Unless you’re invited into someone’s home, or buy take-away from the town’s morning market, it’s actually somewhat difficult to find local food in Kengtung. One of the only restaurants serving Shan/Tai dishes is Paa Laeng (in Thai, ป่าแดง, meaning deep forest), named after the nearby temple. The selection of local eats is pretty good, but it’s equally grotty, and is probably only best recommended for adventurous eaters.
If you’re not deterred, in terms of form and flavour, the dishes here have a lot in common with northern Thai food.
There was a dip nearly identical to nam phrik num, the northern Thai dish of long green chillies, garlic and shallots grilled and mashed into a stringy, spicy paste.
This was coupled with neua sa, a dish I later learned to make in Wan Naung Gon. As was the case there, it took the form of minced meat with lots of herbs and makhwaen (prickly ash), resulting in a dish somewhere between northern- and northeastern-style laap.
We ordered a simple broth with tofu, tofu skin and the flowers of the Indian cork tree (called dork peep, ดอกปีบ, in Thai).
And nearly all customers were ordering hoy khom, tiny freshwater snails, which had been boiled with herbs and were served up from plastic buckets. The backdrop of sucking and slurping made Paa Laeng sound like a Japanese ramen bar.
Near Wat Paa Laeng, Kengtung, Shan State
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The places where predominately ethnic Tai people live — southern China, eastern Myanmar and northern Thailand — are also some of the earliest known areas of rice cultivation. The Tai may not have been the first people to grow and consume rice, but it’s safe to say that they’ve been doing it for a while now. Yet aside from simply boiling or steaming the grains and eating them with other food, they have also come up with a variety of creative ways of preparing rice.
This became clear to me in Kengtung, in Myanmar’s Shan State, a place were many of the dishes continue to be very Tai, and largely untouched by the influences of Chinese, Muslim or western cooking styles, providing a unique insight into an ancient diet.
Perhaps the most obvious examples of this is rice noodles, known in Tai/Shan as khao soi.
To make these, a batter is made from rice flour and water, which is steamed then sliced into long strands.
I’d assumed that the word khao soi had its origins in the Burmese hkauk hswe, which also means noodles and is pronounced very similarly, but my Shan guide insisted that the term is actually Tai in origin. It would require some linguistic research to verify this, but given that khao soi can be translated as cut (soi) rice (khao), not to mention the Tai people’s long-standing history of rice cultivation in the area, I wouldn’t be surprised if the term could be linked to them.
A fascinating variation on rice strands is khao soi song chan (‘two layers of khao soi’), a seasoned and filled noodle — as far as I can recall, the only seasoned noodle I’ve encountered in Asia. The dish is made by combining a batter of rice flour and several seasonings — soy sauce, MSG, sugar, chili oil, peanuts, garlic oil, chili in vinegar and chili in oil — which are steamed in a thin pan floating in simmering water (shown at the top of this post). When firm, the steamed rice sheet is topped with vegetables and herbs including shredded cabbage, morning glory, lettuce, green beans and green onion, folded in half, and served with a drizzle of garlic oil:
You can even throw an egg in, if you want. Either way, it’s spicy savoury, nutty and garlicky, and requires no additional seasoning.
A variation on the dish is khao soi khaep, in which the unseasoned noodles are stuffed with a minced chicken mixture (not unlike bánh cuốn), sliced, then topped with the same vegetables and seasonings as the previous dish:
resulting in a something of a noodle-based salad.
Blurring the line between cooked rice grains and noodles is khao pheun, thick hand-cut noodles made from a type of rice cake. In Mae Hong Son, a similar dish — there typically made from chickpea flour — is known as khao raem feun (ข้าวแรมฟืน), ‘rice resting by the fire’, so called because of the final stage of the cooking process.
To make the dish, uncooked rice is soaked in water for a couple hours. After it’s been ground to a paste, a bit of water is added and the mixture is simmered until thick. A coagulant — usually lime — is added, and the mixture is allowed to sit until it’s cooled and has become a solid, somewhat jelly-like mass:
To order, chunks are cut off by hand and mixed with a sweet/sour dressing, pickled mustard greens, shredded cabbage, and seasoned with chili and soy sauce:
Whenever we visited somebody’s home in Shan State, we were inevitably offered green tea or water and a bite to eat. Often the snack was fruit, such as a few bananas or the watermelon shown above. Sometimes it was something a bit more substantial such as nor khom, a type of bamboo, steamed and eaten with a simple but utterly delicious dip made from ground salt, dried chili and makhwaen (prickly ash).
