Mae Hae passed away eight years ago, but luckily for us, one of her daughters has carried on serving her mother’s northern Thai recipes.
“My mother was a famous cook here in Lampang,” explains the current owner. “This restaurant’s been open for 60 years!”
Indeed, the antique shophouse structure and old-school dining room, with its ceiling fans, aged furniture and blaring TV, appears to have changed little in this time. The restaurant’s customer base doesn’t appear to have skewed much either, and on the day I stopped by, the median age looked to be about 50 (in Southeast Asia, this is generally an indicator of good food).
Mae Hae serves a spread of approximately 20 local-style soups, dips, curries and stir-fries:
The restaurant’s sai ua (ไส้อ่ัว), an herb-packed northern-style pork sausage, is allegedly a local celebrity, and is lean and meaty, with a hint of Sichuan pepper. I ordered this, as well as tam khanun (ตําขนุน), a dish of young jackfruit pounded with herbs, and jor phak kaat (จอผักกาด), a northern Thai soup staple of mustard greens.
In addition to the feeling that you’re eating them in Mae Hae’s living room, the dishes seemed to be united in their rich and slightly tart flavours.
1017 Th Upparaj, Lampang
054 221 904
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In the remote corners of northern Thailand, typically near the Myanmar border, are several villages that are more Chinese than Thai. Tea plantations, pine trees, steep hills and Chinese architecture make up the landscape of these places, which are also predominately populated by ethnic Chinese.
These villages, such as Mae Salong, in Chiang Rai, began to appear in northern Thailand in the early 1960s. From the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Thailand guidebook:
Home Away From Home
Mae Salong was originally settled by the 93rd Regiment of the Kuomintang (KMT), who had fled to Myanmar from China after the 1949 Chinese revolution. The renegades were forced to leave Myanmar in 1961 when the Yangon government decided it wouldn’t allow the KMT to remain legally in northern Myanmar. Crossing into northern Thailand with their pony caravans, the ex-soldiers and their families settled into mountain villages and re-created a society like the one they’d left behind in Yunnan.
After the Thai government granted the KMT refugee status in the 1960s, efforts were made to incorporate the Yunnanese KMT and their families into the Thai nation. Until the late 1980s they didn’t have much success. Many ex-KMT persisted in involving themselves in the Golden Triangle opium trade in a three-way partnership with opium warlord Khun Sa and the Shan United Army (SUA). Because of the rough, mountainous terrain and lack of sealed roads, the outside world was rather cut off from the goings-on in Mae Salong, so the Yunnanese were able to ignore attempts by the Thai authorities to suppress opium activity and tame the region.
Infamous Khun Sa made his home in nearby Ban Hin Taek (now Ban Thoet Thai) until the early 1980s when he was finally routed by the Thai military. Khun Sa’s retreat to Myanmar seemed to signal a change in local attitudes and the Thai government finally began making progress in its pacification of Mae Salong and the surrounding area.
In a further effort to separate the area from its old image as an opium fiefdom, the Thai government officially changed the name of the village from Mae Salong to Santikhiri (Hill of Peace). Until the 1980s packhorses were used to move goods up the mountain to Mae Salong, but today the 36km road from Pasang is paved and well travelled. But despite the advances in infrastructure, the town is unlike any other in Thailand. The Yunnanese dialect of Chinese still remains the lingua franca, residents tend to watch Chinese, rather than Thai, TV, and you’ll find more Chinese than Thai food.
In an attempt to quash opium activity, and the more recent threat of yaa baa (methamphetamine) trafficking, the Thai government has created crop-substitution programs to encourage hill tribes to cultivate tea, coffee, corn and fruit trees.
Not surprisingly, along with culture, language and agriculture, the Chinese also brought their cuisine. The various dishes available at Thailand’s KMT villages are often described by Thais as Yunnanese, but I suspect that they probably have origins in a variety of regional Chinese cuisines. In general, wheat plays a big role, and features in staples such as steamed buns and noodles; dried spices, including Sichuan pepper, are common; pickled vegetables and other preserved foods from the colder regions of China make appearances; and there are also some palpable Muslim influences. And best of all, these unique dishes are available in restaurants in the various towns.
