Sunday, 20 November 2011

Eat Thailand: Chang Mai

The North of Thailand has some of the countries best cuisine.  Isarn food brings us some of the perenial favourites of som tam salad and sticky rice as well as a series of delicious grills.  As in much of Thailand a lot of the best food comes from street vendors, but there are some great restaurants as well.  Where exact addresses aren't available I have included pictures to help you find you're way.

Having only 4 nights in Chang Mai we were lucky to arrive on Sunday and stumble accross Sunday Walking Street, host to a busy market on, you guessed it... Sunday.  It wasn't all food here, but there was certainly no shortage.  Highlights include a very good sticky rice with coconut milk and sliced mango probably my favourite sweet Thai dish.  The slightly salty rice provides a great balance to the sweet milky flavours and the sharpness of the mango.  By far the standout here was the green mango salad.  Shredded green mango, peanuts, fish sauce, sugar, and dried shrimp gave it the familiar flavours of a som tam, with the mixture of sharp crunchy mango going wonderfully with the slightly softer peanuts and the savouriness of the dried prawns. What made it really special though were the little crunchy dried anchovies that lifted the flavour of the whole thing and gave it a welcome fattiness, though not so much as to get in the way of the incredible freshness and vibrancy of the dish.

Sticking with markets it would be silly not to talk about the night market near the canal, (fairly close to Mike's burgers if you need a reference).  There is a good Pad Thai stall, though by no means the best I had (that was in Chang Rai) and some very nice barbequed squid at the far end.  All the usual suspects are here, crispy grilled pork belly, boiled chicken over fatty rice, isarn sausages, fish balls, and some nice sweets.  All good but probably nothing completely standout that I would put down as a can't miss.

Not so in one of the main produce markets that you will undoubtedly go to if you do one of the cooking courses that are on offer in Chang Mai.  The best dishes here were the Isarn prok sausage.  Very meaty, coarse ground pork sausage that you would expect at breakfast but with a good kick of lemongrass and chili and a bit of sugar, something ubiquitous in Thai cuisine.  Even better were the chicken liver skewers.  There was a charcoal barbeque stall in the middle of the market selling these, which were just set and creamy, wonderfully soft with no residual bitterness, with a good flavour from the sweet marinade used on chicken in the North giving them an extra element.  Also worth noting were the numerous stalls here and around Chang Mai that sell, alonside other fried chicken bits, deep fried crispy chicken skin, with a little sugar and salt on top.  I don't really need to explain why a bag of deep fried chicken skin is amazing so I will move on to some of the restaurants.

Down the main tourist road (the on with Julie's Hostel and JJ's off it if you are using a guide book) towards the temple is a very good noodle soup restaraunt.  Noodle soup in Thailand is probably the most common food you'll see.  Some people I spoke to complained it was quite bland - but that's because they ignored the condiments on their table.  These include, typically, sugar (of course), chilli flakes, pikcled chill and fish sauce.  Apply liberally and you have a really punchy breakfast lunch or dinner.  My bowl here came with good broth and very tasty pork balls, also good were the grilled chicken legs sold on a cart accross the street.  Next was dinner in a fairly random restaurant that a Tut Tut driver took us to by mistake. It is on the same road as the university but a lot closer to the centre of town.  The food was pretty good, but the hot and sour Tom Yum soup was an absolute standout and worth the visit.  This is one of my favourite Thai dishes and this bowl packed a fantastic ammount of flavour as well as being full of seafood, with great balance between the lime and lemongrass and a good chilli kick that didn't become overpowering.  100% Isaan was also good - especially the Som Tam and grilled pork, it is directly opposite the university.

Finally I really should mention the cookery school.  I was worried this might be a bit dull, but the market trip alone made it worth it.  Our teacher was very funny and the cooking was good fun and although very easy gave you a good feeling for the flavours and ingredients of Thai cooking.  Most importantly my food was delicious (I would of course say that).  One thing to note, almost no Thai person will think you can eat spicy food and will always look at you as if you are some kind of deluded lamb to the slaughter if you insist on heat.  You should however, insist, especially as the food up North is not particularly hot - it's a really important element to a lot of the food and essential to the balance of most dishes.

So Chang Mai is a good place to eat, although obviously also completely full of sub-standard tourist fare - thankfully this was largely avoided, although there was something strangely tempting about Mike's chilli fries, probably the beer beforehand.  I'll leave this article with a picture of a brilliant fried, battered radish dish I had in Chinatown, a really good mixture of soft and crispy with nice spikes of saltiness.

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