I really enjoyed these simple meals, which usually also involved conversation in Tai — a language I understand very little of, but love to try to figure out — as well as the chance to peek inside somebody’s home.
Perhaps one of the more interesting opportunities for the latter was in Wan Puen, a Thai Lue village outside of Mong La.
Most of the 69 families in Wan Puen still live in traditional-style wooden houses — a relative rarity, even in this area. The houses can be rather dark inside, so most socialising is done on the elevated bamboo porch, which also functions as the kitchen and laundry area:
Sitting on this porch, which was about eight feet high, provided me with an entirely different perspective on the village. I was struck by the way the tidy tiled roofs formed something of a rural skyline. That the houses were surrounded by neat fences and faced the same direction also lent the village an almost city-like element of organisation. Shattering this perception was the fact that, directly below every house was a buffalo or cow, and the messiness, sounds and smells that accompany this.
Inside, cooking was done on an open hearth; a soot-blackened rack above the fire held garlic, shallots and dried chilli. At the other end of the room, a girl watched a Thai game show on television.
After a while, when people had gone back back to doing their chores, and when my guide and our hosts were deep in conversation about the price of dried frogs — at least that’s what I caught — I had essentially been forgotten about. This casual hospitality left me free to crunch watermelon, take pictures, listen to Tai, and generally just soak up the scene.
Don’t know your sai ua from your khaep muu? Right this wrong by reading my crash course in northern Thai-style dining from the April issue of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia — click on the image above for the PDF version [transliteration typos and Bangkok restaurant recommendation not mine].
“It’s the place with all the cars out front.”
That’s how people in Chiang Rai kept describing Laap Sanaam Keelaa to me. They were right: it’s indeed popular and the parking lot was full every time I stopped by. But for whatever reason, nobody mentioned how absolutely delicious the food was.
Perhaps this was because for the people of Chiang Rai, Laap Sanaam Keelaa is really nothing special. On the surface, it’s your typical northern Thai-style laap shack: open-air, tin roof, dirt floor, an almost unanimously meaty menu, and on one visit, a mischievous goat wandering through the restaurant. Unassuming, humble and consistent, I suppose that it’s the kind of place that locals have been eating at for so long they gradually round down their impressions of the restaurant to “good” or in this case, “busy”.
But the food blew me away, and after several visits, I’d gladly cite Laap Sanaam Keelaa as one of my favourite restaurants serving northern-style meat dishes.
On my first visit, I ordered laap muu suk (ลาบหมูสุก), northern Thai-style pork laap (pictured at the top of this post). Here, the dish is served with just barely-cooked meat (most diners appeared to opt for the raw version) and relatively little blood and offal, but quite a bit of chili and dried spice heat, not to mention an exceedingly generous garnish of crispy deep fried garlic and shallots. A immensely satisfying, balanced take on the dish.
The fish version, consumed on another visit, was pretty similar:
although drier, and with a bit more dried spice punch, ostensibly, by Thai culinary reckoning, to cover up any unpleasant fishy smells.
An order of laap arrives with an almost comically large platter of herbs and vegetables:
Now I’ve eaten northern-style laap a lot, and at this point am familiar with quite a few of the herby sides, but this had me stumped. There were at least eight different kinds of herbs here — some sweet, some bitter/sweet, some bitter/bitter, some spicy/bitter — only half of which I could identify by name.
On my first visit I also ordered kaeng om neua (แกงอ่อมเนื้อ), a laap shack staple of beef offal served in a meaty stew-like broth:
The dish was deliciously rich and spicy, and mixed in among the unidentifiable organs were some tender, almost corned beef-like, joints of beef.
Another visit saw an order of neua neung (เน้ือนึ่ง), beef steamed over herbs and served with a dry, spicy dip made from galangal:
The beef was relatively tender, and the dip was spicy, smokey and garlicky, and unusually, included thin strips of citrusy fragrant Kaffir lime leaf.
On my final visit, and in an effort to try something non-meat-based, I ordered a salad of shredded mango:
I should have known better; the salad was mediocre — limp and far too sweet.
Lesson learned: only order meat. And when seeking out restaurants in the future, look for lots of cars.
Laap Sanaam Keelaa
123 Muu 22, Th Naa Sanaam Keelaa, Chiang Rai
087 173 2498
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