A few places to sample KMT-style Chinese food in northern Thailand include:
Gee Lee, in the remote outpost of Ban Rak Thai (Love Thailand Village, formerly known as Mae Or), and dating back to the 1970s, is quite possibly the oldest restaurant in Thailand serving this type of food. The restaurant has a short menu of Thai KMT village staples, including black chicken stewed with Chinese spices (ไก่ดําตุ๋นยาจีน), stir-fried vegetables (done the Chinese way, with a pinch of salt, a dash of soy sauce, a smashed clove of garlic and lots of flame), an unusual stuffed omelet, and perhaps best of all, muu phan pii (หมูพันปี), ‘thousand year-old pork’, thin slices of braised pork belly surrounding a slightly sweet mound of minced pickled vegetables, and served with mantou, steamed buns:
Gee Lee Restaurant
Mae Or (Ban Rak Thai), Mae Hong Son
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Located a couple kilometres from Pai, Ban Santichon (Peace Village, yet another hyper-patriotic, Thai-imposed name) is arguably Thailand’s most touristy-feeling KMT village. Several restaurants in the area do OK versions of the staple KMT dishes, as well as good bowls of noodles. At the largest of these, a no-name open-air shack, the noodles are hand-pulled, and come topped with a unique mixture of minced pork, par-boiled greens and ground peanuts and toasted sesame:
Ban Santichon, Mae Hong Son
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The steep hills surrounding Mae Salong, in Chiang Rai, are home to Thailand’s premier tea plantations:
so perhaps it’s not a surprise that the leaves feature in the local cuisine.
Fresh tea leaf salad is available at all of the restaurants mentioned here, but typically it’s served with sweet, tomatoey tinned mackerel. Before ordering the dish for the first time at Salema, I asked the eponymous owner if she used the stuff, and her face turned into a disgusted frown. “The taste is too strong,” she said, and explained that she prefers the more neutral tinned tuna. She’s right, and the result is the best version of the dish I’ve encountered: tart and nutty, with a subtle hint of dried spice that I wasn’t able to identify (cumin?):
Salema also does an excellent beef curry, simple but tasty fried noodles, and a mild khao soi.
Mae Salong, Chiang Rai
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Another ingredient found in nearly every former KMT village is muu naam khaang (หมูน้ำค้าง), ‘dewdrop pork’, so called because after being seasoned, the strips of pork belly are left to dry overnight:
At Seu Hai, the pork is sliced thinly and fried with sliced green chili (pictured at the top of this post); it’s a salty, spicy oily dish that’s one of my favourite things to eat.
The restaurant also does a tasty salad of stringy-but-rich dried and deep-fried beef, good flash-fried vegetables, and hearty noodle dishes.
Mae Salong, Chiang Rai
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Restaurant Ting Ting/ร้านอาหารถิงถิง
An all-around solid restaurant, Ting Ting, in Ban Thoet Thai, does good versions of nearly all of the dishes listed above. In particular, they serve delicious kun chiang, the Chinese-style sausage that’s sold in the morning markets of nearly all former KMT settlements:
Ting Ting’s version, made in house, is spiced with just a bit of chili and Sichuan pepper. The sausage is simply sliced thinly and fried until crispy, and is served with rice.
Ting Ting also do a great muu phan pii and a warming soup of black chicken and Chinese spices.
Restaurant Ting Ting
Ban Thoet Thai, Chiang Rai
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Perhaps because of their relative isolation, the residents of northern Thailand’s various Chinese communities have been able to lead distinctly Chinese lives for several decades now. This remoteness has also meant that they’ve had to become rather self-sufficient. Even today, the Chinese residents of towns such as Ban Rak Thai and Mae Salong continue to produce their own air-dried ham, sausages, pickled vegetables, noodles, tea and tofu — the same staples their parents and grandparents would have made back in Yunnan.
Ban Thoet Thai, in Chiang Rai, although not exclusively Chinese, is yet another example of this.
Walking past the house above, I noticed blocks of tofu being dried in the sun:
Investigating inside, I discovered a virtual tofu factory:
Although they spoke very little Thai, the folks were kind enough to humour my camera and my questions, and I got to witness the entire process of making tofu, from beginning to end — something I hadn’t seen previously.
It began by grinding re-hydrated soy beans, adding water to facilitate the process:
The thick mush was combined with a bit of hot water, and the mixture was strained through a suspended cheesecloth via some pretty vigorous spinning and shaking (the leftover solids were used for pig feed):
The liquid was poured into large, wok-like vats and simmered for about an hour:
After the liquid had thickened slightly and a skin had formed, it was taken from the vats:
and immediately combined with a coagulant. After about 15 minutes, curds started to form:
The chunky mixture was then poured into permeable plastic sacks that were rolled to combine the solids and extract water:
After manually removing as much water as possible, the bags were formed into rectangles and pressed with heavy wood blocks and the additional force of a car jack:
After about an hour, the bags were removed from the press and set aside:
And after another couple hours of additional draining, the finished tofu was removed from the bags and cut into cubes:
In China, the tofu would probably be finished at this point, but to provide it with a bit more shelf life in Thailand’s hot and humid climate, the cubes were dried in the sun for a day before being sold.
