- Print Length: 336 Pages
- Publisher: Clarkson Potter
- Publication Date: October 23, 2018
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 045149749X
- ISBN-13: 978-0451497499
- File Format: EPUB
Copyright © 2018 by Austin Bush
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
CLARKSON POTTER is a trademark and POTTER with colophon is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for.
Ebook ISBN 9780451497505
Cover photographs by Austin Bush
To the people of northern Thailand, whose kindness and generosity know no bounds
To Kathy, who was there from beginning to end
And to Bob, who was there in spirit
A (VERY) BRIEF HISTORY OF NORTHERN THAILAND
THE PEOPLE OF NORTHERN THAILAND
THE FOOD AND FLAVORS OF NORTHERN THAILAND
COOKING NORTHERN THAI–STYLE
NORTHERN THAI COOKING METHODS
NORTHERN THAI KITCHEN TOOLS
Mae Hong Son
Phrae & Nan
NORTHERN THAI INGREDIENTS: GUIDE AND GLOSSARY
I’m driving a rental car, navigating the 1,219 curves of northern Thailand’s so-called Death Highway. The nickname stems from the challenge the road has presented to car brakes over the years, a fate I’m hoping to avoid while on the way to Um Phang, a tiny village tucked between mountains near the border with Myanmar. I’ve been to Um Phang a few times before, for both work and pleasure, and know what’s waiting for me there a dish of northern Thai–style laap. Combining finely minced beef, sliced offal, herbs, and a fragrant spice mixture that threatens to numb the tongue, it’s a world away from the spicy, tart “larb” found in Thai restaurants abroad—or even in Bangkok. Indeed, accompanied by a bamboo basket of steaming sticky rice and a platter of herbs, vegetables, and bitter greens, these are ingredients and flavors that are really only available in Thailand’s north. For me, it’s the kind of meal that’s worth the risky drive.
I’ve been visiting places like Um Phang since I moved to Thailand in 1999. I originally came to the country on a scholarship at Chiang Mai University, where I learned to speak, read, and write Thai. After I was done studying, I landed a job teaching English. During school breaks I’d travel the country, going to remote places, camera in hand—an effort, I suppose, to wrap my head around the place where I was living. But it didn’t take me long to realize that food is almost certainly the best way to learn about Thailand. I was both overwhelmed by and obsessed with Thailand’s cuisine, but I also found food a way to improve my language skills, meet people, and learn about the culture. Since then, I’ve worked as a writer and photographer, having contributed to more than twenty books for the travel publisher Lonely Planet and other publications. I started an acclaimed blog about Thai food, and shot the photos for Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok cookbooks.
For most of this time, I’ve lived in Bangkok, epicenter of the “pad Thais” and green curries that have made Thai food so famous worldwide. Yet it took traveling outside the capital to learn that Thai food is anything but a single entity. Nearly twenty years of eating in just about every part of the country have taught me that, from region to region, Thailand’s flavors, ingredients, cooking methods—even for staples like rice—differ immensely. And it’s these uniquely regional dishes—a fish curry at a roadside stall on an island in southern Thailand that was so intensely spicy I was, momentarily, high; an unexpectedly sweet and fragrant salad of raw minced buffalo eaten at the edge of a rice field in Thailand’s north; a crunchy, intensely herbal stir-fry of dried cobra served from a shack in central Thailand—that I’ve found myself most frequently drawn to.
Yet of Thailand’s vast spread of regional cuisines and dishes, I find that I keep coming back to those of the country’s north. The food of northern Thailand is a world away from the highly refined, royal court– and Chinese-influenced style of cooking associated with Bangkok and central Thailand—the Thai food that most of us are familiar with. It’s a cuisine with its own distinct identity, one that is rustic and earthy, meaty and fragrant; one with roots in the Thai repertoire but with branches that extend beyond the country’s borders; a cuisine that manages to feel ancient and contemporary, domestic and foreign, all at the same time.
Led to remote destinations in the course of work, I’ve had the chance not only to eat northern Thai dishes in every province in the region but also to talk with northern Thai home cooks, restaurateurs, and academics. I have photographed rural markets and cooked with locals. I have spent time in libraries, poring over old texts and recipes, and hours in the kitchens of food vendors and housewives. From these experiences, I have assembled a body of knowledge and photographs of a cuisine that few in Bangkok know much about, let alone those in the English-speaking world.
What, then, is northern Thai food? We have the rest of this book to explore that question, but for now, my mind flits to sitting on the floor, cross-legged, at the edge of a short, squat table, plucking sticky rice from a bamboo basket. I think of rolling that rice into a ball with my fingers and swiping it into dips that are smoky, spicy, and salty. I’m reminded of soups packed with so many herbs that identifying a single one is an almost impossible task. Of hazy grills stacked with mysterious banana leaf packages, coils of sausage, and unidentifiable pork parts. And of home cooks preparing food from muscle memory, not recipes. To me, northern Thai food means dishes made from raw meat that are as delicious as they are intimidating. And noodle soups that are so fundamentally, effortlessly tasty that there’s no barrier to entry; they’re just plain good, no matter what you grew up eating.
Death thwarted, I pull into Um Phang, but only to find that the laap shack is gone. Instead, there’s a shiny new 7-Eleven—Um Phang’s first—by far the brightest and most modern building around, drawing the town’s hungry like moths to a flame.
Nearly two decades of documenting food in Thailand have also instilled in me a sense of urgency. The way people eat is changing rapidly and profoundly. Across the country, modernization and increasing wealth are having a huge impact on Thai food. A Western-style diet is becoming the norm, and these days, hot dogs can seem as common as tom yam. Likewise, Thailand’s local cuisines are becoming increasingly homogenous, and the current generation of cooks is probably the last who will have been direct witness to the full vastness of the country’s culinary diversity.
This book is not an encyclopedia of northern Thai food. The recipes included here are not meant to define the cuisine, nor are they exhaustive. Rather, they stem from six provinces in northern Thailand that boast particularly vibrant culinary legacies. Nor is this book meant to be a nostalgic reminiscence of what people used to eat. My hope is that it can serve as a snapshot of the culinary world of northern Thailand as it stands today, of the people, dishes, ingredients, and cooking techniques that form this unique, fascinating, and delicious cuisine.
A (Very) Brief History of Northern Thailand
The region known today as northern Thailand is thought to have been first settled by a people called the Lua (or Lawa). Little is known about the Lua, except that their existence was documented by the Mon, the next significant group to settle the area and the first to leave written records. The Mon, thought to have arrived in northern Thailand around the ninth century, founded the region’s first kingdom, known as Haripunchai, which was governed from current-day Lamphun.
The Tai (the wider ethnolinguistic group from which the Thai, northern Thai, Lao, Shan, and other related groups stem) most likely originated in Sichuan Province in southern China. Pushed southward by the Mongols, they gradually dispersed and resettled in northern Thailand’s fertile river valleys between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. By the end of the thirteenth century, they had displaced the Mon entirely, in the process having gleaned from them important cultural attributes ranging from Buddhism to a written script.
The Tai united in 1262, forming a kingdom known today as Lan Na (or Lanna), meaning “a million rice fields.” Initially based in present-day Chiang Rai, Lan Na expanded rapidly through a series of alliances with neighboring kingdoms and small city-states known as mueang. In 1339 the seat of Lan Na was shifted to Chiang Mai, yet northern Thailand’s physical geography meant that the various mueang often maintained significant autonomy, and the subsequent two centuries were largely defined by disputes between Chiang Mai and the principalities under its control, as well as with the central Thai kingdom of Ayuthaya. Burma, taking advantage of this discord, successfully invaded Lan Na in 1558 and subsequently ruled the kingdom for more than two centuries.
