The sun was just beginning to set as I stepped out of our boutique hotel and strode down Rachamankha Road, one of the central streets of Chiang Mai, in search of my first meal. Having flown in after a busy day in Bangkok, crammed with eye-wateringly spicy green curry and more som tam (green papaya salad) than I could possibly eat, Chiang Mai’s relatively empty streets and leisurely pace caught me by surprise. The city is often referred to as the capital of northern Thailand, but the quiet streets, bereft of hawkers—my one gauge of urban likeability—made me oddly nervous.

I approached the lone vendor manning a tidy cart, frying rows of pork sausages on a large cast-iron skillet, and bought some orange, deep-fried pork rinds that looked a lot like poppadoms, served in efficient Thai style with a stick to dip them into the accompanying sauce. I can’t say now if it were the crunchy, porky rinds that did the trick or the spicy-sweet, soy-drenched sauce they came with, but my first snack in Chiang Mai had already upturned my gauge.

Emboldened by this success, I ventured into Huen Phen, a restaurant housed in a renovated mansion overflowing with artefacts and furniture typical of the medieval Lanna kingdom. Eager to delve right into local flavours, I ordered nam prik noom, an appetizer plate of raw vegetables such as cucumber, carrots and French beans served with a smokey green chilli dip. The complex heat of the nam prik noom, building in increments on the palate, was so far from the crowd-pleasing Thai favourites I was familiar with that this seemed to be from a whole different country. Strangely addictive even though it scorched my tongue, the nam prik noom was my first window into Chiang Mai’s unabashed and utterly original foodscape.

Chiang Mai may have extended far beyond its original walls, but the Old City still remains its largest tourist draw. The gilded arches of the city’s centuries-old wats, or temples, glint at every street corner; and it’s impossible to not be at least a little taken by the peace of their spacious grounds.

Sometimes, you may be even rewarded for your faith with a caffeine rush. In the unlikely compound of one such temple, Wat Si Goet, I had my first encounter with the city’s favourite brew. Republic Coffee, a bright orange coffee van, has been operating out of the temple’s leafy premises for a few years now. Lined with bar stools and fitted out with an espresso machine, a blender and an enthusiastic proprietor with little English, the van is also a symbol of the city’s growing pride in good quality, home-grown coffee.

In the 1970s, the Thai government began to encourage the cultivation of Arabica coffee beans in the fertile hills of northern Thailand, home to many tribes. That experiment has proved particularly successful: Chiang Mai is now awash with cutting-edge coffee bars offering custom blends, particularly in the trendy Nimmanhaemin neighbourhood. Walking through Nimman (as it is known locally) on a Friday evening, alive with coffee shops, bars and restaurants open well into the wee hours, I felt the last of my initial misgivings about the city melt away.

Yet, although I felt completely at home in Nimman—I was particularly smitten by Barfry, a little restaurant that offers a gourmet spin on French fries—I felt like I had come in search of something a little closer to the land. Before I embarked on this trip, award-winning food writer Robyn Eckhardt, who has lived in Chiang Mai for several years, had cautioned me that a taste of truly authentic northern Thai food would entail travelling to the outskirts of the city.

Accordingly, I went in search of Krua Phech Doi Ngam, a restaurant that specializes in Chiang Mai dishes, located on a highway a little distance from town. It’s here that I understood the finer nuances that distinguish northern Thai dishes from those of other parts of the country.

On every table of the strictly functional space that is Doi Ngam sat a basket of vegetables and fresh herbs, including fresh mint, basil and the less familiar phak chi farang, also known as sawtooth. Diners nibbled on the herbs in between morsels, perhaps to assuage the fierce pungency of the dishes. I ordered pla tub tim tord samun pai, a whole tilapia stuffed with galangal, lemon grass, fresh turmeric, shallots, garlic and chillies, and deep-fried. A delicate symphony of the herbs that acquire a mellower, more mature flavour when fried and perfectly crisp fish skin, this remains one of the best iterations of fried fish I have ever tried. The sai oua or northern Thai pork sausages, sour and just a tad bitter from the herbs packed into the fatty meat, also boast a brooding depth of flavour.

Although I acquired a new-found respect for northern Thai cuisine at Doi Ngam, it was ultimately a noodle soup that won my heart. Bearing traces of Myanmarese and Chinese flavours, khao soi is often considered the poster child of Chiang Mai cuisine. My expectations were sky high when I visited Khao Soi Lam Duan, one of the most famous purveyors of the curried beef or chicken noodle soup in Chiang Mai. Skewers of pork satay cooked on a charcoal grill, while steaming bowls of khao soi were put together in a makeshift assembly line in this half-century-old restaurant. My bowl of chicken khao soi came with a small nest of boiled egg noodles floating in a brick-red gravy, crowned with a handful of deep-fried noodles. Pickled mustard greens and chopped onions served as accompaniments. Each bite was a riot of contrasting textures: chewy egg noodles, crunchy mustard greens, crackly fried topping. The unctuous gravy with a deep underpinning of spice (and just a splash of coconut milk) filled me with warmth, and even before I was done, I was craving another bowl.

To me, this humble dish seemed like the best summary to a city that has allowed the winds of many cultures to blow through without being swept away by them. The egg noodles could have come from the Chinese and the curry powder may have been a Myanmarese contribution, but in its final form, khao soi is a uniquely Chiang Mai creation: a dish the city can call its own. It is this stubborn individuality—as much in cuisine as in culture—that is the city’s biggest charm.

Chow down

Chiang Mai’s many open markets offer a cornucopia of street food, besides cheap shopping. The Warorot market, Chiang Mai’s oldest, calls for a whole day. On Saturday evenings, head to the street bazaar on Wua Lai Road in the Old City.

One of Chiang Mai’s better kept secrets is the Chin Haw market, which brings together Chinese and Myanmarese immigrants every Friday morning. Among live chickens and assorted greens, you’ll also find vendors selling ‘mohynga’, a Myanmarese-style fish stew and chewy black-rice pancakes steamed in banana leaves. You can find details of the market on food writer Robyn Eckhardt’s blog at www.eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2009/02/a-touch-of-china-in-chiang-mai.html

uKrua Phech Doi Ngam (267, Mahidol Road) offers an excellent variety of authentic north Thailand dishes. You may have to hire a taxi or a ‘tuk-tuk’ to take you to the restaurant, which is approximately 20 minutes away from the Old City.

uKhao Soi Lam Duan (352/22, Charoen Rat Road, Wat Ket, Mueang) is perhaps the most famous purveyor of Chiang Mai’s most beloved noodle soup, ‘khao soi’.

uKhao Soi Islam (22-24 Soi 1, Charoenprathet Road) offers a milder, more coconutty—but no less delicious—version, served with sharp mustard greens. Khao Soi Samerjai (in Mueang) is also worth checking out.

For more stories in the Foodprint series, click here.

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