Northern Thailand specialties you have to taste in the old Lanna capital of Chiang Mai range from khao soi gai, the spicy Northern Thai curry noodle soup, and gaeng hang lay moo, a Northern Thai pork curry of Burmese origin to the fiery nam priks (relishes) and herbaceous and sour sausages.
Northern Thailand specialties have been on my mind these last days, as I’ve been doing final edits on the new street food e-book we’re about to publish, and have had to drool over Terence’s mouth-watering images of Southeast Asian street food every day.
Travel and food writers can be a bit crazy at times, I guess, and with Mercury in retrograde right now, like many people with whom I’ve come into contact this week, I’m a bit crazier than usual. How else would you explain a writer, who already has intense Northern Thai cuisine cravings, torturing herself further by writing a guide to Northern Thailand specialties? Terence would call it a hint!
Tasting the cuisine of Northern Thailand, best known as Lanna cuisine or Lanna food as the area was part of the old Lanna kingdom and Chiang Mai was the Lanna capital, is as good a reason to head the region as gawking at gleaming pagodas and historic temples, I reckon.
That love for Northern Thai food is in evidence each time we travel to Bangkok. The first thing Terence does is make a beeline for the nearest place he can find to buy some Chiang Mai sausage, nam prik num, sticky rice, and pork crackling. What more does a woman want in a husband?
So let’s get started. But, first, if you want to learn more about Northern Thailand’s Lanna food and what sets it apart from the cuisines of Northeastern Thailand’s Isaan region, Central Thailand, and Southern Thailand, read the introduction to this post on where to eat in Chiang Mai for the best Northern Thai Lanna cuisine. That’s also where you’ll find the addresses for the restaurants and eateries mentioned below.
And if you’re in Chiang Mai or heading there soon, we highly recommend a Chiang Mai food tour (see the end of this post for suggestions). If you’re still organising your travel, see our guide to where to stay in Chiang Mai and our 48 hours in Chiang Mai itinerary for foodies.
Northern Thailand Specialties – Lanna Dishes You Must Try in Chiang Mai
As usual this is by no means a comprehensive list, these are simply our picks of the Northern Thailand specialties we think you should sample in Chiang Mai.
Khao Soi Gai – Northern Thai Curry Noodle Soup
Most food lovers making a beeline from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to sample Northern Thailand specialties have khao soi gai at the top of their mind. The one-bowl meal of egg noodles in a delightfully oily, spicy, coconut cream-based stock is typically served with a leg or thigh of bone-in chicken, hence the ‘gai’, which is Thai for chicken. It’s topped with more crunchy noodles and garnished with coriander and shallots, with lime and pickled mustard greens on the side. A lunchtime favourite across Chiang Mai, we slurped some of the best khao soi gai in Chiang Mai that we’ve sampled on a Chiang Mai street food tour at Khao Soi Khun Yai (Grandma’s Khao Soi; Sripoom Road, near Sripoom Soi 8), near Wat Khuan Khama and Wat Rajmontean pagodas. We also adored the aromatic bowls at Khao Soi Islam (22-24 Soi 1 Charoenprathet Road, Changklan), a breezy Thai Muslim eatery not far from the Warowat Market and Night Bazaar. Other popular Chiang Mai khao soi destinations include Khao Soi Wulai (Wulai Road, Chiang Mai Old City), Chiang Mai Khao Soi Jay Me (Soi 13, Charoen Prathet Road) and Khao Soi Prince (79 Moo 9, Ban Thung Min Noi), a legendary khao soi spot although it’s sadly rumoured to have now closed (we’re investigating and will update you very soon). If you prefer to savour your khao soi with a cold beer or glass of wine, Dash Teak House, which does a very creamy, complex rendition of this classic Northern Thailand dish. If you’re keen to make the dish when you get back home, try Terence’s khao soi recipe.