With the help of the Siamese government, Lan Na eventually escaped Burma’s grip in 1796, but this came at the cost of its autonomy: in 1882 Lan Na became a vassal state of the Bangkok-based kingdom of Siam. Under Siam, expansionist threats from France led to huge swaths of Lan Na territory being ceded to French Indochina. Likewise, pressure from colonial Britain meant that Lan Na had to give up its lucrative monopoly on the teak trade, eventually granting logging rights to the British and their Burmese subjects.
In 1931, the kingdom of Nan, the last Lan Na holdout, was incorporated into Siam, and a year later, Chiang Mai was officially granted provincial status, signifying the last breath of the Lan Na kingdom as an autonomous entity.
The People of Northern Thailand
The vast majority of the inhabitants of Thailand’s north belong to the Tai ethnolinguistic group, from which the Thai, Lao, Shan, and other groups stem. The largest group is, not surprisingly, the northern Thai, who refer to themselves as khon mueang (from khon mueang nuea, “people of the northern region”), and who probably came from southern China, settling in the region known today as northern Thailand around the twelfth century. Like the Thai in the rest of the country, they’re predominately Buddhist, yet they have their own distinct cultural attributes, ranging from architecture to cuisine, and they speak a slow, lilting dialect of Thai (kam mueang, “northern words”) that can be incomprehensible to those from other parts of the country.
After the khon mueang, the largest Tai group in the north is the Shan. Also known as Thai Yai, Tai, or, somewhat pejoratively, Ngiaw, the Shan have historically lived within the borders of present-day Myanmar, but beginning in the mid-nineteenth century they emigrated to Thailand in great numbers to escape conflict. More Shan arrived in northern Thailand’s urban centers during the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the British and their Burmese subjects (who included the Shan) were granted logging rights in Thailand. The Shan have had the most significant culinary impact on northern Thailand of any minority group, likely introducing such staples as khao kan jin (this page) and khanom jiin naam ngiaw (this page), among many other dishes.
Another Tai group that has had a palpable impact on the culture of northern Thailand is the Tai Lue. Originally from southern China, the Tai Lue settled in the former northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na during the late eighteenth century. Many were brought to the present-day province of Nan, where their influence can be seen in the architecture, art, and dress, although less so in the province’s food.
The Chinese have had a long presence in northern Thailand, beginning with the Jeen Haw, Muslims of Yunnanese-Chinese descent who, as far back as the sixteenth century, plied an important trade route linking Yunnan Province in southwestern China, northern Thailand, and southern Myanmar. Although the Chinese influence on northern cuisine is significantly less than that in central and southern Thailand, the Jeen Haw most likely introduced khao soi (see this page), today northern Thailand’s most famous dish. Subsequent Chinese immigration, starting in the late nineteenth century and largely centered in the cities of Lampang and Chiang Mai, saw the introduction of Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce and noodles, and cooking techniques such as wok-frying, that have since become contemporary Thai standards. The most recent group of Chinese to impact the north’s culinary landscape are ex-Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party, also called KMT) fighters who fled China following their defeat by communist forces in 1949. After being booted out of Burma in the early 1960s, they resettled in the more remote and mountainous areas of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son Provinces, where they introduced tea agriculture and a repertoire of Yunnanese-Chinese dishes.
Also noteworthy are Thailand’s so-called hill tribes, highland-dwelling groups with origins in China and Burma who began to inhabit northern Thailand during the nineteenth century. There are nine officially recognized hill tribes in northern Thailand, from the Akha to the Yao, and although few of their dishes have become part of the standard northern Thai repertoire, they remain responsible for the production of certain crops associated with the north, such as chayote, corn, and even coffee.
The Karen, one of the largest minority groups in the north, is often considered a hill tribe, although many inhabit the same lowland valleys as the Tai. They are closely associated with the production of incendiary phrik kariang, “Karen chilies,” grown in Mae Hong Son.
The Food and Flavors of Northern Thailand
How does one even begin to encapsulate an entire cuisine? The food of northern Thailand is old: it’s dominated by simple dishes like soups and salads, and by ancient cooking methods such as grilling. It’s a mix of the indigenous and the imported, a jumble of ingredients from the region and influences that stem from Myanmar to China. It’s unabashedly rustic, although perhaps not quite as spicy as one might expect. It loves its vegetables, and, especially nowadays, it also loves its meat.
Compared to those of Thailand’s other regional cuisines, northern Thailand’s dishes are arguably the least spicy. Unlike the refined, court-influenced style of cooking in Bangkok and central Thailand, there’s relatively little effort to include or balance the four flavors of salty, sour, sweet, and spicy in a single dish. Instead, many northern Thai dishes, broadly speaking, push more in just one or two directions, typically emphasizing herbal, bitter, fragrant, and/or meaty flavors. Often, the flavor of a dish comes from one or two herbs, spices, or other ingredients, rather than a complex blend of multiple seasonings.
Unlike in Bangkok and central Thailand, where curry pastes—the base of many Thai curry and soup dishes—are often blends of a complex variety of overtly fragrant herbs and dried spices, most northern Thai dishes are based around a simple combination of chili, shrimp paste, shallots, and garlic, which are sometimes grilled before being pounded into a paste. This cornerstone is the source of the savory, salty flavor that so many northern Thais are fond of.
Seasonings specific to the north include salt (often used in place of the fish sauce so key to central Thai cooking) and thua nao khaep disks of dried, fermented soybeans (see this page) that are sometimes used in place of the central Thai shrimp paste. Naam puu, a dark paste that is the result of boiling tiny field crabs with herbs (see this page), is used in some salads, and many dishes include plaa raa, a pungent, salty, unfiltered seasoning made from fermented freshwater fish. Sugar plays a very minor role in the northern Thai kitchen. Likewise with coconut milk, as coconut palms don’t thrive in the region, although you will see them occasionally in areas that have been influenced by trade and travel.
Dried spices make regular appearances in the northern Thai kitchen, most notably makhwaen, the husk and seed of an evergreen shrub related to Sichuan pepper and prickly ash that’s not eaten elsewhere in Thailand. Like its relatives, makhwaen provides laap (a “salad” of minced, typically uncooked, meat) and many other northern Thai dishes with a floral, citrusy, almost pine-like fragrance and a subtle numbing sensation. Additionally, phong hang lay, an Indian-masala-inspired spice blend, is used in a handful of northern Thai dishes. The high floral note of coriander seed appears in some curry pastes, pleasantly astringent turmeric powder features heavily in the Shan-style cuisine of Mae Hong Son, and smoky black cardamom pops up in several dishes of Chinese origin or influence.
Herbs are hugely important in northern Thai cooking, and there are more than forty edible herbs indigenous to the region, many of which are not available outside the area. Some are used as seasonings and some as garnishes, while many leafy, often bitter, astringent, or sweet-tasting herbs feature as optional sides to the region’s meaty dishes; you’ll find platters of them served alongside, allowing diners to customize each bite with their flavors.
