I studied Thai at Chiang Mai University in 1999, but since then have spent shamefully little time in the northern Thai city. My visits have typically been no longer than a night or two, usually in transit to some other provincial northern Thai city, where I tend to spend a lot of time covering the region for Lonely Planet, or on the way to my annual month-long self-imposed exile in Mae Hong Son.
But this time I'm in Chiang Mai for a month. I'm here with writer JJ Goode and chef/restaurateur Andy Ricker to collaborate on a book of recipes from the latter's Portland, Oregon and New York City restaurants, Pok Pok. I'm doing the photos for the book -- both a huge honour and an intimidating reality -- and we're in the process of preparing for the shoot: planning, buying cooking utensils and props, and setting up an improvised studio outside of the city. It's quite an undertaking, and although I'll be up here a month, once we get started shooting I suspect I'll have little time to blog.
Thankfully I had the chance to do a bit of exploring on my first couple days back in town. Inspired by the Chiang Mai-related posts at EatingAsia, I headed to Kat Luang, 'Big Market', the colloquial northern Thai name for city's central market area. I hadn't been to Kat Luang in many, many years, and frankly, my memories of the market were of a pretty dark, unpleasant place -- not exactly where I'd want my Thai grandmother selling vegetables, if I had one. However, Kat Luang appears to have undergone something of a face-lift at some point in the last few years, and although it's still housed in the imposing original structures, feels much lighter, tidier and friendlier.
It was while walking around the market that I came across the dish above, a super tasty version of khanom jeen nam ngiaw, a northern Thai broth of pork, tomatoes and curry paste, served over thin rice noodles. I've eaten this dish a lot, particularly up in Mae Hong Son, where it's a staple, and where in the Shan/Thai Yai-style, it's generally quite thin, emphasising tart tomatoes over meaty pork. But it had been years since I'd encountered such a satisfyingly rich, hearty, 'city' version of the dish. In addition to stewed tomatoes, the dish included a few chunks of pork rib meat and even more cubes of blood, all of which were brought together by a curry paste that seemed to involve a lot of shrimp paste, and that also packed a subtle spiciness and smokiness.
It was a delicious discovery, and on a cool morning, exploring the renovated Kat Luang, it also seemed indicative of the feeling I had in coming back to Chiang Mai: an experience both familiar and new.
24 Hour Khanom Jeen Stall Th Wichayanon (near entrance to Ton Lamyai Market), Chiang Mai 24 Hours
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