To my surprise, it was actually a bit of a struggle to find khao soi in Chiang Rai. This bowl is from Phor Jai, apparently one of the more famous khao soi joints in town, but I found it mediocre; the broth was quite bland and I’m not a big fan of this particular type of deep-fried noodle topping. The pickled veggies were good though, and some might like the fact that user-friendly diced chicken breast was used, rather than the typical chicken leg.
Khao Soi Phor Jai
Th Jet Yot, Chiang Rai
Mae Salong is a remote hilltop community of Chinese immigrants in Chiang Rai province. The majority of people who live here are the descendants of KMT fighters who, after the communist victory in 1949, fled to Burma and then Thailand. Despite having been away from China for so long, their culture is still very strong, and you’ll hear the Yunanese dialect of Chinese spoken much more than Thai (those who can speak Thai tend to do it with a funny Chinese accent). It goes without saying then that Chinese food, in particular dishes from Yunnan province, are also big here.
One of the best places to sample local food is at the morning market. It’s a tiny affair and starts early; it’s best to get there before 7am.
Beakfast at Mae Salong’s morning market means two things: soy milk and deep-fried fingers of dough (pictured at the top of this post). Unlike virtually every Thai person, I’m usually not a fan of this combo, but they were done so well here I had the same breakfast two days in a row. The paa thong kho (the Thai name for the deep-fried dough) were crispy without being oily, and the soy milk was thick and rich.
Other than shoppers, you’ll find the daily parade of monks at the market:
and members of the various local hill tribes:
Another breakfast option, if you’re a late riser, is a bowl of the town’s excellent egg and wheat noodles:
They’re topped with a mixture of thin slices of boiled pork, a homemade chili paste and deep-fried garlic. The dish is very popular and is available at several shops around town. This bowl was taken at a shop on the main stip called ‘Yunanist Noodle Shop’.
Despite the amazing diversity of food in this country, much of the street food in Thailand is actually quite homogeneous; the same brand of bamee (wheat and egg noodles), Chai Sii, can be found in just about any town or city; central Thai dishes such as phat thai or phat sii iw are prepared at the farthest extremities of the country; and it’s become the exception rather than the norm to find regional dishes at night markets. Luckily, when I was recently in Mae Sai, Thailand’s northernmost town, I encountered the exception in khao soi noi, a Shan dish that, according to the incredibly detailed information on the cart (I didn’t manage to read all of it), has its origins in neighbouring Chiang Saen district. Although the name might suggest the famous northern curry noodle dish, it’s entirely different, and is probably more similar to bánh cuốn, the Vietnamese freshly-steamed noodle.
The first step involves spreading a dab of rice flour batter on a small tin, which is then steamed so it solidifies in a thin layer. When this was done, the vendor then handed me the warm tin and asked me to add whatever seasonings I liked. With her help, I think I managed to add just about her entire arsenal: ground sesame, ground peanuts, lime juice, garlic oil, soy sauce, MSG, three kinds of chili paste and dried chili powder. She took my custom mixture, added a bit more rice flour batter, mixed the entire mess once more and topped it with an egg:
A pinch of vegetables (thinly-sliced cabbage and fresh chilies) was sprinkled on top before putting the tray back in the steam. It’s worth pointing out that rather than somehow elevating it over steam as one would normally do, she simply let the dish float on rapidly boiling water:
It took about four minutes to steam each dish, and as seen above, her ‘steamer’ can only hold one dish at a time. This meant some very slow going, which I mentioned to her. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you have to be patient to eat this dish!’
Eventually my khao soi noi was deemed ready and was served by folding it over on itself and topping it with a bit more of the cabbage mixture:
The result was something like a spicy Burmese pancake–eaten with chopsticks. I quite enjoyed it, particularly because I was aware that it was only in this particular town that I could eat this dish.
Khao Soi Noi
Street vendor, Th Phahonyothin, Mae Sai, Chiang Rai
While in Mae Sai I decided to sneak over the border for breakfast in Burma. Specifically, I was looking forward to eating a bowl of mohinga, the thick fish broth and rice noodle dish that’s often considered the unofficial national dish of that country. After a morning of wandering, I eventually found my mohinga, but not before running into several other interesting things.
My search began in the town’s hectic morning market:
I love fresh markets in Burma because they typically take place directly on the streets. The market just across the border in Mae Sai was in a dark, smelly building; better for protection from the rain, but far less photogenic and user friendly. Here virtually everything was stacked in neat piles on banana leaves out in the open.
After some wandering, I eventually found my mohinga, prepared at the stall shown at the top of this post. Although it may not look that attractive, it was good:
as it always is; Mohinga, like a hamburger (in my opinion, at least), is almost always good–never amazing and rarely bad.
It was getting later at this point, perfect time for a visit to another Burmese food fave of mine: a teashop. My first stop was at a Muslim teashop where I downed a glass of chai and two delicious slices of semolina cake:
My next tea stop was the popular, slightly more cosmopolitan Valentine:
where I had two more glasses and some greasy samosas:
Samosas, on the other hand, can often be pretty bad.
At this point I was feeling no little pride in the fact that I had successfully ordered the mohinga and all my teas in Burmese (essentially reaching the extent of my Burmese language skills). I was also reminded of the way the Burmese call the wait staff in restaurants: by making an annoying kissing sound.
On my way back to Thailand I came across yet another group of monks:
proving that, issues of food aside, things are pretty much the same on either side of the border.
