A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.


Monthly Archives: February 2013



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Khao soi, egg noodles in a curry-like broth, is generally considered a northern Thai dish. But in recent years, I’d begun to think of it as more of a Chiang Mai dish. Although the stuff is available just about everywhere in northern Thailand, there are only a handful of restaurants outside of the city that, at least in my opinion, live up to what khao soi is supposed to be (if you’re curious, they are Khao Soi Lam Duan Fah Ham, Khao Soi Prince and Khao Soi Islam), and most bowls I encounter are generally pretty bland and boring.

Despite this, when up north, I’ll still try just about any khao soi that crosses my path. And in Mae Hong Son, where I thought I’d already been to every vendor, this willingness led me to the bowls served at Chom Mai.

The restaurant’s beef khao soi (pictured above) boasts a strong and distinct spice profile, one that seemed to emphasise warm and slightly ‘sweet’ spices such as cinnamon, clove and perhaps even anise. The broth was also rich and meaty, something that’s often lacking in many bowls of khao soi. The chicken version — the better khao soi vendors make two separate broths — was entirely different, and was mild and slightly sweet, with very little dried spice flavour. In fact, I’d venture to say that the chicken version was almost tomato soup-like, which frankly, may not be too far off the mark, as Thai Yai/Shan cooks in Mae Hong Son tend to put tomato (or sometimes even ketchup) in just about everything. Both bowls came served with the spicy, almost kimchi-like Shan style pickled greens and smooth noodles, and were some of the some of the most interesting and distinctive versions of the dish that I’ve encountered in a long time.

Chom Mai also do an excellent and slightly unusual khao mok kai (called ‘khaw mok kai’ on the menu), chicken biryani:

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Also seemingly emulating local tastes, the dish as served here was exceedingly turmericy; the rice was bright yellow from the root, and both the rice and chicken were garnished with a splash of an oily, turmeric-heavy broth. This was countered by a refreshing ajaat (a sweet/sour cucumber relish) and a spicy/tart dipping sauce, and the dish was served with a tasty (and graciously turmeric-free) broth.

And to top it off, Chom Mai also serves what are easily the best coffee drinks in Mae Hong Son, although some of their nomenclature is slightly off: what they call a cappuccino is probably closer to what Australians would call a flat white.

So perhaps I was wrong, and khao soi is, after all, a northern dish. Or maybe it’s the case that Chiang Mai now has a serious khao soi rival?

Chom Mai is located about 4km outside of Mae Hong Son, just after turn off to Tha Pong Daeng — look for Doi Chaang coffee sign.

Chom Mai Restaurant
Ban Mai Ngae, Mae Hong Son
053 684 033
8.30am-3.30pm


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Pai’s Wednesday Market

Posted at 9am on 2/4/13 | read on
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Like many areas in rural northern Thailand, Mae Hong Son province hosts a mobile market that sets up shop in a different town once a week. I happened to be in Pai when the market came into town (it’s held in Mae Hong Son city on Sundays, and in Soppong on Tuesdays), and on a very cold Wednesday morning, stopped by.

It’s a low-key affair that brings together a handful of vendors selling an almost exclusively local selection of produce: think disks of dried soybeans, freshly-ground turmeric, black sesame seeds, mustard greens. There’s some bizarre stuff imported from Myanmar — herbal remedies, suspicious-looking tinned curries and ancient-looking sweets — and several prepared food vendors. The latter make it a good breakfast option, particularly if you’re in Pai, and it’s possible to get a hot bowl of khao sen (thin rice noodles served with a pork and tomato broth), crispy deep-fried triangles of chickpea flour (pictured above) or Shan/Thai Yai-style sweets.

Click the button in the corner for full-screen mode and captions.

Pai’s Wednesday Market
Behind police station, Pai
7-10am


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My day job is writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet. I enjoy what I do, but writing about holiday destinations can, at times, feel a bit frivolous. It can also be rather frustrating.

Specifically, if you’re as interested in local food as I am, slogging through the eating selections of Thailand’s more popular tourist destinations can be a pretty discouraging experience. Pai, in Mae Hong Son, northern Thailand, is a good example of this. Despite being located in a province that’s home to a very unique and delicious cuisine, the restaurants in town serve very few local dishes, instead proffering a bland melange meant to appeal to food-wary western backpackers and urban middle class Thais alike. In doing research for the current edition of Lonely Planet Thailand, I subjected myself to bad burgers, poor pastries, sub-par Vietnamese, heavy-handed (and overpriced) southern Thai and bland central Thai, among other things. I eventually found a couple local places serving local dishes, but the bulk of Pai’s food had little or nothing to do with Mae Hong Son or northern Thailand.

In the end, the only genuinely recommendable restaurant that stood out in my mind was Larp Khom Huay Poo, a place just outside town serving excellent northern-style laap and other largely meaty, local dishes. At the time, I was fully aware that it’s not the type of place that is going to appeal to everybody (offal and blood feature in just about every dish, and there’s no English-language menu). But partially out of frustration, and partially out of a desire to encourage people to try local food (not to mention the fact that it’s a very good restaurant), I decided to give it top billing in my writeup, sticking it with an ‘Our Choice’ icon and describing it as “…the best meal in Pai.”

