Northern Thailand Feature

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Eating and Drinking Well in Northern Thailand

To most foodies, the north of Thailand is the country's most interesting culinary hotbed (and take that literally!). The distinctive Laotian and Burmese influences, spicy salads, and grilled river fish are unlike any Thai food you've tasted in the West. Through rice paddies, across plains, and along the majestic Mekong, a healthy peasant's diet of fresh river fish, sticky rice, sausage, and spicy salads replaces the richer shellfish and coconut curries of Thailand's center and south.

Thailand's expansive north encompasses various ethnicities and immigrant groups, making it hard to pigeonhole the food. Universal, however, are searingly sour curries centering on sharp herbs and spices rather than coconut milk; salt-rubbed river fish grilled over open coals; and salads integrating lime, fermented shrimp, and dried chili.

Clever Cooking in Northern Thailand

The food of the far north is distinctly different from that of the rest of Thailand. In this poorer region of the country, cooks are sometimes inspired by whatever's on hand. Take salted eggs for example. They're soaked in salt and then pickled, preserving a fragile food in the hot environment and adding another tasty salty and briny element to dishes.

Pla Duk Yang

You'll find grilled river fish throughout the north, and snakehead fish is one of the region's most special treats. As opposed to the south, where fish is sometimes deep-fried or curried, here it is usually stuffed with big, long lemongrass skewers and grilled over an open fire, searing the skin. Add the spicy, sour curry that's served atop the fish—and throw in som tam salad and sticky rice for good measure—and you've got a quintessential northern meal.

Som Tam

Som tam, a classic, ragingly hot green-papaya salad prepared with a mortar and pestle, is found all over Thailand, but its homeland is really the north. Tease out the differences between three versions: som tam poo, also found in Myanmar, integrating black crab shells (a challenging texture, to say the least); som tam pla, an Isan version with salt fish and long bean; and the traditional Thai som tam, ground with peanuts and tiny dried and fermented shrimp.

Khao Lam

On highways, meandering rural roads, and at most markets you find women selling tubes of bamboo filled with sticky rice. The rice is steamed in bamboo, which adds a woodiness to the rice's rich, sweet, salty flavor. (Slowly peel off the bamboo to eat it.) The rice can be black or white, and sometimes is cooked with minuscule purplish beans. In mango season, khao neaw ma muang (mango with sticky rice) is the ultimate salty-sweet dessert.

Khao Soi

This comforting concoction of vaguely Burmese, vaguely Laotian, vaguely Muslim origins is ubiquitous in the north. Noodles swim in a hearty, meaty broth fortified with coconut milk and perked up with chili and lime. It's a lovely textural experience, especially when the noodles are panfried: they become soggy in the broth—great for slurping. Get it from a street-food vendor, where portions are incredibly cheap.

Gaeng Hang Led

Another northern favorite, this mild pork curry gets its flavor not from chilies but a subtle mix of tamarind, ginger, and groundnuts. The result is a fairly sweet curry, but with sour back notes and chunks of pork. There's no coconut milk in the mix, but then again, it's not needed to temper any flames in this curry. It's almost always served with a side dish of sticky rice.

Updated: 2013-08-06

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