Gaeng Hang Lay Moo – Northern Thai Pork Curry
After khao soi gai, one of the most-ordered Northern Thailand specialties must be gaeng hang lay moo, a rich, hearty, and complex Northern Thai pork curry. While gaeng hang lay moo is another dish that you will spot on menus everywhere from Bangkok to Phuket, its origin in Thailand is Chiang Mai – yet in Chiang Mai you’ll often see it translated into English as ‘Burmese Pork Curry’. One theory suggests it arrived with Indian traders by way of Myanmar, and the inclusion of dried spices such as cumin seeds and coriander seeds seems to confirm that. Like many Thai curries that are time-consuming to prepare, gaeng hang lay moo was traditionally reserved for special occasions, although these days you’ll see it everywhere from market stalls to restaurants. Huen Jai Yong delivered the richest and most fragrant gaeng hang lay moo we’ve eaten in Chiang Mai, while Dash Teak House’s was a close second, with melt-in-your-mouth fall-off-the-bone pork. You’ll also find perfectly delicious renditions at Huen Phen and Tong Tem Toh too. Note that this is a heavy curry, best eaten for dinner, and only at lunch if you don’t intend to do much afterwards – and if you get back home and are keen to make it, try Terence’s take on Ian Kittichai’s gaeng hang lay recipe.
Larb Muang Moo – Northern-Style Chopped Pork Salad
Larb is thought to have originated in Laos, and if you’re a fan of Thai food (or Laotian food) and have spent any length of time in Thailan, then you’d be familiar with larb moo – and note that larb is also written as ‘larp’ and ‘laap’, and simply refers to a chopped or minced salad, and ‘moo’ means pork. That minced pork salad is generally light, aromatic and a little tart, from the generous use of coriander, mint and lime juice. Chilli gives it some kick and ground toasted rice provides texture. A Chiang Mai-style chopped pork salad is another pick of the Northern Thailand specialties but an altogether different dish. Larb muang moo is a chopped pork salad made from coarsely chopped pork and pork offal, pork blood, and toasted dried spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, mace, black pepper, and long peppers. It’s much darker than the larb moo you’d be familiar with, and is richer and earthier. That’s it on the left side of the tray in the image above. We had the best rendition we’ve ever tried at Ruen Come In, a welcoming family-run Chiang Mai hotel in a grand, traditional wooden Thai house. Off the radar for most farang, the restaurant is incredibly popular with local Thais, and to show us why, the matriarch of the family cooked us an extraordinary Lanna feast. The highlight was the larb muang moo, which was served with crispy raw greens, fragrant fresh herbs and sweet tomatoes from the owners’ organic farm. Even if you’re not staying, it’s worth a visit for the food alone. We don’t have a larb muang moo recipe on the site, yet, however, we’ll look for one that’s close.
Sai Oua – Smoked Chiang Mai Pork Sausage
Who doesn’t love a good homemade sausage? While I’m completely smitten with the rustic, herbaceous forest sausages in Cambodia, I’m obsessed with the smoked Chiang Mai pork sausage called sai oua, which is a highlight of the Northern Thailand specialties for us. Whereas the Cambodian forest sausages feature a lot of foraged leaves and wild herbs which give it an earthiness, the Chiang Mai sausage sai oua is more aromatic thanks to the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and coriander, and smoky, as it’s cooked in a smoker fuelled by coconut wood. We’ve sampled sai oua (which, incidentally, just means stuffed intestines) in countless Chiang Mai restaurants, as well as bought from markets and supermarkets, but by far the most delicious sai oua we’ve savoured were at At Aunty Pen’s sausage shop, which we visited on a Chiang Mai food tour. Aunty Pen wakes every day at 4am to go to the market to buy some pork intestines, which she cleans before filling the pork skins with freshly minced pork, chilli, galangal, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, salt, and kaffir lime leaves, and smoking each one for an hour in a big, blackened metal drum in the shop’s basement. She makes 70 kilos of sai oua everyday and everyday she’ll sell 70 kilos – unless it’s a holiday and she makes 200 kilos, all of which she’ll sell of course. You can buy a long coil to take away or she’ll chop a coil into pieces and you can eat it right there in her smoke-filled shop. We also ate fantastic sai oua at Huen Phen.
