A Chiang Mai food tour is the number one thing to do in Chiang Mai for culinary travellers visiting Northern Thailand’s ancient Lanna capital. It’s no surprise. Chiang Mai is a fantastic destination for foodies with great eating in Chiang Mai restaurants, markets and on the streets.
Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand has long been one of our favourite food destinations with terrific eating on the streets, in the markets and in Chiang Mai’s restaurants. A Chiang Mai food tour offers the possibility of even better eating under the guidance of an expert local guide and an insight into the local culinary culture.
On our recent trip we tested out a Chiang Mai food tour with the little sister of Bangkok Food Tours, which we’ve been fans of since the company started in 2011 by three young Thais foodies who returned to Thailand after studying overseas, called Chiang Mai Food Tours.
Having missed Thai cuisine terribly, the trio realised they were more passionate about food than the fields they’d left their country to study, so they returned home and set up a food tour business in Bangkok, the first of its kind at the time.
We sampled their Bangrak food tour not long after they began running it and were impressed with their insight, knowledge and passion for the culinary heritage and people behind the food as much as the dishes themselves. Here’s our review of their Chiang Mai food tour.
Chiang Mai Food Tour – Footpath Feasting in the Old Lanna Capital
It’s not hard to eat well in Chiang Mai but a Chiang Mai food tour offers the possibility of eating even better with an introduction to the food scene by local experts and the chance to take advantage of their local knowledge.
Chiang Mai is the old Lanna Kingdom capital and it’s one of Thailand’s great eating destinations and one of our favourites. Barely a week goes by without Terence making the quintessentially Northern Thai pork belly curry, gaeng hang lay moo or creamy coconut-based khao soi noodle soup.
Like most Thai cities, wet markets are scattered around the Chiang Mai, traditional family eateries are tucked beneath neighbourhood homes, food stalls and mobile carts set up on footpaths and laneways, restaurants and cafés are secreted down side streets, and night markets pop-up at dusk.
If anything, because of the abundance of options, deciding where to eat in Chiang Mai can be overwhelming, especially for first-timers, and people who are a little (cough, cough) obsessive about eating well. Which is why a Chiang Mai food tour makes sense.
Our first point of call in any city – even a city we know well but haven’t eaten our way through in a while – is always local chefs and cooks. After that, we consult hotel staff, although for them the question will be not “where should we eat?” but “where do you like to eat?”
Unlike chefs and cooks who will immediately suggest their favourite spots, hotel staff have been trained to send you to the safe options, which usually aren’t the best choices for tasting authentic local food.
One reason we like doing food tours is not only because we get a chance to pick the guide’s brain about what’s great/new in town, we also get insights into the culinary culture of a place that we wouldn’t necessarily get from interviewing a chef.
Because guides tend to be food-lovers rather than chefs, they’re much more likely to talk about how something is eaten (rather than how it’s cooked), how they eat at home, what they ate growing up as kids, what their mother or grandmother cooks, how eating habits have changed, the role of food in local rituals, holidays, celebrations, and religious festivals, and so on.
That’s one reason why we will always use local guides rather than expats – unless of course the expat is married to a local and that brings an altogether different sort of insight, and an ability to offer comparisons with ‘home’.
On our Chiang Mai food tour, we were not only lucky to have two local guides, but one was a chef. Aoy, the owner and cooking instructor of Love Chiang Mai Cooking School, was a new recruit and was being trained by Rain, an experienced culinary tour guide, a passionate foodie and a former penguin carer at Chiang Mai Zoo.
Our Chiang Mai food tour began at busy Somphet Market, off Moonmuang Road, in the northeast corner of Chiang Mai’s old walled town, where we met Rain and Aoy. This is where most Chiang Mai cooking classes commence with a market visit – partly because of the convenient location near the guesthouse area and partly because of the wide variety of Thai ingredients that are available there.
Before leaving, Rain pointed out Ab Moo, opposite the market. If you’ve travelled in Thailand, you’ll know that Thais love to eat and appear to eat continuously throughout the day. Soon after they finish breakfast or lunch they’re at a stall like Ab Moo picking up snacks to enjoy in between meals.
Ab Moo is loved by locals for its takeaway snacks wrapped in banana leaves, such as naem, which is fermented pork sausage and egg in banana leaf – one of my all-time favourite Chiang Mai snacks. The stall also sells other fermented dips, relishes and pickled fruits.
The next stop on our Chiang Mai food tour was going to take us off the beaten track. We left the market area and crossed the moat that surrounds the old city and entered a residential neighbourhood that while close to the centre felt far removed from the hustle and bustle of the tourist centre.
In a narrow winding lane we almost stumbled into a beautiful old Buddhist chedi in the backyard of a home. The chedi is conical shaped tower that holds the ashes of deceased, generally monks or affluent or powerful citizen. Chiang Mai’s back streets are full of such surprises.
“As you know, there is no one Thai cuisine,” Aoy told us as we strolled. “The cuisines of Thailand, like the cuisines of China, are different region by region. In Bangkok and central Thailand the food is milder and sweeter. In southern Thailand and the northeast, it is very spicy and hot. The food of the north, from Lanna, is something in between.”
Born in Chiang Mai, Aoy quickly demonstrated a solid knowledge when it came to Thai cuisine. Holding degrees in sociology and anthropology from Chiang Mai University and qualifications in culinary arts, cooking Thai food, and Thai desserts from Chiang Mai Polytechnic College, Aoy worked at the Baan Hong Nual Cookery School before opening her own school.