I was sceptical, but in my opinion, justifiably so; khao soi, the northern-style dish of wheat noodles in a curry broth, should not be served with shrimp or fish:
I was also sceptical about the khao soi I ultimately ordered — the more traditional chicken version — as it arrived with chunks of boneless chicken meat rather than the standard drumstick.
But all this before I actually tasted it. The khao soi at Khao Soi Phor Jai, in Chiang Rai, may inspire scepticism in those familiar with the more traditional versions of the dish, but it turned out to be rather delicious: mild, pleasantly rich and oily, and surprisingly meaty.
It’s also practical. The curry broth here is essentially a combination of three things: a thin, watery broth; meat in a thick, oily curry paste; and coconut cream. These three ingredients are kept separately and are only combined to order. When asked why it was done this way, the vendor explained thusly: “Other vendors combine the curry and coconut milk in advance. If they don’t sell it all, they have to throw it away. This way I can use the curry paste later if I don’t sell it all.”
I didn’t ask her why she chose to sell khao soi with shrimp, but suspect the answer would be equally practical.
If you can’t get past the oddities of the khao soi here, they also do a short menu of northern Thai standards, including sai ua (ไส้อ่ัว):
the herb-and-pork sausage, served here, Bangkok-style, with thin slices of ginger and sprigs of coriander.
naem (แหนม), tart fermented pork, here wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled over coals:
and nam phrik num (น้ำพริกหนุ่ม):
Fresh, green chilies that, along with garlic and shallots, have been grilled then pounded to a spicy, stringy paste.
Khao Soi Phor Jai
Th Jetyod, Chiang Rai
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In addition to being a previous and future outlet for my photos and text, Saveur is hands-down my favourite food magazine. So it was with some pleasure that I learned that this blog has been chosen as a finalist for the magazine’s annual Best Food Blog Awards. I’m a finalist in the Best Culinary Travel Blog category, the registration process is simple and ends on April 19, so go here and vote now!
I heard the sibilant shrieks of a pig from the opposite hillside and knew that they could only mean one thing: a festival was under way.
You see, the height of Southeast Asia’s dry season is a particularly auspicious time for Tai people. In Myanmar’s Shan State, it’s a time for Buddhist ordinations and weddings, all of which involve feasts, and thus, animal slaughter.
The doomed pig was heard in Wan Loi, a rather traditional Tai Khoen village just outside Kengtung (also known as Kyaing Tong and Chiang Tung), in eastern Shan State:
The Thai Khoen (also known as Thai Khün) are a Tai ethnic group who speak a dialect closely related to Shan, and more distantly, Thai (in Thai, the village would be known as Baan Doi — บ้านดอย — “Mountain Village”). They have their own unique script and are closely associated with the culture and history of Kengtung.
The villagers told us that preparations were being made for the wedding of a 19 year-old boy. A pig was going to be killed, and no, they had no problem with us watching the slaughter. And although what happened next was admittedly graphic, not to mention a first for me, it was also a fascinating insight into a culture (and cuisine) that appears to have changed surprisingly little.
We followed the villagers to a nearby field, where the pig spent its last few moments posing rather defiantly:
After wrestling the immense animal to the ground (not an easy task), the villagers tied the pig’s legs together and its mouth shut. Holding the pig down and covering its eyes, a knife was swiftly thrust into its neck, severing its jugular vein:
From this wound spurted a frankly astonishing amount of blood, most of which was directed into a bucket pre-seasoned with herbs and spices. I reckon it took the pig a good five minutes — and some considerable squealing and struggling — to die. It was undeniably brutal, but the villagers weren’t malicious (nor squeamish) about it, and in fact, the slaughter felt rather anticlimactic.
This was the easy part — for the villagers, at least. Breaking down the pig would take another four or five hours, and was a job that involved what seemed like all the village’s young men.
First, the hair needed to be removed, which was done directly in the field, using hot water, knives and shaving razors:
When the pig was hair-free, it was rinsed in an adjacent stream:
By this point, some of the blood had begun to coagulate, and the villagers ate it, uncooked:
a dish they called boe wan.