In the past, northern Thai ate large animals only on special occasions, but today, pork has emerged as the most common protein. Every part of the pig is used, from the skin, which is deep-fried into crispy pork rinds, to offal, which is grilled or thinly sliced and included in northern Thai–style laap. Beef and water buffalo, meats generally eschewed in central Thailand, are also common in the north, and as in other landlocked parts of Thailand, scrawny-but-flavorful free-range chickens and freshwater fish are ubiquitous and beloved, and are served grilled, steamed, and in soups. Other proteins eaten in northern Thailand include insects and insect eggs, snails, ant eggs, and silkworm larvae.
Yet perhaps the most important and distinctive food item associated with northern Thailand is rice. Like the residents of Isan, Thailand’s northeastern region, northern Thais prefer glutinous or sticky rice: short, fat grains of chewy rice that are steamed, not boiled, and eaten by hand, rolled into a small ball and dipped in the various dishes (for more on sticky rice, see this page).
Given that the north was the first region to be settled by the Tai people, it’s not surprising that its cooking techniques remain, in many ways, among the country’s oldest and most conservative. Stir-frying—a relatively recent Chinese introduction—has made few inroads in northern Thailand, and most traditional dishes are boiled or grilled.
Indeed, the grilling of meat has an almost cultlike following in northern Thailand, and the region’s most common type of eating establishment is the grill. Meats, ranging from beef loin to pork teat, are slow-grilled over smoky coals and paired with alcohol. Northern Thailand’s grilled dishes are minimally marinated but are served with dips that range in flavor from sweet to spicy. Northern Thai grills also feature more sophisticated items such as sai ua (herb-packed pork sausages; this page) and jin som mok khai (deliciously tart, rich banana leaf packages of fermented pork and egg; this page).
Conversely, the region is also notable for its abundance of raw meat dishes. These range from laap to luu, a shockingly red “soup” of raw pork blood, both available across the region but particularly associated with the provinces of Phrae and Nan.
In recent decades, deep-frying has emerged as one of the most popular and emblematic methods of cooking in northern Thailand, particularly in Chiang Mai. Thai visitors to the city are practically obligated to bring bags of deep-fried pork rinds back to friends and family, while urban locals cherish late-night meals that couple naam phrik (spicy dips or relishes) with deep-fried bites ranging from chicken to pork belly.
Given that the region has a more variable climate than elsewhere in Thailand, preservation also plays an important role in the northern kitchen. This is evident in foods ranging from jin som (pork made sour after fermenting for three days; see this page) to the previously mentioned disks of fermented, dried soybeans that can be kept for weeks—if not months.
Cooking Northern Thai–Style
This book offers a close look at a regional cuisine. As is the case when delving into any highly specific foreign topic, there can be a steep learning curve: names appear unpronounceable, methods unfamiliar, the end results obscure. In the course of researching this book, I made it my goal to record the way people cook and eat in northern Thailand as accurately as possible. As such, I’m proud to say that I’ve made no exceptions. Yet, at the same time, I acknowledge that many of these methods, ingredients, and dishes will be unfamiliar to diners in Bangkok, let alone those in, say, Iowa or Belgium. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the written word isn’t always the ideal medium to accurately convey nuanced, sensory experiences such as taste and fragrance. I’ve made an effort to explain things as clearly as possible, but a bit of experience in Thai cookery will certainly help put things in context. For excellent crash courses in the fundamentals of Thai cuisine, consider reading and cooking a few dishes from Pok Pok, by Andy Ricker with JJ Goode; Simple Thai Food, by Leela Punyaratabandhu; or Thai Food or Thai Street Food, both by David Thompson.
Beyond these titles, below are some of the building blocks—both practical and theoretical—that will help you make the most of your experience cooking northern Thai dishes.
COOKING BY SENSE
Northern Thais cook almost exclusively by experience, taste, and intuition. I’ve been in dozens of northern Thai kitchens, and the only times I’ve seen measuring cups or scales are in the kitchens of those making sweets (pastry chefs around the world are all alike); I’ve yet to see a single northern Thai cook from a written recipe. Instead of meticulously measuring ingredients or following instructions, northern Thais cook via meticulously tasting dishes, dipping in and out, and adjusting seasonings to arrive at an intersection of balanced flavors and subjective preference.
Therein lies the paradox this a cookbook, and for a cookbook to work consistently, it must include recipes that give precise amounts. But your tomatoes might be sweeter than those available in Chiang Mai, your turmeric powder faded in comparison to the freshly ground stuff available in Mae Hong Son. The only way to bridge this gap is to cook as the northern Thais do and employ your senses. And by that I mean all of the senses, as in northern Thailand the way a dish looks, smells, and feels can be just as important as how it tastes.
With this in mind, to cook like a northern Thai, it’s necessary to become familiar with the following parameters, included here in order of their importance in the northern Thai kitchen:
Key in any region is an understanding of the six predominant flavors of Thai cuisine: umami, salty, sour, bitter, spicy, sweet. Yet unlike Bangkok- and central Thai–style cooking, which often strives to include all of these elements in a single dish, in northern Thailand, certain tastes tend to feature more prominently than others.
UMAMI: Judging just by the amount of monosodium glutamate (MSG) that northerners add to their dishes (i.e., too much), the meaty roundness of umami is one of the most cherished flavors of the cuisine. It is present in, if not headlining, just about every dish, from soups to salads. Meaty ingredients and other naturally glutamate-heavy items such as tomatoes or fermented soybeans are also used as sources of this flavor, but nearly all cooks in northern Thailand also use MSG flakes (usually Ajinomoto brand). I leave it to you to decide if you want to use this enhancer in these recipes.
SALTY: Salt simply makes everything taste better, and it features prominently, though not overwhelmingly, in the northern Thai repertoire. Salt, soy-based sauces, and, increasingly these days, fish sauce are the main sources of this flavor.
SOUR: Tart flavors are essential to many northern Thai dishes. Yet unlike elsewhere in Thailand, where sourness typically comes from the addition of acidic liquids such as lime juice, tamarind pulp, or vinegar, in the north it often comes from the inclusion of inherently sour ingredients like tart leaves, tomatoes, or even fermented pork.
BITTER: Feared in the West, bitterness is a beloved flavor in traditional northern Thai cooking, prized perhaps even more than spiciness. In northern Thailand, bitter flavors can come from the addition of an herb or vegetable, or sometimes beef bile.
SPICY: Forget what you have probably heard about Thai food; the food of Thailand’s north is not about blowing your ears off with chili. Yes, there’s often some heat, typically from the addition of a few fresh or dried chilies, but it’s rarely the predominant flavor, instead functioning as a moderately loud part of the background noise.
SWEET: Where savory dishes are concerned, sweet is the least appreciated flavor in northern Thai cooking. Unlike in central Thailand, where dinner will boast a trace (or more) of sweetness, sugar is rarely—if ever—added to dishes in the north. Even northern Thailand’s sweet snacks aren’t particularly sugary, many getting their sweet flavor from ingredients such as bananas, or emphasizing fragrance as much as sweetness.
AROMAS: In northern Thailand, the way a dish smells can be just as important as—or sometimes even more important than—how it tastes. In the north, aroma generally stems from fresh herbs or dried spices, but it can also mean the (pleasantly) funky odor of fermented fish sauce or soybeans, or a whiff of smoke.
TEXTURES: Mouthfeel is an essential aspect of northern-style cooking, but again, unlike in Bangkok and central Thailand, where dishes are seemingly engineered to include multiple contrasting textures in every bite, northern Thai cooks are generally happy to emphasize one, maybe two, distinct textures in a dish.