Fast-forward a year and I’m back in Pai, investigating new places, but really I’m just waiting for the chance to eat at Larp Khom Huay Poo. Two days and several mediocre meals later (why must all meals in Pai come served with ‘French fried’?), I can’t stand it any longer and decide to go to the restaurant. Upon arriving, I am struck by a new sign, gloriously illuminated (with glowing Coke logo) and sporting Roman script. Inside, the dining room has been upgraded and re-arranged, leaving it much more open and approachable than previously. And perhaps most conspicuously, there is a large, English-language menu posted on the wall. I can’t imagine that the descriptions, derived from heavy-handed transliterations such as ‘yang room’ (actually yaang ruam: mixed grilled meat) and ‘rince’ (pork rinds), would be of too much help for foreign diners, but at least there are pictures to fall back on.

Reassuringly, I was greeted by the same friendly owner, who recognised me from my many previous visits, but I remained a bit bewildered by and sceptical of the changes. Could I have gentrified or perhaps even spoiled a good restaurant by recommending it? While I was thinking about this, a young, backpackery, European couple arrived. “We read about this place in the Lonely Planet,” they informed us. I was suddenly face to face with the cumulative effect of what I’d done: foreign tourists were actually, literally eating at this local laap shack because of my recommendation, and this appears to have had a significant impact on the restaurant.

I was beginning to reconsider my original intentions, but any fears I held vanished as soon as dinner arrived. For me at least, Larp Khom Huay Poo continues to serve what are the archetypal versions of the northern-style laap and kaeng om (both pictured at the top of this post). The former is rich, fragrant and spicy, and the latter is meaty, herbal, thick and warming. Coupled with sticky rice, pork rinds, bitter greens and a bottle of Singha, it was easily one of the most delicious and satisfying meals I’ve ever eaten.

Before leaving, I asked the owner if she’d noticed more foreign diners over the last year. She said that she had — “every day” — and that she’d noticed many of them carrying the same book. I told her that I was the one who wrote the listing, and asked if she was comfortable with being included. “Of course,” she glowed, “I like foreign customers, they’re much easier to deal with than Thais,” referring to visitors from Chiang Mai and Bangkok, who according to her, sometimes sent back food that they weren’t familiar with. She explained that business had been good, and that she’d used the profits to improve the restaurant. She was obviously happy with the situation, and asked if I had any suggestions for her. I thought for a second, and requested that she not change her dishes to suit foreign diners; reducing the chili heat a bit was OK, I offered, but I urged her not to compromise her recipes or ingredients.

Her friend — incidentally, the man who’d translated the menu into English — thanked me for supporting the restaurant, and generously paid for my meal, and I left Larp Khom Huay Poo feeling honoured, satisfied, and perhaps most importantly, distinctly un-frivolous.

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I was driving along a rural road outside of Pai when I encountered the above sign. It says, “The Most Delicious Laap in the World, 1km.”

Obviously I had to investigate.

Upon arriving, I realised that the claim wasn’t just a ballsy boast; it appears to be the actual functioning name of the restaurant.

I ordered laap muu suk, northern-style cooked pork laap. It was a solid laap:

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garlic-heavy, lots of dried spice flavour, and slightly ‘wet’. But the best in the whole, entire world?

Nah. Not even the best laap in Pai.

But the restaurant is located in an attractive setting:

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And it serves the mostly meaty repertoire you’d expect at northern Thai-style laap restaurant: grilled pork, kaeng om and steamed beef with a galangal dip.

The Most Delicious Laap in the World
Wiang Nuea, Pai
10am-10pm


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Khao som

Posted at 3am on 2/14/13 | read on
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Khao som means ‘sour rice’, and is a snack beloved by the Shan people, particularly by those living in Myanmar’s Shan State. There, the dish is made from rice that has mixed with turmeric (and sometimes potatoes), kneaded into thin disks, drizzled with fried garlic and garlic oil, and served with a side of crunchy, pungent leek roots:

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In Mae Hong Son, home to a significant Shan population, the dish takes a slightly different form. There, the rice is mixed with tomatoes and tamarind and/or turmeric, and is shaped into balls or small disks. It’s typically served with a type of salad made from green beans, young jackfruit or both, garnished with deep-fried crispy garlic and dried chilies fried in oil, and drizzled with garlic oil. Regardless of where it’s made, khao som is generally not as sour as the name suggests, and instead emphasises savoury, garlicky and earthy flavours.

I’d been taught how to make khao som on a previous visit to Mae Hong Son, but until this trip, I’d never really noticed much of it for sale. My favourite version was probably that available at the covered area next to the Jao Phor Khor Meu Lek shrine in central Mae Hong Son city:

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An elderly vendor here sells the yellow, turmeric-heavy version, and the balls of rice come with a dollop of bean salad, a sprig of cilantro and half a disk of grilled thua nao, a condiment made from fermented and dried soybeans. It’s a tasty one-dish meal that set me back a total of 15B (about US$0.50).

