Acting on a tip from Amorn of the lovely Riverside Guest House, me and Andy were pointed in the direction of Laap Dee Khom, a longstanding restaurant located within Chiang Mai's old city walls. We arrived at lunchtime, apparently too late to sample the various northern Thai dishes that are prepared here on a daily basis, but not too late to try the restaurant's various namesake laap, spicy meat-based 'salads.'
If you like Thai food, you've most likely encountered laap previously, but the northern version is an entirely different beast altogether. The most popular version, known as laap khom ('bitter laap') is made from finely-minced raw meat, to which is added a spicy curry paste, a mixture of dried spices, raw bile and blood (to see how the dish is made, go here). A slightly safer -- and arguably more delicious -- version is laap khua, "fried laap," in which sliced offal is added to the meat before it's all fried up in a wok. The predominate flavour in either of these dishes is spicy -- not necessarily a 'hot' spicy, but rather a slightly numbing, Sichuan pepper-like burn stemming from the addition of dee plee and makhwaen, two northern Thai spices -- trailed by bitter, a result of the addition of bile.
We were able to sample virtually the entire spectrum of northern-style laap at Laap Dee Khom, and they didn't disappoint. Starting at 6 o'clock and moving clockwise, there was saa khua, a slightly sweet and soupy laap relative consisting of hearty chunks of beef that had been simmered with a chili paste, a pinch of northern Thai spices and plenty of chopped herbs, in particular, lemongrass; next was a raw northern-style beef laap khom, studded with crunchy Szechuan pepper-like dried spices and pleasantly bitter from the addition of bile; at noon is laap plaa duk, a deceptively unattractive salad of grilled catfish that was simultaneously smokey and spicy; and lastly at 3 o'clock, the classic northern Thai soup of pork ribs simmered with jor phak kaat, a peppery green used in many northern Thai dishes.
Andy and I loved the catfish laap, it being the first time I've had this dish prepared in the northern style. We also really enjoyed the flavours of the raw beef laap, but were intimidated by its constituent ingredients, and in the end asked them to fry it up for us. The 'dining room' at Laap Dee Khom is a scruffy, unlit nightmare (do you sense a theme here?), but the woman who runs it is very friendly, and assuming you arrive early enough to try a greater variety of dishes, the restaurant is a great place to sample the flavours of authentic northern-style Thai cooking.
Laap Dee Khom Soi 5, Thanon Arak, Chiang Mai 086 656 9534
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