If you are a real foodie you will already know this one fact to be true: Real foodies don’t judge food on the furniture or the exorbitant bill or even the name of the chef. Real foodies know that good food can be devoured while squatting on a small plastic stool, on a footpath amongst the hustle and bustle of a market anywhere in Southeast Asia.
Real foodies know that the balance of flavour, texture and colour is a kaleidoscope of possibility that ignite something soulful from deep within. A warmth, a glow perhaps even a burst of pure optimism.
Of course Chiang Mai, Thailand’s “Rose of the North”, is famous for food. But so many people completely miss the point. Some rave about the street food, others the quality of food in the top hotels.
These grand statements about food in Chiang Mai are true of course, but no-one really talks about the hundreds of small restaurants scattered in and around the old city. No-one has connected the dots about the real reason Chiang Mai is perfect for foodies. The truth is, you can have it all. Not only can you have it all, but you can have it all because the mish-mash of glorious food choices is condensed into a five-kilometre radius. It is practically all within walking distance.
The sheer elation of choosing what to eat each day is bound to get any hard core foodie in a lather when the choices are all so close, it could even be considered a feat of Olympic proportions. Well, I guess only if you take food seriously.
Whether you are a traveller or an expat, rest assured that the smorgasbord of Thai flavours and international dishes will delight and if you play your cards right, the bill will be satisfyingly modest.
So where do you start?
Personally, I think it a good start is really getting to know the local food and all its interpretations.
Pad Thai was declared the national dish in the 1930s. Its mixture of rice noodles, fish sauce, dried shrimp and tamarind has Chinese roots but this dish is a great litmus test of a quality Thai restaurant.
I have paid as little as $2.30 for Pad Thai sitting pretty in a plastic bowl, a perfect combination of soft noodles, the crunch of sprouts and a blast of chili and lime. Yet, I have been equally happy to sit in an air conditioned glass room amidst a garden at the foothills of the mountains and pay $5.50 for something just as spectacular, albeit a different interpretation of the meal. You can see the simple diversity sitting on a plate at Lamour Café located near Wat Umong.
Khao soi is also a very important local dish with an interesting history and perfectly symbolises the nature of Lanna (Northern Thai) Culture. The belief is that the Yunnanese Muslims from China brought the idea of khao soi with them in the late 1800s and possibly also influenced by the Shan people.
This flat egg noodle dish has many replications but in essence should pair flavours of chili, turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, turmeric and cardamom. Coconut milk should create a light creamy texture, the sweet element from palm sugar and the sour from the pickled cabbage served on the side as a condiment. If there is a dominant flavour of curry powder, you have sadly been taken down the path of poor imitation.
This khao soi well known to the locals is made by Khao Soi Maesai on Ratchaphuek Alley. The lunch rush is over-crowded, so you know it’s good. At only $1.80 this old family recipe seems absurdly priced as the spicy layers of flavour play out a northern Thai history on your palate.
However, if you wish to dine in absolute luxury under a breezy sala (pavilion) with views of the Ping River, a khao soi at the Rati Lanna Resort will cost around $6.50.
The leafy gardens and water features are bliss and the meal looks picture perfect…
One other famous Northern Thai dish is called som tum and is probably the more unusual dish for a Western palate. This green papaya salad is perfect for the steamy heat of Thailand as it snaps with fresh crunch and pops with chili, garlic, fish sauce and lime. Palm sugar pairs with the chili for some tingling interplay and it is often served with prawns.
In truth it can be difficult to find a truly dazzling som tum however in a humble restaurant on the best street in Chiang Mai, Nimmanhaemin Road, Esan Café provides what I believe is the quintessential plate.
The papaya is very finely shredded and the flavour really shows how the Thais can balance the four crucial elements of heat, sweet, salty and sour. This only costs $6.80 and I often order a bowl of deep fried meat balls (pork) that also pack a basil and chili punch for $5.45.
The most exciting thing about the food scene in Chiang Mai—apart from the enormous choice—is the amount of new restaurants opening up. The latest restaurant that will not be a secret for much longer is serendipitously within walking distance of my home. The chef scatters his love for food, colour and flavour all over the oversized plates.
This place—B Samcook Home 16 —is a little hard to find as it is firmly embedded in a labyrinth of small sois but with persistence, the reward will be great. The official address is 5 Kampangdin Road, Soi 3.
I went for the grilled salmon with spicy mango salsa, salad and fruit. It was a dish straight out of a fairytale. I would have been happy to eat this in a top hotel yet it is just an everyday meal at this simple bed and breakfast. The meal cost $13.60 and was worth every single cent.
Sometimes expats need a break from Thai food. Sometimes some Western comfort food is in order and once again the Old City does not disappoint. Just recently I discovered quite by accident a restaurant called Feast Society located in the north-eastern corner of the city. I was later to find out that it is a favourite amongst foodie expats.
When living in the land of rice and noodles the odd sandwich is a welcome change and when I ordered a simple Reuben sandwich it was beyond expectation. Firstly, a salad arrived with a generous serving of shredded beetroot sitting on pesto. The vinaigrette provided a tang while semi-dried grapes added a chewy sweetness.
The Reuben was probably the largest sandwich you will meet in Chiang Mai. It was packed with homemade pastrami and sauerkraut while the sour dough bread was encrusted with Swiss cheese. Most people would only be able to tackle one half of this weighty delight. Luckily, restaurants are happy to pack up the remainder of your food to take away. This Reuben cost $9 and really became two meals.
There is absolutely no doubt that foodies can live in Chiang Mai and their tastebuds will never get bored and their wallets won’t be hit too hard.
However, there are also a range of more upmarket foodie experiences in Chiang Mai too. The Shangri La regularly hosts Michelin-star chefs. Prices vary but I recently enjoyed a nine-course meal for around $130 which comprised of suckling pig ravioli with leek and liquorice and duck breast, chocolate cappelletti (stuffed pasta), beetroot and panpepato (peppered bread).
It was a wonderful experience but in truth happiness can be found just as easily on plastic spoons and chopsticks in this foodie paradise.