Once you’re familiar with these characteristics, cooking northern Thai–style becomes—among other things—an effort to achieve a balance of the elements that traditionally define a dish.
HOW TO COOK FROM THESE RECIPES
For an illustrated guide to northern Thai cooking methods and tools, see this page and this page and a detailed glossary of ingredients beginning on this page.
Unless you already have a firm sense of northern Thai flavors and seasonings, weight is really the only way to communicate exactly how much of a particular ingredient needs to be included in a dish, and a digital scale is by far the most accurate way to measure this. Because the amounts of aromatic ingredients in this book tend to be minute, I’ve opted to use the metric system as the standard in these recipes and have both recorded and developed them using grams and, where practical, volume measurements like teaspoons and cups. For convenience’s sake, I’ve also included pound and ounce weights, but note that these are rounded conversions from the metric and may sometimes be inconsistent; the recipes will work, but to get as close as possible to the recipes I recorded, I recommend going by the gram measurements. Plus, you should adjust according to how a dish is meant to taste; I’ve included detailed descriptions of how each dish should taste, smell, and feel to act as a guide.
As mentioned previously, northern Thais cook by frequent tasting, which also is how you should approach these recipes. Start with the prescribed amounts and taste the dish several times, adjusting as you go, ideally arriving at an intersection of the flavors described in the recipe and those you personally prefer.
SERVING SIZES AND NORTHERN THAI MEALS
By American standards, the serving sizes in the book may appear small. This is because a dish, unless noted otherwise, is meant to be served Thai-style, that is, as part of a greater meal that includes at least two other items, to be eaten by a group of four people, and almost always served with sticky or long-grained rice.
Northern Thai Cooking Methods
In northern Thailand, there’s a variety of cooking methods specific to the region; in particular, this means a variety of ways to cook ingredients over coals, with subtle differences between them.
AEP / แอ็บ A method of cooking in which ingredients are seasoned and wrapped in a banana leaf before being grilled over coals.
AWK / อ็อก A method of cooking in which ingredients—most notably eggs but also fish—are put in an open container made from banana leaf and grilled over relatively hot coals.
HUM / ฮุ่ม To simmer relatively large pieces of meat until tender.
JAW / จอ To simmer vegetables.
JAAW / จ่าว To season a dish by adding it to a wok with hot crispy garlic and garlic oil.
JII / จี่ To grill relatively large items such as fish, offal, or fresh chilies directly on hot coals, typically before inclusion in another preparation.
JUEN/KHAEP / จืน/แคบ To deep-fry in oil, which in northern Thailand is generally done at a relatively low temperature.
KHUA / คั่ว To stir-fry in a wok, with oil, but can also refer to frying in a small amount of water, or dry-roasting.
MOK / หมก Grilling relatively small items such as garlic, shallots, or even fermented fish (the latter wrapped in banana leaf) directly on hot coals, typically before including the ingredient in another preparation.
NUENG / นึ่ง To steam; also the verb used to describe how sticky rice, known locally as khao nueng (“steamed rice”), is cooked.
OP / อบ To simmer ingredients over low heat in a pot with a closed lid.
PAAM / ป่าม To cook an ingredient—typically egg—with no oil, usually on/in a banana leaf. Sometimes synonymous with awk.
PHING/AEN / ภิง/แอน Slow-grilling over coals, typically in order to prepare ingredients such as dried chilies, dried fish, or dried spices for inclusion in other dishes.
PING / ปิ้ง To grill meat or fish over coals.
Northern Thai Kitchen Tools
When any cooking tool or utensil not standard to the Western kitchen is required in a recipe, I’ve made a note of it. Those that appear most frequently in the northern Thai kitchen—and are thus worth investing in—include the following:
CLEAVER / LAAP KNIFE: If you don’t have access to a heavy-bladed Thai-style laap knife, you’ll need a large cleaver to mince meat finely for laap or to chop through bones.
DIGITAL SCALE: One of the most important tools for cooking from this cookbook is, paradoxically, something you’ll never, ever find in a northern Thai kitchen. That’s because while northern Thai cooks work from memory and a sense honed by years—or decades—of experience, the best way I can think of to communicate this is, in part, to use the most accurate way of measuring ingredients. So, if you don’t have one, buy an inexpensive digital scale, and see this page for tips on cooking with weight and mass.
ELECTRIC RICE COOKER: This seemingly modern indulgence may clash with the rustic aura of northern Thai cooking, but just about everybody in northern Thailand—even those in remote hill tribe villages—uses one to cook long-grained rice. And there’s no need to go fancy: I still use the same cheapo Panasonic model I bought at Talat Ton Phayom in Chiang Mai back in 1999.
GRANITE MORTAR AND PESTLE: In flipping through this book, it will quickly become apparent that many northern Thai dishes are based around curry pastes, which are combinations of herbs, spices, and other ingredients pounded and blended with a granite mortar and pestle. Yes, the northern Thai, especially food vendors who prepare large quantities of food, use electric food processors. And so can you. But the results are, frankly, inferior. And once you take the plunge, I guarantee you’ll find that the mortar and pestle is a handy kitchen tool for a number of tasks besides pounding curry pastes, including grinding dried spices, crushing garlic and chilies for stir-fries, and even tenderizing meat. I’d recommend a medium-sized set (with an opening at least six inches in diameter); anything smaller is impractical, and anything bigger packs a heft that will probably discourage frequent use. Some recipes call for a large clay or wooden mortar and pestle set; although not absolutely necessary, its larger size makes it more convenient for making pounded salads. See this page for tips on using the mortar and pestle like a northern Thai.
GRILLING BASKET: This hinged, wire-mesh tool serves as a convenient way to grill anything from whole fish to dried chilies over coals.
NOODLE BASKET: If you plan on making any noodle dishes, this tool, a cup-like wire basket attached to the end of a long bamboo handle, will make the task of cooking and straining noodles much easier.
PAPAYA SHREDDER: Similar to a vegetable peeler but with a corrugated blade, this tool makes it easy to shred green papaya into thin strips.
STICKY RICE STEAMING POT AND BASKET: Sticky rice is the staple carb in northern Thailand, and these two inexpensive tools (unrelated to the Thai-style steamer mentioned at right) are the best—and most convenient—way to prepare it. For more on steaming sticky rice, see this page.
THAI-STYLE CHARCOAL GRILL: This item is not obligatory, and a Western-style barbecue (or even the broiling function of an oven) does a similar job. But for a relatively convenient way to grill, especially one that imparts that desirable smokiness, nothing beats this tool. Look for one that’s at least twelve inches in diameter.
THAI-STYLE STEAMER: This book features several steamed dishes that are made most conveniently if you have a relatively wide steamer (approximately eleven inches in diameter).
WOK: For the vast majority of recipes in this book, a medium wok (approxi-mately twelve inches in diameter) is sufficient; it’s what I—and many northern Thai—use at home. To make the most of this tool, be sure to also buy a wok spatula. If you plan on doing a lot of deep-frying or making some of the sweets in this book, then you may also want to consider investing in a larger, heavy-bottomed wok, which does a better job at distributing heat evenly, thus maintaining a more consistent temperature.
