Saturday, 16 July 2011

Land of a Thousand Smiles and two Thousand Chillies (Chiang Mai)

Follow the elephants.
The natives (or at least the native elephant trainers) say so.

They're intriguing-looking creatures aren't they? Giant bodies, huge ears, snake-like noses, wrinkled skin and bristly hairs , but those kind knowing eyes! They remind me of the wise old women of a tribe. I've heard stories of the elephants fleeing from the deadly tsunami before it struck Asia in 2004. They're so clever that way, a sort of instinctive knowledge. I like to think it's because they're in tune with nature, so they know about the land that they live on. That was something I saw a lot of in the Thai people.

I went to Chiangmai, away from the more bustling Bangkok city. There, the places are still pretty undeveloped and makor parts of the land are still being used for farming or taken up by indigenous villages. It was a beautiful trip- we went off the beaten track, one day on rented ATVs and another on foot, through the jungles, villages, and farms. There was a simple kind of peace and quiet in the air, but of course, disturbed sometimes by the mosquitoes and sudden bursts of tropical rain.

Sacrificing safety for photos of the beautiful village scenery

I know for sure the eggs were free-range and pastured!

The Thais in this part of Thailand lead very simple lives, working hard, but just enough, not the same way people in big cities slave 18h a day in the office, and they're such happy people! I am think that that's the way we should be approaching life and health and all that-- just enjoying whatever we're offered. Gosh I sound old. But really, just in terms of food, the Thais really live off the land. You wouldn't find strawberries or even apples anywhere on the menu, because it wasn't available, simple as that. What they did have was lots of watermelon, pineapples, papaya, dragonfruit, jackfruit, rambutans, coconut of course... (some of these probably sound really exotic and foreign, but growing up in Singapore, they're familiar friends. I should do a post just on tropical fruits one day.)

Watermelon and pineapple, served at the end of almost all our meals

I've seen lychees before, but never ones SO BIG.

Back to the food. Thai cuisine is definitely NOT lacking in variety, flavour and colour despite being very very local and seasonal, in fact, it's quite the opposite. I'm sure everyone is familiar with the pad thai,

This was the best pad thai I've ever eaten,

cost maybe 30 pence, and took less than 30s to cook.
TIP: Unlike in London, the best food you can have in most of Southeast Asia are usually from street vendors or small coffeeshops.

som tum (shredded green papaya salad),

green and red curries,

This curry was stewed inside a coconut

But there are also some dishes specific to the Northern Thai region which are lesser known but really ought to be better known, like the sai oua, a grilled pork sausage mixed with Thai spices and herbs,

mu yor, a steamed pork sausage that has an irresistible bouncy texture,

These are meatballs, made with that same bouncy pork mixture.

khao soi, fried crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots and lime in a soup/curry-like coconut sauce

khaeng hang -le, a stewed pork curry which unlike more common Thai curries, uses no coconut milk, but tamarind juice, peanuts and chillies instead

kaep mu, deep fried crispy pork rinds (think crackling. then think, mountain of crackling.),

which is often served with nam prik num, a fresh, slightly tangy and salty green chilli paste.

It's also served just as a dip for vegetables (new alternative to satay peanut sauce?)

The most intriguing dish I had though, was on the last day, when we decided to shelve out in a northern thai restaurant recommended by the locals (but honestly, it was still nowhere near expensive. We paid about 7 singdollars/ 3.5 british pounds for a very generous and very good meal. It really is a poor foodie's heaven in Chiangmai.) This was a whole fish, deboned, stuffed with pork, and fried. The fish skin was crispy and the filling, succulent and juicy, and everything went perfectly with the sweet-sour chilli dip. It was even laid on an edible taro basket. I can honestly say, "It was so good I ate the whole dish up."

If you used to think Thai food is all about the chillies, well-- it still is (I think I ate more chillies in that 5 day trip than I did in the past year), but it's really a lot more than that. There's spice, but there's also a wonderful balance of flavours and textures and smells and more. Most importantly, it's about fresh ingredients from the land, cooked from scratch. Speaking of cooking, we also went for a Thai cooking lesson taught by the locals, but I'll save the tips I picked up for another post, I've been going on for too long. korp-khun-khrap (:


  1. Wow, looks like you had an epic trip!
    I wanna do what you do too! Having a great culinary journey around Thailand. Especially now that their economy is not as good as they use to have. Heard they have a new young woman president, she looks pretty confident!

  2. Enjoyed the culinary pictorial tour.I love Thai food.

  3. How interesting! I enjoyed that post so much!

  4. Nice pictures to show... :)

  5. wow.. all these food look so "spicy" to me but I wanna taste them all the same! It has been more than 25 years since I have been there...

  6. It's fun hearing about your adventures, especially the food part.

  7. I loved this is so interesting! The larp of Chiang Mai is a special dish there? I just spotted the recipe in one of my cookbooks. Wonderful blog!!
    I would love to visit your space again!

  8. Wonderful posts!! Love all the information and details! I must travel to Chiang Mai soon... hopefully :)

  9. the food's the best part about traveling ;) I get so excited and inspired sharing about them too!

  10. ohman you're so cool i love you <3

  11. Wow! Love the culinary tour!I love Thai food and even the best Thai restaurants here in the States can't touch what you've just shown us! Sooo great!

  12. Love all the pics of food! A good friend of mine is a missionary in Thailand and I always love her photos of gorgeous fruit and produce! Especially in the winter, it has me jealous!