Chay Thung, somewhat unceremoniously, translates as ‘At the Edge of the Fields’, which given the views provided by Mae Hong Song’s rice fields in late January:
is almost self-deprecating in its understatement.
The restaurant serves a good spread of Isan/northeastern Thai-style dishes, but the house specialty is kai op faang (ไก่อบฟาง), literally ‘chicken baked over hay’. Ovens are unknown in rural Thailand, and instead the chicken is ‘baked’ in a clever contraption fashioned from two items one would normally throw away.
To make the dish, a whole chicken, which has been seasoned with fish sauce, MSG and garlic, is inserted, upright, on a bottle filled with water. The ‘oven’, actually an empty metal oil can, is dropped over the bird, and the whole lot is covered with a huge mound of hay (actually dried rice stalks).
The hay is lit on fire:
and initially, there’s a huge flame:
which burns away within a couple minutes, leaving a pile of very hot ashes. After about 20 minutes, virtually all that’s left is a hot metal box encasing a smokey and tender ‘baked’ chicken:
While this is going on, the feet, head, neck and gizzards are made into a deliciously rich broth, which is seasoned with lemongrass, black pepper and turmeric.
Eaten with sticky rice and the restaurant’s excellent som tam (green papaya salad), the meal (pictured at the top of this post) is quite possibly the most satisfying chicken dish I’ve encountered in Thailand over the last few years.
Part of the dish’s success can be traced back to its unique cooking method, but in my opinion, this is a dish in which the ingredients also play a crucial role: the chicken used at Chay Thung is kai baan, scrawny free-range birds with rich flesh that tends to cook up somewhere between slightly moist and almost dry, and which inevitably have lots of fatty skin. A breast-heavy Western-style chicken would most likely dry out, and would not have that satisfying intersection of almost equal parts verging-on-dry-but-still-tender meat and crispy, fatty skin.
On subsequent visit, I had Chay Thung’s excellent laap pet (duck ‘salad’):
rich, spicy and tart, and served with delicious raw vegetables and herbs grown in the fields that surround the restaurant.
A must-visit restaurant, if you’re in the area.
Outside Ban Pha Bong, Rte 108, Mae Hong Son
053 686 123
View Thai Eats in a larger map