Chiang Mai was my introduction to northern Thailand. In 1998, I boarded a bone-rattling, fan-cooled, second-class train north to the city. It was my first visit to Thailand, and I had spent only a couple days in Bangkok at that point, but upon arriving in Chiang Mai, the differences were immediately palpable. The weather was cooler. The pace was slower. The temples looked older. The people seemed friendlier (my neighbor on the train, an old woman, offered me a bag of sticky rice—a sign, perhaps?). Even the food seemed different from what I’d encountered in Bangkok, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. And coming from Oregon, I appreciated the mountains and greenery. Simply put, it just clicked, and I knew then that Chiang Mai would be a place that I’d be coming back to.
I can only suspect that Mengrai, the first king of the Lan Na kingdom, must have felt the same way. In 1296 he chose Chiang Mai as the new seat of his realm. (Chiang was the title given to cities, typically walled, in the Lan Na kingdom that functioned as the home of a king or important prince; Mai means “new.”) Under Mengrai’s rule, Chiang Mai rapidly achieved both political power and wealth, but it can be argued that much of this was also due to its favorable geography. An early chronicle states that the city “turned its back to the hill and faced the water,” the hill being the mountain known today as Doi Suthep, and the water, the Ping River. This unique position meant that Chiang Mai had a nearly constant flow of water, with another chronicle stating that the Chiang Mai basin was so fertile that the rice yield for one year could provide sustenance for seven years. The forests that surrounded Chiang Mai were an additional source of food and livelihood, and an early poem states that the city was home to three important markets that sold agricultural products including rice, chilies, betel leaves, betel nut, cotton, and basketry.
As Chiang Mai emerged as an important center of commerce, it drew Shan, Burmese, Chinese, and other traders, eventually earning the nickname “City of Twelve Languages.” This mix of outside influences came to shape Chiang Mai’s culture, and even today, Burmese-style Buddhist temples, hill tribe residents, and Chinese mosques continue to give the city its uniquely jumbled cosmopolitan character. This diversity also had a huge impact on Chiang Mai’s food, and dishes with ostensibly foreign roots, such as khao soi, the city’s famous curry noodles, took root there, eventually spreading outward and influencing cuisine across northern Thailand.
Since that train ride in 1998, I’ve been based in Bangkok. Yet over the years, I’ve visited Chiang Mai frequently, and it strikes me that it has managed to retain its place as northern Thailand’s most culturally diverse city; at this point, with foreign investment and immigration, digital nomads and backpackers, the city’s languages surely number in multiple dozens. Bangkok- and Western-style life, with its malls and traffic, its fast food and big-city glitz, have arrived and can appear to dominate some corners of the city. But Chiang Mai’s moat, ancient walls, and charming Buddhist temples, its ubiquitous restaurants selling khao soi (see this page), open-air stalls serving khanom jiin naam ngiaw (a soup of tomatoes and pork ribs served over thin rice noodles; see this page), late-night haunts specializing in deep-fried dishes, and markets where sticky rice remains the carb of choice continue to give the city its own unique cultural and culinary vibe. This blend of the new and old, local and foreign, is what shaped Chiang Mai from the beginning.
The Mystery of Khao Soi
Khao soi, a chicken- or beef-based curry broth made rich with coconut milk, fragrant with a mild dried spice mixture, and bulked out with wheat-and-egg noodles, is without a doubt Chiang Mai’s—if not northern Thailand’s—most famous food item. Yet the dish, so closely associated with the city, is at the same time both emblematically Chiang Mai and utterly foreign.
Today, most vendors in Chiang Mai attribute khao soi to the Jeen Haw, Muslims of Yunnanese-Chinese descent who, as early as the sixteenth century, plied a web of overland trading routes that linked Yunnan, northern Thailand, and Mawlamyine (in present-day Myanmar). In the early twentieth century, some Jeen Haw began to put down roots in Chiang Mai, predominately in the area east of the walled city known now as Ban Ho (“Jeen Haw Village”), or in English as the Night Bazaar. It is approximately during this period that we begin to hear about khao soi, a dish that was allegedly sold and eaten exclusively by the Jeen Haw. But just about every long-standing vendor of the dish in Chiang Mai claims that the khao soi prepared by their predecessors bears little resemblance to the dish we know today.
Several vendors told me that the original khao soi included noodles made from rice, not the current wheat-and-egg variety. Others mentioned that the early version of the dish was topped with minced meat stir-fried with pickled vegetables, not the larger cuts of curried meat that we know today. And nearly everybody agrees that the original khao soi did not include coconut milk, a defining element of the contemporary dish.
Why would there be such fundamental differences between the original Jeen Haw–style khao soi and the dish served today?
One common theory among contemporary vendors is that coconut milk and dried spices were added to khao soi to suit the palates of central Thai, or even those of Chiang Mai’s Indian and Burmese communities. Another posits that, while on the caravan trail in Myanmar, the Jeen Haw encountered ohn-hno hkauk-hswe—a Burmese dish that’s a combination of wheat noodles, a coconut-milk-based broth, chicken, a crispy deep-fried noodle garnish, and sides of lime and sliced shallots—and decided to integrate these elements into their own noodle dish.
I suspect that it’s simply a quirk of language. Several of the Jeen Haw caravan routes passed through Myanmar, where the generic word for “noodles” is the Shan term hkauk-hswe. Corrupted to khao soi, this term would have been roughly understood by northern Thai and could have been applied to just about any noodle-based dish, old or new. Admittedly, given the hazy memories and lack of written records on the topic, this is all speculation. But what’s undeniable is that khao soi serves as both a concrete and an abstract reminder of the people and cultures that mixed and mingled to shape the cuisine of Chiang Mai.
Khao Soi Yunnan
“ANCIENT” KHAO SOI
SERVES 4 TO 6
“The original khao soi had no coconut milk—Chinese people don’t like it!” says Temsiri Wiyakaew, a vendor of the noodle dish in Chiang Mai and herself of Muslim-Chinese ancestry.
I’m in Temsiri’s narrow shophouse restaurant, where she’s offered to show me how to make khao soi Yunnan, by numerous accounts the precursor to Chiang Mai’s famous curry noodle dish and an item generally unavailable in the city’s restaurants.
“We usually serve this dish at festivals at Chiang Mai’s Ban Ho Mosque,” she explains, as she loads a table with the dish’s constituent parts. Among these, I spy the elements of khao soi that anyone who’s eaten the dish in Chiang Mai will recognize: squiggly flat wheat-and-egg noodles; sides of sliced pickled mustard greens, shallots, and lime; a condiment of ground dried chilies simmered in oil. But as she adds pieces of poached chicken, a small bowl of deep-fried peanuts, and a topping of minced chicken stir-fried with pickled mustard greens and dried spices, it becomes clear to me that, although khao soi yunnan may not include coconut milk, it’s an even more decadent dish.
Temsiri offers me a bowl, and one taste reveals a broth with a punch of umami and a subtle background fragrance of star anise and black cardamom, a topping that seamlessly blends meaty and acidic flavors, not to mention enough delicious sides to form a meal on their own. It’s a true feast, and although I’m no closer to discovering how this dish is related to the coconut milk–based khao soi that has put Chiang Mai on the culinary map, it doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore.