Naem – Northern Thai Fermented Sour Pork Sausage
The wonderful naem or sour fermented pork sausage is one of our favourite Northern Thailand specialties, which we also have here in Cambodia. Naem – also called ‘nem’ and ‘jin som’ in the local dialect – is now found all over Thailand, but originated in the predominantly pork eating regions of Northern and Northeastern Thailand, as a way of using all the bits that were leftover after a pig had been slaughtered and good cuts of meat set aside for grilling and stir-frying, and for soups and curries. The porky bits, along with pork skin and pork fat, would be salted and fermented with rice (traditionally sticky rice but increasingly plain rice) for a few days. Chilli and garlic are later added for flavouring. Traditionally wrapped or rolled up in banana leaves, these days you’ll also spot naem in the market in plastic. Served in raw slices or grilled on a charcoal brazier in banana leaves, which gives it a smoky flavour, it’s absolutely delicious. While it can be added to an array of dishes, from fried rice and soups to stir-fries, we recommend you try it as a stand-alone dish, when it usually comes with fried peanuts, ginger and chillies. This is a must-order at Huen Phen. Or at Tong Tem Toh, where it’s served as part of a Northern Thailand hors d’oeuvre platter with sai oua, a couple of nam priks, some cabbage to scoop it up with, steamed greens, and pork crackling. (Also called pork scratchings by some, pork crackling is essentially fried or roasted pork skin or pork rind.)
Nam Prik Num – Chiang Mai Chilli Relish
A nam prik – also spelt nahm prik and nam phrik – is a spicy, salty, piquant, and/or pungent Thai condiment that’s best described as a relish, dip or even jam. It can be raw or cooked. A nam prik is never eaten on its own, but rather it’s served as an accompaniment to a dish or as a central component on a platter that might also include raw or boiled vegetables for dipping into the nam prik, maybe some pork crackling (kep moo), some sour sausage, perhaps some pickles, and sometimes some leaves of cabbage or lettuce, and fresh herb such as coriander. Traditionally, a nam prik was eaten with plain rice or fermented rice noodles. A nam prik is sometimes called a sauce but most don’t have the liquid or semi-liquid consistency that can be poured, unless they’re watered down. There is an infinite array of these relishes in Thailand, as there is in Cambodia, but they nearly always include chilli, fermented fish (pla raa) or shrimp paste (gapi), and a souring agent such as fresh tamarind pulp or lime juice, garlic and palm sugar, because a nam prik should have that balance of heat, saltiness, sourness, and sweetness that the Thais love to achieve. Of all the many relishes pounded in mortars and pestles around Thailand, the Chiang Mai chilli relish, nam prik num is one of our favourites and one of the great Northern Thailand specialties. Made with roasted long green chillies, garlic, spring onions, shallots, and coriander, it can be incredibly fiery. It’s perfectly delicious eaten with sticky rice, pork crackling and Chiang Mai sausage. There’s also a wonderfully fiery nam prik num on the platter at Tong Tem Toh. Do try our nam prik num recipe.
Nam Prik Ong – Chiang Mai Chilli, Pork and Tomato Relish
Nam prik ong (top right in the image, above) is another of our favourite Northern Thailand specialties and it’s often served alongside nam prik num, with similar accompaniments to those I described above. Made with long dried red chillies, tomato, minced pork, shallots, garlic, and fermented soy beans or shrimp paste, it has a rich consistency similar to a ragu Bolognese. In fact, it’s also made in a similar way, in that the chilli tomato paste is done separately and then the fatty minced pork is added and combined. While raw vegetables can be dipped into the nam prik num, some Thais swear the nam prik ong should only be eaten with boiled vegetables, such as snake beans and cabbage, however, we ate a heavenly nam prik ong at both Huen Muan Jai and Huen Phen, where it’s served with crunchy vegetable crudités and crispy pork crackling. We also have a recipe for nam prik ong on the site.
A reminder: you’ll find the addresses to the restaurants and eateries mentioned above in this post on where to eat in Chiang Mai.
Do you have any favourite Northern Thailand specialties? We’d love to hear what they are and where you like to eat them in Chiang Mai or below? Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments, below.