This may look like just another bowl of beef khao soi, but they do things a bit differently at Khao Soi Islam, in Mae Sai. Rather than the typical yellow wheat and egg noodles, this version, which they call pa pa soi, employed thick noodles made from brown rice. The noodles were short and coarse, and had the texture and appearance of boiled taro, which is initially what I thought they were. Another interesting thing about this restaurant was that the owners, Thai Muslims of Chinese extraction, and staff communicated in a seemingly flawless mixture of Chinese, central Thai, northern Thai and Burmese.
Khao Soi Islam
140 Th Phahonyothin, Mae Sai, Chiang Rai
053 733 026
I didn’t manage to find a whole lot of regional Thai food in the tiny riverfront town of Chiang Saen. Even the town’s night market had the tired ‘franchise’ vendors selling the same dishes you’ll find just about everywhere in Thailand nowadays. However the fact that cargo boats from Jinghong, in Yunnan province, dock at Chiang Saen meant that there were a couple interesting Chinese options. In particular, I had a great breakfast at Ah Ying, a family-run noodle joint located across the street from the Mekong River. I was pretty sure I was getting authentic Chinese-style noodles here because a) the entire family was speaking Chinese and b) the noodles were hand-pulled.
My order of a bowl of noodles got the two Chinese guys into action, grabbing a ball of dough and pulling, twisting and whacking it into shape:
Less than two minutes later the thin strands were dunked into boiling water, and were served with a light broth, a handful of greens, and very un-Thai topping of minced pork and pickled mustard cabbage that was equal parts spicy and sour. It alone was reason enough to go dine in Chiang Saen.
778/1 Th Rimkhong, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai
089 655 3468
If you’ll allow me to backtrack a bit, I forgot to mention that I did eventually find a decent version of khao soi in Chiang Rai. Sold at the side of the street under two gigantic trees, Somkhuan Khao Soi does a pretty good bowl, his broth having the smokey flavour of chako, a dried spice that some vendors use in their curry paste mixture. Khanom jeen nam ngiaw is also available.
Khao Soi Somkhuan
Th Singha Khlai
If you can read Thai, and spend enough time in northern Thailand, eventually you’ll start to see the word luu on restaurant signs just about everywhere. I had a vague notion of this northern dish, knew it was something blood-related, and noticed that it always seemed to be found to be at restaurants that serve the famous northern-style laap. But other than this, I had never seen or sampled it. Recently in Phrae, I was able to get a crash course in luu.
It is indeed a blood dish, raw blood being the primary ingredient. The owner of the shop that was recommended to me explained that the blood must be purchased very fresh. It tends to coagulate somewhat nonetheless, he told me, so he still has to run it through a blender when he gets back home. He then adds eggs (raw) and lemongrass leaves (not the stalks, just the leaves; he made this very clear). He then kneads this mixture together by hand for about 20 minutes, before pouring it through a cloth strainer and storing the strained blood on ice. I forgot to ask why eggs were added, but I suspect the lemongrass leaves play some role in preventing the blood from coagulating.
To prepare the dish, a ladleful of the blood is poured into a bowl and mixed with a chili paste (that contains, among other things, makhwaen, the dried spice that’s ubiquitous in northern Thailand), some chopped cilantro, and a pinch of salt and MSG:
As shown at the top of this post, the blood mixture is served with a mixture of crispy fried noodles, deep-fried kaffir lime leaves, deep-fried sections of large intestine (‘Very difficult to prepare,’ explained the owner. ‘They have to be washed very well, then boiled, then deep-fried. It takes a long time.’), deep-fried pork rinds and a bit of the liquid from a jar of pickled garlic. To eat it, the blood is poured over the noodle mixture (he said that some people prefer bits of boiled or raw pork fat in place of the noodles), and mixed thoroughly:
I sampled a bit of it, and honestly, it was quite tasty. This guy has created an amazing homemade chili paste, and it was this flavour that came through most clearly. The texture was crunchy, mostly due to the deep-fried intestines and pork rinds. The colour, a brilliant, deep red, was for me the most disturbing part. I was alone in my tasting though; ‘I’ve been making this dish for 22 years,’ the owner told me, ‘and I’ve never eaten it. I don’t like to eat raw things.’ I asked how he could make it without tasting. ‘Experience,’ he replied.
Other dishes served at his restaurant included, and I’m not making this up, grilled cow teats (‘Very good, better than other kinds of beef’) and aep orn muu, banana leaf packets of grilled pork brains.
Welcome to northern Thailand.
Andy Ricker, owner of Pok Pok, the lauded Portland, Oregon…Asian? restaurant (just don’t call Thai–listen to find out why), was recently interviewed on NPR’s The Splendid Table. Episode available here.
I really like his approach to making this kind of food, and the dishes sound fantastic. Just wish I could eat there… In the interview Andy mentions northern Thai-style laap and mustard leaves, both pictured above.
Located almost exactly halfway between Chiang Saen and Sop Ruak (‘The Golden Triangle’), Jinda’s Kitchen claims to have been making northern-style dishes for 50 years. They have a small menu of only about six or eight items, one of which was, of course, khao soi. Her version was decent, a little on the bland side, I must admit, but her khanom jeen nam ngiaw (unfortunately I ate it before I remember to take a pic) was fantastic, probably among the best I’ve consumed. Either way, it’s worth a stop, as there’s little in the way of good food, particularly that of the local variety, in this corner of Chiang Rai.
086 654 3116
Rte 1290 (near Km 31)