For Chili Powder Fried in Oil
12 large dried chilies (14 grams / ½ ounce total; see this page)
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
For the Crispy Garlic and Garlic Oil
100 grams / 3½ ounces Thai garlic (or 20 standard garlic cloves, peeled; see this page)
2 cups vegetable oil
For the Deep-Fried Peanuts
200 grams / 7 ounces skin-on raw peanuts (or use roasted peanuts and skip the frying step)
vegetable oil, for deep-frying
For the Toasted Sesame Seeds
¼ cup white sesame seeds
For the Dipping Sauce
juice of 2 limes
2 tablespoons black soy sauce (see this page)
½ teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon sesame oil
For the Broth
4 to 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (750 grams / 1¾ pounds total)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon table salt
2 chicken carcasses (1 kilogram / 2¼ pounds total)
30 grams / 1 ounce ginger, peeled and sliced
2 stalks lemongrass (50 grams / 1¾ ounces total), exterior tough layers peeled, green section discarded, pale section sliced thinly
6 cilantro roots (13 grams / ½ ounce total)
1 pandan leaf, tied into a knot (it’s easier to handle this way)
2 black cardamom pods (4 grams total)
2 whole star anise (3 grams total)
1 tablespoon raw sugarcane sugar
½ teaspoon MSG (optional)
1 black cardamom pod (2 grams)
3 whole star anise (5 grams total)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
250 grams / 9 ounces minced chicken
250 grams / 9 ounces Yunnanese-style pickled mustard greens (see this page), chopped finely
3 garlic cloves (15 grams / ½ ounce), peeled and minced
1 tablespoon black soy sauce (see this page)
½ teaspoon table salt
500 grams / 18 ounces fresh flat wheat-and-egg noodles
4 small green onions (80 grams / 3 ounces total), sliced thinly
3 limes, cut into wedges
100 grams / 3½ ounces shallots, peeled and sliced
200 grams / 7 ounces Yunnanese-style pickled mustard greens, sliced (see this page)
THAI KITCHEN TOOLS
granite mortar and pestle
medium wok (approximately 12 inches)
large cleaver or laap knife
Advance prep: A day or two in advance, make the chili powder fried in oil, the crispy garlic and garlic oil, the deep-fried peanuts, the toasted sesame seeds, and the dipping sauce, and salt the chicken thighs.
Prepare the chili powder fried in oil: Using a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder, or food processor, grind the chilies to a relatively fine consistency. Heat the vegetable oil and dried chili powder in a wok over medium-low heat. When the oil reaches a low simmer, fry, stirring frequently, until the chili powder is dark and fragrant, but not burned, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Remove the chili oil mixture to a glass jar and seal tightly; it can be kept in a refrigerator for up to a couple months.
Make the crispy garlic and garlic oil: Pound and grind the garlic in a mortar and pestle until the cloves have a coarse, rough consistency just short of a paste. Heat the garlic and vegetable oil in a wok over medium-low heat. When the oil reaches a gentle simmer, lower the heat to maintain the temperature. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is fragrant, golden, and flaky, a total of around 30 minutes. Let cool. Transfer to a glass jar and seal tightly; the crispy garlic and garlic oil can be kept in a refrigerator for up to a couple months.
Prepare the deep-fried peanuts: Heat 1½ inches of oil to 250°F in a large wok over medium-low heat. Add the peanuts and fry, stirring occasionally, until slightly darker and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Remove the peanuts with a slotted spoon or spider, and drain on paper towels.
Prepare the toasted sesame seeds: Add the sesame seeds to a wok over low heat. Toast, stirring frequently, until slightly darker in color and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.
Prepare the dipping sauce: Pound and grind ¼ cup of the fried peanuts to a coarse powder using a mortar and pestle. In a small bowl, stir together the ground peanuts, 3 tablespoons of the chili powder fried in oil, 1 tablespoon of the toasted sesame seeds, 2 tablespoons of lime juice, the black soy sauce, ½ teaspoon salt, the sesame oil, and 2 tablespoons of water.
Taste, adjusting the seasoning if necessary; the dip should taste tart and spicy, salty and nutty (in that order).
Prepare the chicken thighs: The day before cooking, rub the chicken thighs with 1 teaspoon of the salt and allow them to marinate overnight.
Prepare the broth: The next day, bring 2½ quarts of water, the chicken thighs, chicken carcasses, ginger, lemongrass, roots, pandan leaf, black cardamom, star anise, and sugar to a boil in a large stockpot over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Remove the chicken thighs when they are just cooked through, after about 10 minutes. After 1 hour of simmering, add 1 tablespoon of the salt and the MSG (if using) to the broth and simmer another 30 minutes.
Taste, adjusting seasoning if necessary; the broth should be fragrant from the dried spices and herbs, and slightly salty. Using a cleaver, cut the chicken thighs through the bone into sections about ½ inch wide.
Prepare the topping: While the broth is simmering, crack the black cardamom, discarding the shell. Add the black cardamom seeds to a wok over medium-low heat. Toast, stirring frequently, until slightly dark in color and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Pound and grind the toasted cardamom seeds to a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. Remove and set aside. Repeat with the star anise. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat. Add the ground chicken and fry, stirring frequently, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add the pickled vegetables, garlic, black soy sauce, salt, ½ teaspoon ground black cardamom, and ½ teaspoon ground star anise. Fry, stirring frequently, until the flavors have combined, another 5 minutes.
Taste, adjusting the seasoning if necessary; the topping should taste salty, tart, and fragrant from the dried spices and garlic.
Prepare the bowls: Bring at least 6 inches of water to a boil in a large stockpot over high heat. Put 75 grams / 2¾ ounces of noodles in the noodle basket and boil, agitating the basket until the noodles are just tender, about 20 seconds. Drain and add the noodles to a serving bowl. Top the noodles with 1½ cups of the broth, a scant ½ cup of the minced chicken topping, 1 teaspoon of the crispy garlic and garlic oil, 1 heaping teaspoon of the toasted sesame seeds, and a pinch of green onions. Repeat with the remaining ingredients for each bowl.
Serve the bowls with the chicken thighs and the dipping sauce, and the deep-fried peanuts, wedges of lime, shallots, and pickled vegetables.
Khao Soi Nuea
MUSLIM-STYLE BEEF KHAO SOI
SERVES 4 TO 6
In English, khao soi is often referred to as “curry noodles,” a descriptor that, for most of us, implies spice. But as served by Chiang Mai’s Muslim community—the people who most likely introduced it to the city—the dish is a subtle, some might even say bland, affair.
“Some people put curry powder in their khao soi,” says Temsiri Wiyakaew, a Chiang Mai–based khao soi vendor, her disapproval apparent in her expression. “It smells too strong, I don’t like it!”
Yet contemporary Muslim-style khao soi essentially begins as a curry, albeit one with relatively little dried spice.
“We make a dry curry with beef and let it simmer for two to three hours,” explains Worakan Yuyangthai, the second-generation owner of Khao Soi Prince, a Chiang Mai–based restaurant that’s been serving khao soi for nearly a half century. He’s describing the first step in his family’s take on the dish, a rich, thick curry—chicken is also an option—that can be served on its own, over rice. Khao soi is notable for including coconut milk in its broth, but when served at Khao Soi Prince and other Muslim restaurants in Chiang Mai, this ingredient is invariably kept separate. “To serve, we combine the curry and coconut milk in the bowl,” says Worakan, explaining that this allows the diner to have a say in how rich his or her bowl is, and also prevents any unsold curry from spoiling too quickly.
