North Thailand Cuisine

The Lanna Thai kingdom of Thailand.

Like its customs, language, and architecture, northern Thailand has a cuisine that is largely distinct – one more aspect of everyday life that contributes to the flavor of independent culture. It certainly contrasts with central Thai cooking and many of the really typical local dishes are impossible to find in Bangkok, but the influences of neighboring regions are clearly felt. As in so many northern temples, the food has an overlay of much that is Laotian and Burmese.

The staple of the Lanna diet is not the soft, fragrant boiled rice of the Central Plains but is “sticky rice”, a different strain. Known locally as “Khaaw niow“, cooking is by steaming, and eating it with fingers, each person kneading successive small handfuls into a small ball to scoop up food from commual dishes.

Sticky rice is essentially Laotian, as are also the special spicy dips of the North. Known generically as “Nam phrik“, these are found all over Thailand, but the North has its unique varieties. Nam phrik ong is relatively mild, made with minced pork and tomatoes and sometimes unkindly referred to as “Thai spaghetti sauce; an essential accompaniment is crispy pork skin (kap mu). Nam phrik num is fierier, being principally a bowl of pounded young green chilies that are a few inches long. Nam phrik tadaeng (‘Redeye Dip”) is made from dried up chilies and should also be approached with caution. (Advice for sensitive palates: a mouthful of rice is a more effective emergency treatment for a chili attack than a glass of water.)

Burmese influence can be tasted in two of the North’s most famous dishes – Gaeng hang ley and Khao soi. Gaeng hang ley is a thick pork curry, slightly sweetish, made with a distinctive combination of ginger, tamarind, turmeric, and curry. Khao soi is an egg-noodle luncheon dish with a lavish helping of thick curry broth and chicken, pork or beef as preferred. Its essential toppings are shallots, pickled vegetables (phak dong), and wedges of lime.

Northern food is not only regional cooking, but also country cooking chilies on flavors that are robust rather than delicate. Few fierier sources are rejected, as a stroll around any market will reveal.

Though not typical restaurant fare, the ubiquitous water buffalo makes a culinary appearance as Laap. This chopped meat dish, garnished with pulverized rice, chili, and other spices, including mint, is at its most traditional when eaten raw; the slightly bitter taste discernable in a genuine.

Insects also add to the exoticism of Lanna cuisine – you can witness the giant water beetles called Maengda for sale in the markets with their legs neatly tied. When pounded in a mortar and put into dishes they impart and aromatic, perfumed flavor reminiscent of pear-drops, but they can also be eaten whole, as a crunchy snack (if your visit is out of season, look for the pickled Maengda). There are even more localized specialties within the North Thailand.