Next, the pig was split lengthwise and its innards yanked out:
The intestines and other offal were rinsed in the stream:
Some were chucked directly into hot coals, a cooking process they called jee:
Other bits were cooked over a flame, a process called phao. Some of the blood was boiled, and all of these were eaten with a delicious dip made from dried chili, MSG, salt and makhwaen (prickly ash):
I was fed blood, snout, stomach, intestines, what I suspect was spleen and what I was told was penis. A few of the guys were eating bits of grilled meat seasoned with raw, bitter bile from the stomach of the pig, something I wasn’t previously aware that Tai people (or anybody else, for that matter) ate. I was told that those who took part in the slaughter get dibs on the best bits (these appeared to be snout and tail) — a reward for their hard work. The flame-grilled spleen and the boiled blood were excellent; tender and smoky, not to mention spicy from the dip. The penis had little flavour, but compensated by being the inspiration for several dick jokes (a universal cultural trait, I suspect).
The carcass was divided up:
and brought back to one of the houses:
Home-made rice alcohol had been brought out at this point, and several of the guys stayed on, eating and drinking as it became increasingly dark:
Despite the brutality and messiness of what had happened, and perhaps aided by the rice alcohol and seduced by the setting, I have to admit that I found the whole event quite stirring. In its own unique way, it really was a beautiful, touching occasion, and I was struck the by notion of what I’d just witnessed having probably happened in this very place, in this exact way, for hundreds, or quite possibly even a thousand years. There was an inherent ease and intuitiveness in how the men went about their task, and it felt like the most Tai thing I’d ever witnessed, although we were technically in Myanmar.
Back at the house, those who hadn’t helped with the slaughter were busy cutting the meat into even smaller bits:
The pig produced an astonishing amount of meat, much of which was cooked in advance — fried or boiled — for the next day’s wedding feast.
We stayed until about 10pm — late by Shan State standards — chatting, eating and drinking. I bought the guys a case of Leo and some cigarettes, and one of the villagers made us a special version of laap, the northern Thai meat dish, in which the pig’s brain was minced along with the usual pork. The fatty brain and the assertive spice mixture came together in an intersection of spicy and rich that was profoundly delicious. But I suspect that time, place, culture and history were the ingredients that made this meal quite possibly one of the most delicious and memorable I’ve encountered in Southeast Asia.
Wan Naung Gon lies a few kilometres outside of Kengtung, in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State. It’s predominately inhabited by the Tai Neua, a group of people related to the Shan and Thai. It’s a quiet, traditional-feeling place that’s also the home village of my guide, Leng.
Leng was kind enough to arrange a day of making local dishes with some of his relatives including Sam, a former cook. I know a bit about Shan-style food from the time I’ve spent up in Mae Hong Son, but I’m always curious to learn more about it, as many of the techniques and ingredients seem to echo what the Thai people ate in the distant past, before their food began to be influenced by that of the Muslim world, China and the West.
In particular, I was curious about a dish Leng had mentioned called neua sa. On the surface, the dish seemed pretty similar to northern Thai-style laap or saa, dishes of minced or chopped meat supplemented with herbs and spices:
But for this version, Leng added a special ingredient: makok (มะกอก).
The sour fruit and the tart leaves:
of this tree are common ingredients in rural Southeast Asia. But for this recipe, Leng used the bark of the tree. Hacking off the hard outer bark from a branch revealed a green inner layer with a fresh, citrusy aroma. This was scraped off:
and minced directly with the pork:
I was told that using the usual tart suspect, lime, would just be too sour.
Sam took over from here and added dried spices — prickly ash and dried chili — and a mixture of finely chopped herbs — green onion, coriander and rau răm:
The mixture was seasoned with salt and MSG and mixed by hand:
At this point, the dish was essentially done. A taste revealed it to be assertively herbal, as well as spicy and fragrant; a world away from its northern Thai counterpart, which is generally a meatier dish that emphasises blood, offal and savoury flavours.
Because I thought it best to stick with cooked meat (I was alone in this), Sam took half of the mixture, added sliced pork skin and a couple tablespoons of water, and fried it in a wok:
He put the other half on a cabbage leaf, wrapped this with foil (traditionally this is done with banana leaf, he was keen to explain) and grilled it; this he called saa aep — a dish similar in name and ingredients to northern Thai aep, a sort of casing-less sausage.
