I’m finally back home in Bangkok, but felt compelled to do one final post on Mae Hong Son.
One of the things that impressed me the most about the food up there was its locality. The Thai Yai or Shan food in Mae Hong Son is based around a unique repertoire of ingredients, many of which are virtually unknown in Bangkok or even Chiang Mai. Items such as as sesame oil (used as a condiment, not simply as a frying fat) and chickpea flour, and as mentioned in this post, even some of the cooking methods, are things I've never encountered elsewhere in Thailand. Obviously this is due to the province's, well, location, but the twist is that in the case of a border province like Mae Hong Son, these items and techniques stem from a variety of sometimes distant sources and as a result, the cuisine resembles that of nowhere in particular.
Not only are these ingredients and cooking methods specific to the region, but in the case of the former, their origin is also very local. I reckon that of a nam phrik ong (a dip-like dish made from ground pork and tomatoes) I made one afternoon, every single ingredient, except for perhaps the salt, came from the fields around Mae Hong Song.
Perhaps this is not surprising for such a remote, mountainous province. But I found it interesting and suspect that it's probably the only time in my life that I've eaten truly, genuinely locally. It's also worth mentioning that eating and cooking this way never felt contrived or like any sort of compromise -- the ingredients from Mae Hong Son, in particular the garlic, shallots, turmeric and fruit, are very good -- but rather, made the experience that much more special.
The downside -- and this is the case with much regional cooking in Thailand -- is that even if you're are in Mae Hong Son, much of this food is relegated to the home. There are a handful of restaurants in town that serve local dishes, but they’re hit and miss, and the only one that really comes close to home cooking is Pa Sri Bua. Unless you know some local folks, you’re only other opportunity to taste authentic, homestyle local food is at one of the city's markets. A particularly good place to go is the town's evening market, where Paa Add sells some pretty amazing eats. Another option is the morning market, where vendors like the one pictured at the top of this post prepare a huge variety of local dishes on regular basis, while others seem to take more of a hobby-like approach and sell a couple dishes from medium-sized pots whenever they feel like it.
These places are to-go only, and you might miss them if you blinked, but unless you have the chance to eat at somebody's home, it's your only opportunity to eat a dish that really has no counterpart anywhere else in the world.