One of the best parts of being in northern Thailand has been all the great culinary experiences we’ve had. The variety is superb, and with a little hunting you can get a meal for about a dollar. It’s funny, we’ve actually established a three tier system for the restaurants. $1 plates, $2-2.50 plates, and $4 plates. If you’re close to the guesthouses, mostly things will be tier 2. If you want international food, you can pretty much bet on tier 3. We’ve been sticking to Thai food and keeping it cheap for now. And I can’t say we’ve been disappointed.
So what kind of things have we discovered?
Well, lot’s of varieties of Pad Thai for one. It’s always fun to see how different places change it up. So far we’ve tried it at several sit down restaurants, as well as making our own in a cooking class, which was the best. But a close second was a experience we had at a street vendor. The is a place in a back alley that is only open at night and serves the Pad Thai in banana leaves. After failing when we tried to find it during the day, we succeeded a few nights later, and boy was it amazing, and cheap! Great flavors, close to the version we made, but not quite there.
One time, on a whim, I ordered something called Khao Soi, which is a mild coconut based curry, with noodles. Half of them are deep-fried, giving this nice crunchy texture. Then there is a chicken leg thrown into the mix. It must be slow cooked or something, as I could just strip the meat right off the bone with my chopsticks. It was delicious. Alina had it somewhere else and fell in love. I suspect we’ll be seeing this one on our table again.
I’ve long been familiar with Thai Iced Tea, the sweet tea with milk/cream that I always used to get with my spicy curries back in Madison. But we’d never tried the coffee version before. Once again, I think Alina fell in love. After the first one she had, she described it as a glass of coffee ice cream. And that seems pretty accurate. It’s indeed completely delicious, though I think I still prefer the tea. And speaking of which, you can get several varieties. Most places serve it chilled from the start, but one coffee shop made a hot spiced tea and then simply added lots of ice cubes. Very different taste; many more spice flavors, but I’m not sure I preferred it.
Fresh Fruit Shakes
And speaking of drinks, we’ve also been exploring all the fruit shakes that different places have to offer. Typically it’s a blend of fruit and ice, and quite refreshing. A few days ago I discovered Mrs. Pa’s, by the Chiang Mai gate market. She sets up her stand at 4 pm every day, and it’s amazing. There’s a huge variety of fresh fruit, and she somehow has just the right mix of ice and fruit, and blended much more strongly than in most restaurants. It makes for these solid feeling, very filling shakes, that are just delicious. So far we’ve tried mango, passion fruit, and banana/orange. Not sure what’s next. What is clear though is that Alina and I have very different tastes. I’m much more for the sweet fruits, while she prefers a smoother mix.
One of the shakes we got deserves special mention. Alina had heard about it online, and we had to try one. It was made of home-made peant butter, coconut milk, crushed almonds, and cinnamon. It was huge, and thick, and delicious. After sharing one of those and our bowls of fresh fruit, yoghut, muesli, and honey, we were stuffed until the late afternoon.
Kau Ka Moo
Alina also had a turn at finding a gem in the market. She read about the “Cowboy Hat Lady”, who serves Kau Ka Moo, slow cooked pork served over rice with a few bits of stringy vegetables. I was a little ambivalent, but she convinced me to give it a try, and wow, was it amazing. The meat was sooo tender, and the marinade was absolutely delicious. A real winner. It’s great too, since the stand is easy to find what with the hats, and it’s the only dish they serve, so easy to order.
For her birthday, Alina finally got to try a dish she’d been yearning for; spicy papaya salad. This dish consist of shredded papaya strips along with other veggies, all smothered in a spicy chili and lime based dressing. The salad uses un-ripe papaya so that the strips are still green and crunchy. It was later explained to us that this form of the fruit provides the most digestive benefits. Alina thought it was so interesting that we opted to learn how to make this later in our cooking class. The spice caries quite far due to the citrus salad that really has nothing to cut down the heat.
Lately we’ve been trying to make half of our own dinners. We make a big pot of rice for dinner in the guesthouse kitchen. To supplement it, we go out to the local markets and get a sack of something yummy; curry, or meat in a sauce, or some other kind of delicious Thai dish out of a street vendor’s pot that they will throw into a plastic bag for you. It’s a great finishing touch to the meal, and usually only 20-30 baht (60 cents to a dollar). This also allows us to eat as much as we want, as most of the meals serves in restaurants are slightly smaller than “western proportions.”
Another interesting street food that we tried was Spicy Mango. You can purchase a bag of mostly un-ripe mango and it comes with a spicy dipping sauce. The somewhat crunchy mango pieces are then dipped into the sauce which tastes like a combination of spicy, salty and fishy that when combined with the sweeter mango is very interesting.
Mango Sticky Rice
For dessert probably the most common dish is Mango Sticky Rice. At first I thought that this dish was no more than exactly as it’s called, but when we finally decided to try some from a street stall by our hostel I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is slightly less simple. The sticky rice is prepared in a special way so that it is very, very sweet as well as flavored with coconut, as is the mango fruit itself.