The next dish Sam made was pla lam, fish cooked in a bamboo tube. He began by chopping a couple small catfish, and combining them with a variety of herbs, a bit of dried spice, and unusually, the tender leaves of chayote:
These were seasoned and stuffed into a joint of bamboo:
which was sealed and put over a flame for about 25 minutes:
The contents were emptied out:
Again, the emphasis here was on herbs. The dish was not overly fishy, and the fish had a delicate texture and was surprisingly moist.
Sam’s wife made a simple nam phik makheua som, a dip based around tomatoes. After skewering chilies:
and grilling them along with some tomatoes
She then mashed a bit of raw chili, shallots and garlic in a moral and pestle:
and added the peeled grilled ingredients, seasoning the dish with salt and MSG. The result was a spicy, savoury, smokey dip.
One of my favourite dishes of the meal was nam phik mak heng ta chang, a dip made from pea eggplants. To make this, Sam boiled pea eggplants until tender. While they cooled, he made a base by sauteeing garlic, tomato, turmeric, dried chili, MSG and salt in oil:
The eggplants, which had been roughly pounded in a mortar and pestle, were added to the base along with a bit of water. The mixture was simmered a bit longer until it had reduced and amalgamated:
Perhaps due to the slightly bitter nature of the eggplants, Sam insisted we eat this dish with nor khom, a type of slightly bitter bamboo that was in season at the time.
The last dish Sam made was a Shan-style stir-fry of phak kut, fern fronds. A similar base of sauteed shallot, tomato, garlic, chili and dried turmeric was supplemented with thin slices of pork belly.
This was seasoned, yet again, with salt and MSG, the and the ferns were added and cooked briefly:
This result was pleasantly oily, crunchy and savoury.
After all this work, we had ourselves a beautiful Shan-style feast:
which ended — lest you get the impression that this was some sort of stuffy ceremony to cookery — like this:
If you’re visiting Kengtung and want to learn more about the local food, Leng is an excellent guide, and can be contacted at +95 94903 1470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mong La is an odd place. Perhaps one of the oddest. Located on the Chinese border, the city lies within Myanmar, but is part of the semi-autonomous Wa State, a finger of land controlled by the United Wa State Army, an ethnic militia closely associated with drug production and trafficking. The Wa — former headhunters — have their own government, license plates (attached, almost exclusively, to white, ’90’s era sedans) and road signs. Chinese is the lingua franca in Wa State, and the Chinese Yuan is the accepted currency. Mong La is one of the few cities in all of Myanmar to have electricity 24 hours a day.
Years of open and unrestricted prostitution and gambling made Mong La the epitome of the lawless border town. The vices were a huge draw for Chinese tourists, who came in great numbers to visit casinos, fornicate, take photos at the town’s “zoo”, and catch a stage show at the town’s transsexual cabaret. Drug use among locals was rampant and open, and Mong La became known in the western press as the “Las Vegas of the east”. Finally, in 2005, the Chinese authorities decided that the party had gone on long enough, and closed its side of the border to all but locals.
Today, Mong La is largely the shell of the place it used to be. The Wa authorities claim to have eradicated drugs in the area, and have erected a bizarre museum to honour this achievement:
Many of the town’s casinos are abandoned:
The former transgender cabaret is crumbling and covered in weeds, and the town has an overabundance of huge, mouldy hotels.
Yet the one vice that appears to have survived in Mong La is the trade in wildlife.
In one corner of what appears to be an otherwise typical Southeast Asian market is a knot of vendors selling items gathered from the forests. Goods range from paraphernalia associated with wildlife — porcupine quills, bile, bones, organs:
including what appeared to be squares of elephant skin:
to entire animals, dead and alive, including civets and voles:
reptiles and birds:
larger animals including deer:
and smaller animals:
I had been taking photos for several minutes and to my surprise, the only person who objected was the woman preparing the animals above. Although she couldn’t speak Burmese (very few people in Mong La appeared to), it was clear that she was threatening to call the authorities if I continued to take photos, so I left.
In addition to these vendors, there were also shops around the perimeter of the market stocked with what appeared to be ivory and exotic animal pelts; eyewitness reports and photos online suggest that tiger skins and organs are among the wares available.
It’s a disturbing sight, particularly when coupled with the state of the environment surrounding the city, one of hills bald from deforestation or covered by vast rubber plantations. Yet Wa State’s autonomy and increasing demand from China ensure that the trade in wildlife will continue indefinitely.
Mong La’s Morning Market
Mong La, Shan State, Myanmar
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