Khao soi’s other distinctive element is its noodles—squiggly shoelaces made from wheat flour and egg that Chiang Mai’s best khao soi restaurants continue to make in-house. On a previous visit to Khao Soi Prince, I’d watched Worakan work a jerry-rigged pasta maker with the confidence of an Italian grandma, cranking out noodles that were both firm and delicious.
“The noodles are the pride of our restaurant,” explains Worakan. “The Jeen Haw made their own noodles, so we do the same.”
As is the case elsewhere, a portion of these noodles are deep-fried, serving as a crunchy garnish to the dish, along with a bit of chopped cilantro and green onion. And no bowl of Muslim-style khao soi is complete without sides that include slightly sweet, Yunnanese-style pickled mustard greens, sliced shallots, wedges of lime, and a spicy condiment of chili flakes simmered in oil.
The result is a union of disparate elements—a rich, creamy, subtly fragrant broth; tender cubes of slow-cooked beef; a crunchy garnish; and overtly acidic sides—that culminate in one of the country’s greatest noodle dishes.
Chiang Mai khao soi vendors are notoriously reluctant to reveal their secrets, so the following recipe is a blend of what Temsiri Wiyakaew was kind enough to share with me and elements of the bowls sold at Prince and other Chiang Mai Muslim-run khao soi restaurants.
For the Crispy Noodle Garnish
vegetable oil, for deep-frying
80 grams / 3 ounces fresh flat wheat-and-egg noodles
For the Curry Paste
10 large dried chilies (16 grams / ½ ounce total; see this page)
2 teaspoons table salt
20 grams / ⅔ ounce ginger, peeled and sliced
1 medium onion (200 grams / 7 ounces), peeled and chopped
80 grams / 3 ounces shallots, peeled and sliced
8 garlic cloves (40 grams / 1½ ounces), peeled and sliced
For the Curry
2 black cardamom pods (5 grams total)
6 whole star anise (6 grams total)
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon turmeric powder
35 grams / 1¼ ounces ginger, peeled and sliced
800 grams / 1¾ pounds beef shank, silver skin trimmed and discarded, 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon black soy sauce (see this page)
1 teaspoon raw sugarcane sugar
½ teaspoon MSG (optional)
1½ cups coconut milk
1½ cups coconut cream (see this page)
500 grams / 18 ounces fresh flat wheat-and-egg noodles
1 small bunch cilantro (20 grams / ⅔ ounce total), chopped
2 green onions (40 grams / 1½ ounces total), chopped
240 grams / 8½ ounces shallots, peeled and sliced
300 grams / 10½ ounces Yunnanese-style pickled mustard greens, sliced (see this page)
4 limes, cut into wedges
chili powder fried in oil (see this page)
THAI KITCHEN TOOLS
granite mortar and pestle
medium wok (approximately 12 inches)
Advance prep: A day or two before serving, prepare the crispy noodle garnish, the curry paste, and the chili powder fried in oil.
Prepare the crispy noodle garnish: Heat 1½ inches of oil to 325°F in a wok over high heat. (If you don’t have a thermometer, the oil is ready when a noodle sizzles instantly in the oil, but it shouldn’t be smoking hot.) Carefully place 20 grams / ⅔ ounce of noodles in the oil, deep-frying until crispy but not burnt, about 30 seconds. Remove the noodles with a slotted spoon or spider, and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining noodles. When the noodles are cool, store in an airtight container for up to 2 days.
Prepare the curry paste: Bring the chilies and enough water to cover by an inch or two to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Remove the saucepan from the heat and soak the chilies for 15 minutes. Drain, discarding the water, and when cool enough to handle, remove and discard the seeds from the chilies. Using a mortar and pestle, pound and grind the chilies and salt to a coarse paste. Add the ginger; pound and grind to a coarse paste. Add the onions, shallots, and garlic, and pound and grind to a fine paste. (Because of the liquid in these ingredients, this last step is easiest if done in a blender or food processor.)
Prepare the curry: A day or several hours before serving, crack the black cardamom pods, discarding the shells. Add the black cardamom seeds to a wok set over medium-low heat. Toast the seeds, stirring frequently, until they are slightly dark and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Pound and grind the seeds to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle (or use a spice grinder). Repeat with the star anise.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the curry paste, 1 tablespoon of the ground black cardamom, 2 teaspoons of ground star anise, turmeric, and ginger, and fry, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is fragrant and a thin layer of oil has begun to emerge, about 20 minutes. Increase the heat to medium, add the beef, and fry, stirring occasionally, until the beef is just firm, about 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of water, the black soy sauce, sugar, and MSG (if using), and increase the heat to high. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover the saucepan, and simmer for 1 hour. Open the lid slightly and simmer until the beef is very tender and a layer oil has risen to the top, another 1 to 1½ hours.
Taste, adjusting the seasoning if necessary; the curry should taste meaty and slightly salty, and it should be fragrant from the dried spices.
Prepare the bowls: Warm up the beef curry, adding a few tablespoons of water, if necessary (the mixture should be thick but somewhat pourable). Bring the coconut milk and coconut cream to a gentle simmer in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.
Bring at least 6 inches of water to a boil in a stockpot over high heat. Put 75 grams / 2¾ ounces of noodles in a noodle basket and boil, agitating the basket until the noodles are just tender, about 20 seconds. Remove the noodles, drain, and add to a serving bowl. Top with a scant ½ cup of the beef curry and a scant ½ cup of the coconut milk mixture. Garnish with the cilantro, green onions, and the crispy fried noodles. Repeat with the remaining ingredients for each bowl.
Serve with the sliced shallots, sliced pickled greens, and limes, as well as the dried chilies fried in oil and fish sauce.
They don’t get much press, can appear intimidating and mysterious, and seldom surface on restaurant menus, and their central ingredient hails from a different continent. But naam phrik, spicy dips typically made by pounding chilies and other ingredients to a paste with a mortar and pestle, are arguably northern Thailand’s most important and beloved food item, claimed by many to be second in importance only to rice.
Chilies are, relatively speaking, a recent introduction to the Thai kitchen. Originally from South America, they were most likely introduced to central Thailand by the Portuguese during the sixteenth century. The new, spicy ingredient eventually made its way into just about every type of dish but landed a starring role in naam phrik—literally “chili water.”
Fast-forward nearly five centuries, and today naam phrik are among the most regionally diverse dishes in Thailand, and a dip served in Chiang Mai could very well be unrecognizable to someone in Bangkok. Even within the north, the dips can take numerous forms, and one book I came across cited 191 different recipes for naam phrik in the region. But there are some similarities among northern Thailand’s naam phrik.
“Most northern Thai naam phrik are salty in flavor and dry in consistency,” explains Suneemas Noree, a professor of home economics at Chiang Mai University. She goes on to explain to me that northern Thailand’s naam phrik also don’t tend to include sugar, lime juice, shrimp paste, or fish sauce—bold seasonings that are naam phrik staples elsewhere in the country. Compared to those others, northern Thailand’s dips are relatively mild in flavor, typically lacking tons of chili heat. Also unique is that northern Thailand’s naam phrik tend to revolve around ingredients that have been cooked—typically grilled—before entering the mortar.
“Traditionally, in the morning, people would light a fire to steam rice and would also grill a few chilies,” Suneemas tells me. “When they got back from the fields, if they had any other ingredients, they’d add them to the naam phrik.”
These days, a dwindling handful of northerners light a fire to cook their rice, but this combination—grilled fresh chilies, garlic, and salt—known as naam phrik hawm (“fragrant chili paste”), remains the foundation for many northern Thai–style dips.
