A TASTE OF NORTHERN THAILAND
THE BEST LANNA CUISINE IN CHIANG MAI
History, culture, climate, geography and migration patterns have all played their part in influencing the unique taste of northern Thai food. Known as Lanna cuisine, after the Lanna Kingdom, it’s as much a highlight of a visit to Chiang Mai as temple hopping. Indeed, for a food enthusiast, northern Thai cuisine is certainly reason enough for a trip north.
If you’ve travelled elsewhere in Southeast Asia, you may find similarities in taste and smell to other regional food. Historical and geographical ties with Burma, Laos and the Khmer Empire have all left their mark on the flavours of Lanna cuisine. These flavours set Lanna food distinctly apart from Southern Thai cuisine.
Here are four must-try dishes to look out for, and the best Lanna cuisine restaurants in Chiang Mai to eat them in.
THE BEST NORTHERN THAI FOOD TO EAT
Possibly the best known Lanna dish, Khao Soi is not to be missed! This delicious coconut cream based curry is spicy, oily, and creamy, with a fabulous array of textures. Fried egg noodles on top provide a crispy crunch, while more egg noodles in the curry sauce act as a perfectly soft counterpart. Ground chillies, lime, shallots, coriander and pickled mustard greens bring out the spice and unique flavour of the dish. The classic version includes a leg or thigh of chicken, the meat just falling off the bone. We saw a number of variations though, including a veggie tofu option.
Gaeng Hang Lay
Another northern Thai curry that will have you salivating at the thought well after your trip to Chiang Mai ends. Traditionally made with pork, it’s a heavy and aromatic curry, but not too spicy. You can definitely taste the influence of Burmese cuisine in this dish, with tamarind and turmeric combining with ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, galangal and more to create the rich, satisfying sauce. The regional influence is so strong that this is sometimes referred to as Burmese Pork Curry on menus.
I’m pretty picky when it comes to sausages, but one look at a cross section of this northern Thai sausage and I knew I was onto a winner. Sai Oua is usually made with minced pork, lemongrass, kaffir leaves, galangal, chillies, coriander and red curry paste. This fusion of flavours results in a wonderfully aromatic sausage, with a hint of sourness and just the right level of heat. Utterly moreish. Look out for it being sold in coils at markets, cumberland sausage style, or sliced up in smaller portions.
Not a dish to be eaten by itself, but a deliciously fiery accompaniment to your meal. A nam prik is a sort of relish, its ingredients pounded together in a pestle and mortar to create a dip of varying consistency depending on who is making it. Two common northern Thai variants are nam prik num and nam prik ong. The first is made from roasted long green chillies, onion, garlic and coriander. The second is made from dried red chillies, minced pork, tomato, garlic and onion. Both are best enjoyed along with some kap moo (pork crackling) and some raw or boiled vegetables.
THE BEST NORTHERN THAI RESTAURANTS IN CHIANG MAI
Huen Jai Yong
For the best Lanna cuisine in Chiang Mai, head to Huen Jai Yong. Here you’ll find an authentic local restaurant, serving up delicious home cooked Lanna food in an atmospheric old wooden house. It’s cheap, the service is fast, and it’s packed to the rafters with locals every lunchtime – a testament to how good the food really is. The catch? It’s not in Chiang Mai Old City. It’s not even close to Chiang Mai Old City. But it’s also not that far, around 15KM southeast of Thapae Gate in San Kamphaeng. Absolutely worth the journey!
While we didn’t spy any Khao Soi on the menu, there are many local Lanna foods to try here, including each of the other dishes mentioned above. The portions aren’t huge, which means you’ll have plenty of room to try a variety of things. There’s very little English spoken by the staff, but they have a few menus with photos and English descriptions making it easy enough to order.