“The food of Chiang Mai is very rich and very spicy, but it is not fiery,” Aoy explained as we arrived at a modest wood and corrugated iron shop cum local eatery. “Chiang Mai dishes show influences from its neighbours, Myanmar, Southern China, and Laos, but at the same time Lanna cuisine is unique.”
The next stop on our Chiang Mai food tour involved sausages, my most favourite food variety after noodles and dumplings. At Aunty Pen’s sausage shop there was a long line of locals waiting to buy Chiang Mai’s famous sai oua, aromatic pork sausages. We could smell the herbaceous aromas on our approach.
After greeting each of the family members, Rain took us to the top of the rickety wooden stairs from where we could see down into the basement where long rolls of Chiang Mai’s beloved sausage (also called Laotian sausage) were being smoked and grilled in a round drum.
Aunty Pen told us that she wakes up at 4am each day to go to the market to buy the pork intestines, which she cleans before combining freshly minced pork, chilli, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, salt, and kaffir lime leaves, which she stuffs into the sausage casings. They’re smoked for about an hour.
Everyday Aunty Pen, with the help of her family, makes 70 kilos of sausages and everyday they sell 70 kilos. As it was a holiday the day we visited, the family had made 200 kilos. They would sell out by midday.
Rain bought a plate of sai oua for us to try, along with a plate of pig brains with egg and Thai herbs that had been wrapped in banana leaf and grilled, and krong moo tod, crispy pork ribs. Each plate costs less than 60 Baht (US$2) and it all tasted absolutely wonderful.
Most food-loving visitors to Chiang Mai are familiar with the quintessential Lanna dish, a bowl of rich creamy coconut noodles called khao soi, which is closely related to the similar dish from Myanmar, ohn no khao swè, but very different to the Lao khao soi, which has more of a ragu Bolognese style sauce.
Ask a local for a recommendation for the best place to try khao soi and you’ll get a different tip every time and each person will swear their favourite spot is the best. Before we joined Rain and Aoy we’d already been working our way through the Chiang Mai’s best khao soi places for a week but we weren’t convinced we’d sampled the very best yet.
Rain and Aoy promised we were about to try Chiang Mai’s best khao soi and were taking us to the stall they guaranteed was the local favourite, Khao Soi Khun Yai or ‘grandmother’s khao soi’.
We hopped into a red songtheaw, a closed-in utility truck that’s open in the back, so passengers can easily climb in and out of the vehicle. A ride costs just 25 Baht (just under US$1) around the centre of Chiang Mai and they can be easily hailed from the street. In a city where taxis are relatively expensive compared to Bangkok, this makes them the most popular form of transport with locals, expats and also tourists.
After a fifteen-minute drive, we arrived at the noodle shop, a covered open-sided stall with about a dozen packed tables in the corner of a car park. It seemed an odd place for a soup stall – even for Thailand. We grabbed the last table.
“Grandmother is 70 now, so she’s too old to work in the shop, but she still makes the ingredients and the coconut curry broth for the dish at home and her daughter and grandkids assemble it here,” Rain explained before going to the counter to order.
Like Aunty Pen’s shop, Grandmother’s noodle joint is open from just 10am-2pm each day and every day the family sells out of their celebrated noodle soups by 2pm, sometimes earlier.
Terence and I have long been khao soi lovers and this year we became smitten with its Myanmar relation after spending a month there. We know what we love about the dish, but I had to ask Rain and Aoy what they thought makes a great khao soi and what makes grandma’s khao soi so special.
“The most important thing for khao soi is the coconut broth” Aoy explained. “It shouldn’t be too spicy – you can add your own chilli as you like – but the broth needs to be just right: not too thin, and not too thick.”
“It’s also important to have a medium serve of noodles. There can’t be too many,” added Rain, “And the chicken must be cooked on the bone and be flavourful and succulent.”
Like most Thai dishes, it’s about achieving the right balance in the bowl. Was it the best? If it wasn’t it was a close contender.
“Aroi!” I said, after savouring a sublime spoon full of spicy coconut milk.
“Lum!” Aoy corrected me. “’Aroi’ is Thai, but ‘lum’ means ‘delicious’ in our Lanna dialect.” It’s not only the food that is different in the north.
After the khao soi, our Chiang Mai food tour included four more tastings – a Lanna lunch at an off the beaten track restaurant in a charming teak house, traditional Lanna desserts at a famous sweet shop, homemade young coconut ice-cream by a beloved Old Town vendor, and afternoon tea – not that we needed it!
Booking a Chiang Mai Food Tour
We tested out Chiang Mai Food Tours’ Taste of the North and Old Town Walk, on which participants get to try at least 10 dishes at six locations on the four-hour tour, which runs from 10am-2pm and finishes with afternoon tea. The tour costs 1050 Baht (US$30) for adults and 850 Baht (US$23) for children, which includes all tastings. On the ambles in between eating, the guides pointed out temples, pagodas and Old Town sights.
When we did this Chiang Mai food tour it was the first and only food tour in Chiang Mai. Now there are numerous tours on offer. We’ll be testing out more Chiang Mai food tours on our next trip and will provide a full guide to all the culinary experiences in Chiang Mai that you can do. Watch this space!