I find the food up here in Mae Hong Son fascinating and love making and sharing local recipes. Unfortunately, many of the dishes call for obscure ingredients that aren’t generally available outside of Mae Hong Son or Myanmar’s Shan State.
With this in mind, I asked my neighbour, Phi Laa, a native of Mae Hong Son, to share some recipes I thought one could make just about anywhere. I’ve made no concessions to the following recipes, and assuming you have access to a basic Asian supermarket for some fresh herbs (lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, etc.), the most obscure ingredients you’ll need are shrimp paste, dried turmeric powder and sesame oil.
The first recipe is a simple but delicious salad, known locally as saa, of green tomatoes. Nuea tam, ‘pounded meat,’ is an deceptively simple side dish that’s meaty, salty and spicy. And finally, oop is the local word for a type of curry, the chicken version being arguably one of the most famous local dishes in Mae Hong Son. There are several variations on oop, some using different protein such as hard-boiled eggs or pork, with others based around vegetables such as eggplant, potatoes (oop aloo, from the Hindi word for potato) or ferns. The recipes for the various vegetable-based oop are nearly identical to the below, but don’t have lemongrass or lime leaves, and often include slices of pork belly.
Phi Laa was working too fast for me to record the exact amounts of the various ingredients, so I’ve done my best to provide my own estimates retroactively. But like any Thai cooking, you should taste often and rely on flavour (and experience), not amounts.
Saa Makhuea Som (Thai Yai-Style Tomato Salad)
Green and/or slightly unripe tomatoes, 5, seeded and sliced thinly
Shallots, 5, sliced thinly
Fresh chili, 4 (or to taste), chopped
Cilantro and green onion, one stalk each, chopped
Roasted peanuts, about ¼ cup, ground
Salt, to taste
Sesame oil*, to taste
Combine tomatoes, shallots, chili, herbs and peanuts. Season to taste with salt and oil.
Serve alone, as a snack, or with rice.
*The sesame oil in Mae Hong Son is made from unroasted black sesame seeds. It’s very different in flavour and appearance to the more ubiquitous Chinese-style roasted sesame oil. If you’re striving for authenticity, I’d suggest mixing 1 part Chinese sesame oil with 3 parts of some neutral-tasting cooking oil.
Nuea Tam (‘Pounded Meat’)
Coarse cut of beef, about ½ kilo, cut into chunks about the length of your pinky finger
Turmeric, about ½ tsp
Salt, 1 Tbsp
Ginger, 1 piece about 4cm long, peeled and chopped
Garlic, about 5 cloves, chopped
Cooking oil, about ¼ cup
Dried chili powder, to taste
Put beef in a saucepan and cover with water. Add turmeric and salt. Bring to the boil, reduce heat slightly and simmer over medium heat, uncovered, until the water is completely evaporated and beef is tender.
After the beef is cool, pound the pieces in a mortar and pestle until flat:
By hand or using scissors, pull the threads of beef apart as thinly and finely as possible.
Pound ginger and garlic in a mortar and pestle until you have a coarse paste.
Heat oil in a wok. Add ginger and garlic mixture and fry briefly until fragrant. Add beef and fry over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to prevent from sticking as much as possible (inevitably, some of the beef will stick to the wok, which is OK and provides the dish with its desired dry texture and smokey flavour):
Add dried chili and season to taste with salt. Continue to cook until beef is dry and stringy.
Serve with rice.
Oop Kai (Thai Yai-Style Chicken Curry)
Salt, 1 tsp
Small dried chilies, six (or to taste)
Shrimp paste, 1 Tbsp
Garlic, 3 cloves, chopped
Shallots, 4, chopped
Lemongrass, 2 stalks, sliced
Tomatoes, 2, seeded
Turmeric, about 1 tsp
Masala*, about 2 tsp
Kaffir lime leaves, 5
Chicken, 2 legs, jointed
Cooking oil, about ¼ cup
Pound salt, shrimp paste and dried chilies in a mortar and pestle until you have a fine paste. Add garlic, shallots and lemongrass and pound until you have a coarse paste. Add turmeric, masala and tomatoes and grind until well-combined. Add Kaffir lime leaves and bruise:
In a wok, combine curry paste, chicken and cooking oil and enough water to nearly cover the chicken:
Cover, bring to a light boil and simmer over med-high heat.** When chicken is somewhat done and the oil has risen to the top, after about about 10 minutes or so, remove lid, increase heat and allow to simmer, uncovered:
until most of water is evaporated.
The resulting curry should be rich, fragrantly herbal and oily.
Serve with rice
*This is a local spice mix similar to Indian Garam masala, which can be used as a substitute.
**I was genuinely surprised and somewhat skeptical about this cooking technique – most Thai cooks would fry the curry paste in oil first to allow it to amalgamate and release its oils and flavours – but it worked very well.