A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.

Monthly Archives: March 2013

Bismillah Halal Food

Posted at 4pm on 3/3/13 | read on
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I’m up north again, this time doing the footwork for Lonely Planet’s Thailand guide.

Often in the course of doing this type of work, people ask me if I ever choose not to reveal some of my favourite places. The answer to that is a pretty straightforward no. On a practical level, if I didn’t include places I like, I’d have a pretty hard time reaching my word counts (not to mention updating this blog). And anyways, I like sharing good things with people — both for people’s enjoyment, and for the benefit of the people doing the good things.

With this in mind, why would I not share Bismillah Halal food, a Muslim restaurant in the northern Thai city of Mae Sai?

After all, the biryani at Bismillah is excellent. “It’s Pakistani style,” said the friendly owner, as she brought the plate to my table. “Thai biryani is just yellow; this one has lots of spices,” she added, as she nearly jammed her finger in my plate of rice, pointing out cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves. And right she was: unlike most Thai-style biryani, which often seem to be flavoured only with turmeric, this version had relatively little of the dried orange root, but compensated with the aforementioned spices, not to mention carrots and peas.

The rice was coupled with beef curry; mild and meaty, it reminded me of the version of the dish one gets in Myanmar — not surprising that Bismillah is a five-minute walk from the Burmese border. The owner asked if I could eat spicy, and before I could reply, she had given me a tiny bowl of balachaung, a spicy, crunchy mixture of dried chili, fish and peanuts that is served with just about every meal in Myanmar. The biryani also came with homemade pickles and a light broth that was flavoured with the type earthy of dried spices one encounters in Chinese-Muslim cooking.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I noticed that the restaurant had a tandoor oven:


So naturally I had the very Burmese-Muslim breakfast of freshly-baked nan served with a slightly sweet dip made from pigeon peas:


Why would I keep this to myself? It’s going in the book (and here).

Bismillah Halal Food
Soi 4, Th Phahonyothin, Mae Sai

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When push comes to shove, northern Thai is probably my favourite regional Thai cuisine. Unfortunately, it’s also probably Thailand’s most elusive regional cuisine, and even up north, it can be hard to eat local food. There are quite a few restaurants selling laap and other similarly meaty dishes, but if you want the various dips, soups, salads and other northern Thai specialities, generally the only option is rather gentrified tourist restaurants, or if you’re lucky enough to have your own dishes and silverware, to-go bags from the local evening market.

That’s why I was so happy to come across Lung Phu and Paa Kaew, two adjacent roadside stalls in the northern Thai city of Mae Sai.

Lung Phu prepares more than dozen dishes, all of them northern, all with flavours that are closer to home cooking than restaurant food, and best of all, there’s seating.


I suspect Lung Phu is famous for his laap plaa, fish laap, because I and virtually every other diner had ordered a plate of it. The fish — grilled catfish, I think — is minced finely, and the dish looks more like a dip than a laap, but it’s tasty: meaty and with lots of dried spice flavour. I also had a tart, crunchy salad made from paper-thin slices of nor som, sour bamboo, and nam phrik num, fresh green chilies that, along with shallots and garlic, have been roasted and pounded into a stringy, spicy dip (the latter pictured at the top of this post).

Next door, Paa Kaew does northern-style grilled meats — pork teats (!), intestines, banana leaf packages of meat and herbs, and other similar good stuff — as well as a variety of northern-style nam phrik, chili-based dips:


Together, they represent virtually the entire spectrum of northern Thai food in one convenient location — at least if you’re in Mae Sai.

Lung Phu & Paa Kaew
Th Phahonyothin (across from Th Mueangdang), Mae Sai, Chiang Rai

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Nan is a charming town in northern Thailand that, it must be said, has one of the least charming eating scenes in the region.

There are a couple famous northern-style laap places, and the take away food at the evening market looks tasty, but all the restaurants I’ve eaten at over the years serve some pretty abysmal food. (And it isn’t just me: Nan natives have also confided in me that their city’s restaurants suck.)

Luckily, the situation has changed somewhat with the arrival of Nan’s weekly street market.

Just about every provincial capital in northern Thailand is holding a “walking street” market these days. Chiang Mai’s is the biggest, but similar markets can be found in Lampang, Pai, Chiang Rai and Nan. Having been to all of these, I’d say that I like Nan’s most of all. There’s a distinct emphasis on food, and market had at least six vendors selling a pretty interesting spread of local dishes:



There were even a couple vendors selling unusual local sweets:


But best of all, those who organise the market have cleverly set up a table with stacks of bowls, dishes and silverware. Simply grab a dish, take it to the vendor, who will fill it for you, then sit down to eat it at one of the northern-style tables shown at the top of the post.