Another unique aspect of northern Thailand’s naam phrik is their seasonality. During the rainy season, tiny fish or tadpoles, netted in waterlogged rice fields, may find their way into the mortar and pestle. Come the cold season, a spicy naam phrik taa daeng might be supplemented with hog plum, a fruit at its tart peak during this time of year.
Without exception, northern Thailand’s naam phrik are eaten with sticky rice, the grains squeezed into bite-sized balls and dipped in the relishes by hand. They’re also always accompanied by a spread of vegetables, fruits, and/or herbs, sometimes served raw, sometimes parboiled or steamed. And like the naam phrik themselves, these sides are determined by seasonality and availability, and can range from hearty chunks of steamed pumpkin to parboiled greens or astringent-tasting herbs, typically plucked from a nearby garden or field.
Naam Phrik Num
A NORTHERN THAI–STYLE DIP OF GRILLED CHILIES, SHALLOTS, AND GARLIC
“It should be spicy,” offers Areerat Chowkasem, a former restaurant cook, from her home kitchen in Mae Rim, outside of Chiang Mai.
Overt heat is unusual for a northern Thai dish. But naam phrik num, a dip revolving around grilled chilies, is the exception to this rule.
The dish consists of little more than northern Thailand’s famous slender green chilies—the eponymous phrik num—garlic and shallots, grilled over coals until charred, soft, and fragrant, before being pounded with seasonings using a mortar and pestle.
“I don’t pound the chili too finely,” explains Areerat while gently blending the ingredients with the pestle; naam phrik num shouldn’t have the consistency of a uniform paste, but rather that of a tangle of pale green, spicy strands.
It’s this simplicity—and also that heat—that has made naam phrik num the flagship dish of the northern Thai repertoire, beloved by just about everybody and sold at every market—including from souvenir stalls at Chiang Mai International Airport.
Traditionally, the dip is eaten with sticky rice, steamed or parboiled vegetables, and ideally also some deep-fried pork rinds (see this page). Yet it also functions equally well as a dip for sai ua (northern Thai–style sausage; this page), or, my personal favorite, deep-fried chicken. Similarly, countless variations on naam phrik num exist, in which its core elements are supplemented with ingredients ranging from deep-fried pork rinds to grilled fish (see this page and this page for two of these).
Phrik num are unavailable outside of northern Thailand, but Andy Ricker, in his book Pok Pok, suggests that mild Anaheim, Hungarian wax, or goat horn chilies, supplemented with spicier serrano chilies, serve as an acceptable substitute. Traditionally, naam phrik num is seasoned with little more than salt, but Areerat, somewhat unconventionally, opts for soy sauce; I’ve gone with a balance of the two. If you want to go completely old-school, you can eliminate this ingredient altogether and season your naam phrik num to taste with salt or even plaa raa, unfiltered fish sauce.
For the Dip
500 grams / 18 ounces large fresh chilies (ideally phrik num, or a combination of serrano and other milder chilies)
80 grams / 3 ounces shallots, unpeeled
12 garlic cloves, unpeeled (60 grams / 2 ounces total)
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon white soy sauce (optional) (see this page)
600 grams / 1⅓ pounds of parboiled or steamed vegetables, such as pumpkin, cabbage, long bean, small eggplant, and/or raw vegetables, such as cucumber or Thai eggplant, cut into bite-sized pieces
160 grams / 5½ ounces deep-fried pork rinds (see this page)
sticky rice (see this page)
THAI KITCHEN TOOLS
Thai-style charcoal grill or barbecue
metal or bamboo skewers (the latter soaked in water), or a grilling basket
Using a Thai-style charcoal grill, light the charcoal and allow the coals to reduce to medium heat (approximately 350°F to 450°F, or when you can hold your palm 3 inches above the grilling level for 5 to 7 seconds).
Skewer the chilies, shallots, and garlic separately. When the coals are ready, grill the chilies, shallots, and garlic, turning them occasionally, until fragrant and soft, and their exterior is uniformly charred, around 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the charred exterior from the chilies, shallots, and garlic.
Pound and grind the shallots and garlic to a coarse paste with a mortar and pestle. Add the chilies and pound and grind just enough to combine; you do not want a uniform, fine paste but rather a tangle of strands. Add the salt and white soy sauce (if using), mixing with a spoon.
Taste, adjusting the seasoning if necessary; the naam phrik num should taste spicy and salty, and should be fragrant from the garlic and the grilling.
Remove to a small serving bowl and serve with steamed or parboiled vegetables, deep-fried pork rinds, and sticky rice as part of a northern Thai meal.
Naam Phrik Plaa Jii /
NAAM PHRIK NUM WITH GRILLED FISH
Follow the recipe for naam phrik num. After grilling all the ingredients, allow the coals to reduce to low heat (approximately 250°F to 350°F, or when you can hold your palm 3 inches above the grilling level for 8 to 10 seconds). Add 1 small (approximately 300 grams / 10½ ounces) freshwater fish, such as Nile tilapia, to a grilling basket and grill, flipping occasionally until cooked, about 30 minutes. When cooked through and cool enough to handle, remove the flesh, discarding any bones and skin; you should have about 100 grams / 3½ ounces of fish. Add the fish to the mortar, along with shallots, garlic, and an extra ¼ teaspoon of table salt, and proceed with the recipe. Remove to a small serving bowl and serve with steamed or parboiled vegetables (such as chayote, long beans, or small eggplant) cut into bite-sized pieces and sticky rice, as part of a northern Thai meal.
Naam Phrik Khaep Muu /
NAAM PHRIK NUM WITH PORK RINDS
Follow the recipe for naam phrik num, adding 80 grams / 3 ounces of deep-fried pork rinds (the type that also have a layer of fat; see this page) to the mortar with the shallots, garlic, and a few sprigs of chopped cilantro, along with the salt and white soy sauce (if using), and proceed with the recipe. Remove to a small serving bowl and serve with steamed or parboiled vegetables (such as sweet potato, pumpkin, okra, cabbage, and chayote) cut into bite-sized pieces and sticky rice, as part of a northern Thai meal.
1. Naam Phrik Taa Daeng 2. Naam Phrik Plaa Jii 3. Naam Phrik Khaep Muu 4. Naam Phrik Makhuea Som 5. Naam Phrik Awng 6. Naam Phrik Num
Food of Northern Thailand is a beautiful deep dive into the regional cuisine of northern Thailand with a documentarian’s approach and a photographer’s eye.
The food of northern Thailand is a world away from the highly refined, royal court- and Chinese-influenced style of cooking in Bangkok–the Thai food that most of us are familiar with. It’s a cuisine with its own distinct identity, one that is rustic and earthy, meaty and fragrant; one with roots in the Thai repertoire but with branches that extend into unfamiliar areas; a cuisine that feels ancient, but is ever evolving.
A writer, photographer, and travel-guide writer, Austin Bush has lived in Thailand for nearly 20 years. In this book, Bush travels across northern Thailand to talk to the region’s home cooks, academics, restaurateurs, writers, and hawkers. Their recipes and stories, along with Bush’s photographs, capture the people, countryside, markets, and of course, dishes and cooking techniques of northern Thailand. Each of the chapters in the book will focus on a single province, giving a snapshot of the dishes, staple ingredients, cooking methods, and people specific to that area.