Straight Outta Lanna: The khao soy connection

Having lived in northern Thailand for approximately three minutes, I am happy to expound on the intricacies of its food to anyone. And I frequently do, at least until they get that omigod-rescue-me look, and I realize it’s time to stop.

The thing is, not so many casual observers of Thai cuisine know much about the Food in the North, and could use a few pointers before unleashing their inner Solange on their next bowl of khao soy.

Because they are both sticky, rice-based and offer different renditions of the same dishes like larb (minced meat salads), foods of the north and northeast (Isaan) are often confused.

Some might say Isaan food is like the Jay-Z of Thai food: straightforward and uncompromising. Isaan’s relatively dry weather and unforgiving soil lend themselves to bold flavors that will pack a punch like spicy, tart and salty, and simple cooking techniques like grilling and boiling. It’s a busy person’s cuisine, made up of dishes that can be cooked in minutes with little fuss and very little sugar, but with maximum flavor impact due to liberal use of fresh chilies. This might explain why Isaan dishes are some of the most popular in Thailand. 

The North, however, with its baroque mix of cultural influences, is a little trickier. The Nas of Thai food, if you will. Take for example the dish for which it is most commonly known: the northern Thai curried noodles called khao soy. About a gazillion different stories claim to hold the truth about this wildly popular dish, from the ludicrous (that the dish was named by vendors who wanted foreign tourists to “enter their soi,” hence “khao soy”) to the eyebrow-furrowing (that the original proprietor of Lamduan Faham in Chiang Mai dumped some coconut milk into her noodles to please her Bangkok customers) to meh-whatevs-this-sounds-good (that the noodles are a Thai-Chinese-Muslim adaptation of a Burmese dish).  What khao soy does show is that Northern food can claim influence from Thais (coconut milk), Chinese (egg noodles) and the Burmese, who ruled over the region for 200 years.

Unlike the acidic, stingy soil of the Korat plateau, northern Thailand is blessed with a thick blanket of forest generously sprinkled with mountains, breeding an abundant amount of herbs, mushrooms and assorted greenery used throughout northern Thai cooking. But if there is one ingredient that most northerners could not do without, it would probably be the pig, which is made into sausage known as sai oua, deep-fried and paired with roasted banana chili dip (nam prik num), minced and mixed with dried chilies in larb, or sliced into fatty chunks and stewed in a Burmese-inflected curry known as gaeng hang lay. Compared with the rest of Thailand, northern cuisine comes off a bit milder, with an emphasis on richness and fatty flavors similar to Burmese food and a bitter, lazing undercurrent to the salt and tang that predominate its dishes.

Although millions of northerners live in Bangkok, good northern food is notoriously difficult to find here, lending weight to misconceptions that the food is a heavy, greasy deadbeat in Thailand’s culinary world.

But if you are willing to brave what is likely to be hours of traffic, the city’s best northern Thai restaurant is arguably Maan Mueang (165/7 Soi Ramkhaemhaeng 112), owned by Lampang transplants who offer Bangkokians all the standards (khao soy, sticky rice, fried pork bits) alongside harder-to-find delicacies (when in season) like frog stew, ant’s egg soup and grilled pig’s brains.
If the thought of spending hours in your car is just too much to bear, you might make do with Gedhawa (25 Sukhumvit Soi 35), where cutesy, informal surroundings, good service and a fairly extensive menu heavy on northern Thai grub could make up for some dishes that don’t always taste the way they should – but that could just be me, Kanye-ing away (IMMA LET YOU FINISH BUT CHIANG RAI HAS THE BEST NORTHERN THAI FOOD OF ALL TIME!).



Photos: Chawadee Nualkhair

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