I opted for the vendor at the southernmost end the of the market, and ended up with one of the best meals I’ve had on this trip. There was yam phak heuat, a slightly tart northern-style salad made from the tender leaves (phak heuat; ผักเฮือด) of a tree one only encounters up north; it doesn’t look that sexy, but this is one of my favourite northern dishes, and this vendor did a really excellent version. There was also nam phrik khua, a deliciously savoury/spicy dip made from garlic, shallots and dried chili:


So assuming you’re in town on a Saturday, don’t waste your time with restaurants; the Saturday market has finally provided Nan with an interesting, perhaps even charming, place to eat.

Nan’s Saturday market
Th Sumon Thewarat, Nan
Saturday, 6-10pm

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Dog curry in Baan Bor Luang

Posted at 11am on 3/13/13 | read on
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Baan Bor Luang, a tiny village in the far eastern part of Nan province, is about as remote as it gets in today’s Thailand. But for hundreds of years it was an important stop on the route of caravan traders in northern Southeast Asia for one reason: salt.

The village (also known as Ban Bor Kleua: Salt Well Village) is home to wells that emit salty water, an immensely valuable commodity in the days when the mineral was only available from the sea — more than 600km from Nan as the crow flies.

The tradition of salt gathering in Baan Bor Luang continues to this day, although the salt is used for local consumption or sold to tourists. As I’ve blogged previously, a handful of aged gatherers still collect the salt in the traditional way. They also still cling to the belief that a spirit oversees their wells, providing them with salt year after year. To appease the thep, or angels, who serve the spirit, once a year they hold a ceremony. The ceremony is known as Buang Suang Jao Luang Bor (บวงสรวงเจ้าหลวงบ่อ), and is said to date back at least 800 years.

The ceremony spans three days, and to avoid disturbing the spirits during this important period, the village’s main street is closed:


On the morning of the first day, a black dog is sacrificed for the thep. Why black? “It’s the thep’s favourite kind of dog to eat,” I was told by a villager. Every other year a pig is also sacrificed, and on every third year, a buffalo.

I happened to be in Baan Bor Luang on a pig year. Early in the morning of the first day of the ceremony, a dog and a pig were killed with spear-like knives that are said to date back several hundred years.

The animals were broken down:


and used in two dishes. The pork skin and entrails were boiled:


and combined with raw blood and meat in a northern-style laap.

The dog meat was stewed with lots of herbs and spices (“To cover up the strong smell of dog meat,” I was told):


in a thick curry called kaeng khua maa (แกงคั่วหมา):


I didn’t get a chance to try to the laap, but the dog curry was actually pretty good: assertively spicy and herbal, with lots of the dried spice flavour that is also present in northern-style laap.

The bulk of theses dishes, as well as the head and feet of the pig, were given as offerings to the thep (shown at the top of this post). The food that was left over was eaten by the older salt gatherers, then later, by the villagers.

Afterward, at a shrine dedicated to the spirit:


a spirit medium channelled the thep, and while in this state, and between bouts of drinking, smoking and napping, was given offerings (Fanta and other brands of pop seemed to be popular choices) and asked for advice:


Afterwards, the medium placed a small bunch of flowers behind each person’s ear:


reminding me of scenes depicted in the 150 year-old murals at Wat Phumin, about 140km away:


While the spirit channelling was going on, a group of local students had arrived and were asking questions about the ceremony. One particularly precocious girl asked a man why he was beating a drum during the trance. “It’s tradition,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“But why beat a drum?” she asked again, pursuing some detail.

“You have to understand,” said the man, beginning to express his frustration. “It’s tradition,” he repeated, without any additional explanation.

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Despite its location in a narrow river valley between some of Thailand’s most breathtaking tea plantations and a remote stretch of the Burmese border, Baan Thoet Thai, in Chiang Rai, doesn’t look like much at first. The surrounding mountains have been mercilessly deforested, and the town clings to a dusty, scruffy strip of road where people drive too fast and where there seem to be more karaoke bars than restaurants. But it does have an interesting history: in its previous life as Baan Hin Taek (Broken Stone Village), Baan Thoet Thai was, during the late ’70s and early ’80s, a hideout for Khun Sa, the notorious Shan narco-warlord once dubbed the ‘Opium King’. Get off the main strip and you’ll also find one of Thailand’s most diversely populated small towns. The bulk of the village’s inhabitants appear to be Shan, but there are also many Chinese, the descendants of KMT fighters who originally fled communist takeover in 1949. There are also quite a few Akha, and the area is thought to be home to the first settlement of this group in Thailand. Other groups living in the area include Lahu, Hmong, Tai Lue, Lua and Liso.

