An introduction to North Thai cuisine

Lots to try

What we say: 4.5 stars

Opinions vary somewhat over just how delicious Lao, Burmese, Khmer or even Vietnamese food is, yet when it comes to Thai cuisine you’ll rarely hear a bad word said by any visitor. Everyone loves the varied, often fiery, yet still somehow delicate and sophisticated Thai dishes. One of the added bonuses of Thai cuisine is the strong regional food traditions: the fierce, rich curries and coconut milk sauces of the south, grilled meats and spicy dips and equally spicy salads of I-San and the milder Burmese- and Chinese-influenced food of the north. They’re are as different from each other as Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese food are.

'Gaeng Hanglae'

Gaeng hanglae.

While southern dishes and northeastern dishes can often be found in any restaurant in Thailand, it’s arguably usually only in the north that you’ll encounter genuine North Thai fare. Probably the most famous local dishes you’ll encounter in Chiang Mai restaurants are the north Thai curry gaeng hanglae and of course the famous noodle soup khao soi with the former being derived from Burma and khao soi originating as a Yunnanese Muslim dish.

Gaeng hanglae is a mild yet rich curry with a sauce often thickened by peanuts and or potatoes (both widely used in Burmese cooking), and with pork being the default meat. An authentic version would generally be made with pork belly, and can be very oily, making it somewhat unpalatable to Western tastes, though tourist restaurant offerings will be toned down and with its rich mild sauce it tends to be a favourite of visitors.

Khao soi

Khao soi.

Khao soi is something of a Chiang Mai signature dish and needs no introduction. With its delicious curried coconut-based broth and soft and crispy yellow noodles, khao soi is both one of Thailand’s greatest dishes and certainly one of the greatest of the myriad noodle dishes to be found across Southeast Asia.

Nam prik num

Nam phrik num.

Other classic Chiang Mai culinary offerings are its famous chilli dips with the best known being nam phrik num and nam phrik ong. Chilli dips are common in all regional Thai cooking, such as the nam phrik kapi of southern Thailand, but these former two are uniquely North Thai.

Nam prik num is made from crushed green chillies mixed with garlic, shallots and whatever else the cook fancies while the latter, milder dip, is made from ingredients including tomatoes, minced pork and garlic, resembling somewhat a bolognese sauce. Sticky rice balls are obviously ideal for dipping but the dips are also generally served with lightly boiled vegetables and/or fried pork skin — keap moo or pork scratchings to our British readers — which itself is another local classic.

Pork scratchings

Pork scratchings.

Of course we can’t discuss North Thai food without mentioning the famous local sausagessai hua — and you’ll see, or probably smell, huge rolls of these scrumptious sausages grilling at most northern markets. The bangers are minced pork mixed with various herbs and spices, such as chillies, lemongrass and galangal, but recipes vary and many stalls will even offer a choice of flavours including spicy and non-spicy versions.

North Thai sausages

North Thai sausages.

Finally, Chiang Mai’s khantoke dinners are famous — you’ll see them advertised in most travel agents and hotel tour desks — but we’ve left mentioning them to last since khantoke is not actually a dish at all but merely the name of the small round table dinner it’s eaten off.

Traditionally meals in Thailand were eaten cross-legged off the floor with a low, round, usually rattan table called a khantoke for special occasions. Khantoke thus became synonymous with banquet; the khantoke dinner experience nowadays will more than likely refer to a selection of traditional north Thai offerings (such as the above), eaten off low tables and often in larger hotels and restaurants accompanied by a traditional dance show.

For simple traditional lunches, including excellent khao soi we suggest Intawararot Road in Chiang Mai while for market food Don Phayam’s a great choice. There are plentiful eateries in town as well as hotel restaurants offering north Thai specialties but for well prepared, authentic dishes at very reasonable prices we’d recommend Khao Soi Nimman.

Kao Soy Nimman
Nimmanhemin Soi 7, Chiang Mai
T: (053) 894 881
Open daily 11:00-22:00

Last reviewed by:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.

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