old Thai men swigging glasses of a clear but highly potent beverage. The stuff is called lao khao, and is often made locally in hill tribe villages, distilled from rice wine. Chai told us that growing up in his village, his mother used to make whisky out of everything from rice to sugar cane to bananas. Whatever the base, a shot or two is sure to warm up your insides, and you can chase it down with a slice of sour green mango. Also, if you are as lucky as intern Mai, you might get an old Thai man's phone number out of the deal.
To book your own Chiang Mai
Street Food Tour, visit www.chiangmaistreetfoodtours.com.