This diversity is most apparent at the village’s morning market, where these groups converge to buy and sell ingredients and dishes unique to their cuisines, bizarre goods imported from Myanmar, fruit trucked in from China, and edibles scrounged from the surrounding forests. It’s really one of the more unique markets in Thailand.

For some images of Baan Thoet Thai’s morning market, hit the play button above; click the button in the corner for full-screen mode and captions.

Baan Thoet Thai’s Morning Market
Baan Thoet Thai, Chiang Rai

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Lampang, in northern Thailand, is home to chaam traa kai (ชามตราไก่), Thailand’s emblematic ‘chicken bowls’:


so perhaps it’s not surprising that I encountered some good noodle dishes there. Actually, exceptional is more accurate; I’d say that each of the below is among the best version of the dish I’ve encountered just about anywhere in the country.

The noodle I keep on my radar when up north is khao soi, the dish of wheat-and-egg noodles in a curry broth.


and with the help of food-based pamphlet printed by Lampang’s tourism board (ของกินถูกใจ: Food You’ll Like), I was pointed in the direction of Omar.

At a glance, the bowls here — served with smooth, pale noodles and a garnish of coconut cream — call to mind the Muslim version of the dish. Indeed, Omar is located in a neighbourhood with a mosque and several Muslim restaurants. But there’s pork on the menu, and a taste reveals that the khao soi here is much meatier than your typically mild Muslim version. I ordered the beef, which is easily among the richest and meatiest bowls of khao soi I’ve ever eaten. There’s very little dried spice flavour, but a teaspoon of phrik phao, the condiment of chili flakes fried in oil, made up for this.

Also noteworthy was the way the dish was made. Rather than combine the curry paste, meat and coconut milk in a single broth as many shops do, the cook here started out with a thick, almost stew-like broth of beef and curry paste. To order, scoops of the beefy/spicy stew liquid and a much lighter chicken broth were combined in a bowl, and the lot was garnished with a ladleful of coconut cream. Despite the potential for things to go wrong, the elements blended perfectly, making what must be one of the tastiest bowls of khao soi in the north.

Khao Soi Omar/ข้าวซอยโอมา
Th Suksawat, Lampang

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One doesn’t have to look particularly hard to find khanom jeen nam ngiaw, fresh rice noodles topped with a pork and tomato mixture, as the dish is available just about everywhere in northern Thailand. But it’s rare to find a version that’s this exceptional.


I think it’s fair to say that the nam ngiaw served at Paa Bun Sri is so smokey they should consider calling it a grilled dish. This is a relic of the days when chilies — in this case those employed in the dish’s curry paste — were dried via the smoke from a hearth. This assertive smokiness was just barely countered by the tartness of tomatoes, and smoothed out by a couple chunks of rib and several cubes of blood. An intriguing bowl of noodles with a lot of delicious, disparate things going on.

Paa Bun Sri/ป้าบุญศรี
Th Talad Gao, Lampang

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Phat Thai is a dish that I rarely, if ever, seek out. In general, I tend to find it a bit gloopy and heavy, and up north, as mentioned previously, they do a few things — namely adding pork — that would arguably make the dish even heavier. But somehow, it works.

A standard order of phat Thai at Yay Fong, a street stall near Wat Suan Dok, arrives wrapped in a thin omelet. Inside, you’ll find a tangle of rice noodles that, in addition to the usual phat Thai ingredients — tofu, salted radish, dried shrimp, garlic chives — includes minced pork and pork rinds.  To counter this, the seasoning was just slightly sweet with a bit of tamarind sourness. The dish had a slightly smoky flavour (it was fried in a small wok rather than on the flat round surface that many vendors use) and came served with garlic chives and sprouts and, unusually, a couple leaves of lettuce.


It’s a meaty, moreish (I ate two dishes) phat Thai that’s definitely worth seeking out.

Phat Thai Yay Fong/ผัดไทยยายฟอง
Th Boonyawat, Lampang

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