Khao Som Vendor
San Jao Phor Khor Meu Lek, Th Singhanat Bamrung, Mae Hong Son
8-11am Mon-Fri


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Another good version of khao som can be found at the tiny lakeside market that pops up during Mae Hong Son’s tourist season, from approximately November to January. Most of the food for sale at this market isn’t that great, but during these months, Paa Add, one of my favourite vendors, sells a small variety of local dishes, including a good version of khao som:

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Tomato heavy and almost meaty, her version of the dish has a lot of savoury flavour, and depending on what day you come by, it will be accompanied by green beans, tiny young fava beans (my personal favourite) or jackfruit.

Paa Add
Th Pradit Chong Kham, Mae Hong Son
4-8pm November-January


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If you find yourself in Mae Sariang, in southern Mae Hong Son province, on a Sunday afternoon, you can get khao som at the tiny town’s Kaat Tit (Sunday Market):

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A vendor here sells a version that appears to include both tomato and turmeric. The dish is drizzled with lots of garlicky oil, and unusually, the accompanying salad includes both green beans and jackfruit. The same vendor also sells the dish at the town’s morning market (pictured at the top of this post).

Kaat Tit (Mae Sariang’s Sunday Market)
Th Wiang Mai, Mae Sariang
4-9pm Sunday

Mae Sariang’s Morning Market
6-9am


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Khao som is also available at Mae Hong Son’s rotating market and at Pai’s afternoon market.

Muu Thup/หมูทุบ

Posted at 10am on 2/18/13 | read on
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Muu Thup isn’t exactly the name of this restaurant, located in Mae Sariang, southern Mae Hong Son. In fact, it doesn’t really have a name, nor a sign. Instead, locals know the place by its most noteworthy dish. Tup means to hit, and refers to a technique in which tough cuts of meat are grilled then tenderised via the vigorous thwacking of a mallet. It’s a dish I first encountered in Vientiane, Laos, then later in Chiang Mai. I’ve come across a few similar places since then, but Muu Thup stands out in my mind as the epitome of this style of northern Thai restaurant: rustic, meaty, smokey and almost exclusively frequented by men. It also stands out because the food is very, very good.

Most diners come for the eponymous muu thup, the pork version of the dish, but the restaurant also does beef and buffalo:

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I had the latter, which was smokey, meaty and pleasantly dry and stringy, and came served with a really delicious salty/spicy/garlicky dip (shown at the top of this post). Deceptively simple and utterly delicious.

Just about everything else on the brief, wall-mounted menu is grilled:

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Including aep muu, banana leaf packets of minced pork (including one version that uses pork brains) and herbs:

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A dish that’s equal parts meaty and herbal:

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not unlike like the restaurant’s sai ua, the famous northern Thai sausage:

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which has a similar, albeit fattier, combination of pork and herbs:

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The least interesting dish of the meal was the one thing that wasn’t grilled. The laap muu suk, cooked pork laap:

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rather blandly emphasised blood and offal over the usual dried spice mixture, although I was pretty happy with the generous topping of deep-fried pork crackling.

Dishes that are as simple as they are delicious, yet also so rare outside of northern Thailand; I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting meal for my last one in Mae Hong Son.

Muu Thup
Th Wiang Mai, Mae Sariang
8am-7pm


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A while back, I blogged about the stalls and restaurants serving kuaytiaw khua kai, wide rice noodles fried with chicken and egg, near Bangkok’s Phlapphlachai five-way intersection. I mentioned three places in that post, but was aware at the time that there were a few more vendors selling the dish. In particular, I’d noticed one vendor selling kuaytiaw khua pet, a previously unknown variant using duck.

Eventually I made it back, and after a few visits, this version of the dish might now be my favourite.

The dish is sold at the head of the narrow and nameless alley that leads to Nay Hong (my former favourite):

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Kuaytiaw khua kai is undeniably a noodle dish, but in this part of town it’s prepared a lot like a pancake: after cooking the noodles on one side (in lard, over coals, of course), with a minimum of stirring or mixing, the vendor flips the entire thing over in one go:

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allowing the other side to cook, again, without stirring or breaking it up. The result is a crispy, fatty, salty and smokey disk of noodles and egg. For the duck version, the meat is cooked in advance by frying it in lard; it’s then prepared the same way as the chicken version, except that crunchy preserved squid — thankfully, if you ask me — doesn’t feature. (Andy Ricker has fantasised about a decadent duck version using duck fat and duck eggs — keep your eyes peeled at Pok Pok Phat Thai.)

Adjacent is a stall that does pretty good fruit shakes; I recommend the watermelon.

Kuaytiaw Khua Pet
Off Th Yukhon 2, Bangkok
5-10pm Sat-Thurs


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