Khanom jeen, thin round rice noodles, are among Thailand’s most regional dishes. You could easily pinpoint where you are in Thailand simply by looking at the khanom jeen on offer. In the south, this would most likely be a spicy, coconut-milk curry served with a huge platter of fresh herbs and some semi-pickled fruit or vegetables; in Bangkok, khanom jeen are sold with a variety of mild, herbal, typically fish-based curries and sides of shredded herbs and vegetables; and in northeastern Thailand, the noodles are pounded with shredded papaya in tam sua, a local take on the ubiquitous papaya salad.
Northern Thais love their khanom jeen as well, and for more than 30 years, one place folks in Chiang Mai have been getting their noodles is Talat San Paa Khoy, a market just east of the Ping River.
During the day, Talat San Paa Khoy is your typical busy fresh market. Come evening, after all the vendors have left, the stalls are wiped down, covered in oilcloth and are converted to clunky dining tables:
The stall does five dishes: kaeng phet (red curry) with pork or beef, green curry with chicken, nam ngiaw and nam yaa kathi, a mild coconut milk-based curry with chicken:
I’ve tasted all of them, and they range from good to great. The two kaeng phets are mild, and the meat is supplemented with thumb-sized chunks of tender eggplant. The green curry, which I ate served over rice, is surprisingly spicy. The naam yaa is rich and mild. My favourite was probably the nam ngiaw (pictured above), the northern khanom jeen fave, which here is rich and smokey, and arrives studded with pork ribs and just-cooked cherry tomatoes that burst when you eat them.
Khanom Jeen San Paa Khoy
Thanon Kong Say, Chiang Mai
View Thai Eats in a larger map
If you’ve ever been curious about what’s involved in shooting the images for a cookbook, here are some inside tips gathered from my recent experience — after all, I’m pretty sure this is how everybody else does it:
1. Find a friend who runs a successful restaurant and who also believes that you have the skills to photograph his cookbook.
2. Set up an impromptu open-air studio an antique house in a beautiful corner of rural northern Thailand (pictured above).
3. Attempt to shoot all the photos exclusively in natural light.
4. Realise, only after several days of wasting everybody’s time, that during the height of Thailand’s rainy season, natural light is a fleeting, inconsistent concept.
5. Hire a photographer’s assistant who has a proper studio lighting rig.
6. Learn the basics of studio photography in a matter of days.
7. Wonder at the marvel that is artificial, consistent, controllable light.
8. Quickly begin to feel more like a director than a photographer.
9. Wish for the opportunity to re-direct all of the previously-shot dishes.
10. Wonder, What just happened?
I took the long way back from Chiang Mai, making a lengthy diversion into northeastern Thailand (more on that to follow). Along the way, I passed through Utaradit, one of northern Thailand’s smaller and more obscure provinces. I’d been told that the local dish there is something called mee phan (หม่ีพัน), ‘wrapped noodles’, and proceeded to investigate. Pulling into Lap Lae, a sleepy town about 15km outside of the provincial capital, I asked where one could find mee phan and was told to talk to Paa Waang.
Paa Waang, pictured above, claims to have invented the dish more than 20 years ago. It starts with sen mee, thin rice noodles that have been seasoned with fish sauce, dried chili and lime, and supplemented with pork rinds and a few slices of par-boiled long bean:
The mixture is then rolled up in a rather stiff sheet of rice paper:
“Wait a while and it gets soft,” Paa Waang explained. She added that the seasoned noodle dish existed previously, but it was her idea to wrap it in rice paper, making the dish easy to take to the field or to work.
Eating them in car a couple hours later, I wondered if Paa Wang knew that she’d also created pretty much the perfect road trip food.
Th Rat Uthit, Lap Lae, Utaradit
View Thai Eats in a larger map
In addition to the previously-mentioned book shoot, I’d also been commissioned to do some photos of kai yaang, Thai-style grilled chicken, for a US food mag. So rather than return directly to Bangkok from Chiang Mai, I took the long route and stopped by two of Thailand’s most famous destinations for the dish: Khao Suan Kwang and Wichianburi, both in Thailand’s northeast.
Khao Suan Kwang is a tiny town in Khon Kaen, located about 40km outside of the provincial capital. The streets (well, street) of the town are literally lined with vendors selling grilled chicken — I was told that there were as many as 130, and this could very well be true. The chickens — a specific breed that’s small with relatively little meat but fatty, flavourful skin — are splayed in a specific way on long bamboo frames — feet and head and all (shown at the top of this post) — and are slowly grilled on a thick metal grill over an enamel basin of coals.
At the busier restaurants, the chickens are grilled in stages over coals of varying heat, and I was told that grilling a chicken can take as long as 4o minutes. Another unique local aspect is that upon serving, Khao Suan Kwang-style grilled chicken is dusted with white pepper; one of the more famous restaurants uses coarsely ground peppercorns. I tried the wares of two vendors here (as the chickens are only sold whole here, this means I ate nearly two entire chickens), and the flavours ranged from meaty and almost baconlike to slightly herbal.
Probably equally as famous is the grilled chicken from Wichianburi, a rural district in Phetchabun.
This style of grilled chicken is sold from the roadside all over Thailand and can be identified by its specific cooking method, which sees the chicken splayed on a small, triangle-shaped bamboo frame that elevates the chicken at an angle over slightly flaming coals. If you eat the dish in Wichianburi, a specific breed of chicken is used. The local marinade — and indeed the dipping sauce – is generally slightly sweet, and the unique cooking method also produced a smokier chicken, something I really enjoyed.
I’d post stronger images, but I’m not sure which ones the magazine will choose; I’ll be sure to let you know when it comes out in print.
View Thai Eats in a larger map
I’ve blogged about this sweet — a type of Chinese/Thai peanut brittle — a couple times previously. But it is such a tasty and unusual dish, not to mention one that’s made via such a fascinating process, that I wanted to share it again.
You can find khanom tup tap — the name is an onomatopoeia and refers to the sound that results during a particular stage of the cooking process — during Bangkok’s annual vegetarian festival, in September/October. For 10 days, a handful of vendors make the dish in the narrow alleyway in Bangkok’s Talat Noi neighbourhood.
The first step in making khanom tup tap is to assemble a simple syrup:
To do this, white cane sugar and water are combined in a hot wok over coals.
When the syrup has reached the right consistency, whole roasted peanuts are added. The mixture is quickly removed from the coals, spread on a tray and allowed to cool:
Now comes the fun part; using mallets, two men whack the mixture (the origin of the eponymous tup tap), pounding it until flat before folding the mixture onto itself and continuing with another round of thwacking:
This is repeated about six times and combines the peanuts and syrup in a way that results in thin, almost pastry-like stratifications.
Still warm, the peanut mixture is pulled and stretched out into a long, relatively thin wrapper, which is filled with ground peanuts and rolled. The resulting tube is then cut into short sections:
The final product is sweet, crispy and rich, and has more than a little bit in common with the American candy bar Butterfinger: