Have a free evening in Chiang Mai and want to try new foods and learn some Thai? Take the Chiang Mai Street Food Tour with Mr. J. Spunky, courteous, and well-informed, he was the best tour guide we could have gotten. He took us along the river of the old city to a street-long food market, where were sampled all sorts of Northern Thai favourites.
We plunked down on worn plastic stools, unsteady on the potholed concrete. We ate under dubious canopies as the rain softly pelted us and rolled off the canopy edges. The market was alive with locals and tourists alike, all of them sampling some of the best food possible. I cracked a stem of lemongrass to release the soothing scent, rolled some Thai basil in my palm, and chewed a bit of galangal for flavour. It’s difficult to pop in the peeled garlic as well, so I avoided that, or Edward Cullen wouldn’t be my dinner date.
Deep fried spicy catfish with dressing (nam tok moo) (scooped up with sticky rice in your fingers) – so delicious. Watch out for the fish bones, but worth rolling a ball of sticky rice and dipping into the sauce underneath the fish, then scooping it into your mouth with all the happiness of a Viking at Valhalla.
Spicy soup from Isaan (tom saap) – pork bits, galangal, basil, and kaffir lime leaf in broth with some kick to it.
Stir-fried morning glory (pad pak bung) – a favourite veg of mine. Morning glory is a spinach-like green veg with a little more heft and chewiness to it than its cousin. Holds up to oil and soy sauce.
Soy sauce pork (khao ka moo) – an absolute must try! Hands down my favourite dish in Thailand. It is so delicious, so soft and moist – all because it was boiled in five spice, cinnamon, sugar for hours. Not only does the broth soak into the rice and make for a sweet treat, but the pork is like butter. It melts on your fork. We ate every tiny bite of it.
Dark fresh ginger tea – oh, my word. I’ve had ginger tea, and then there’s this ginger tea. It was dark, rich, and thick with ginger flavour. It bit my tongue with all the force of a spicy tang and didn’t let go. Perfect to help digestion of all the snacks so far. A little honey in the tea helped to take off the edge, but it was perfect with the doughnuts.
Doughnuts with matcha-condensed milk sauce – hot, crispy, and delicious. Sort of like a funnel cake without the powdered sugar, but that’s what the green matcha-condensed milk dipping sauce is for!
Northern curry noodles (Khao soi) – the second time we’d had it that day. Yellow curry, coconut milk, cinnamon, garam masala, coriander seeds, and chicken broth with a tender bit of chicken leg, noodles, and crispy fried noodles on top. Perhaps the most famous dish in Chiang Mai. Try it at least twice – no two places make it with the exact same flavours. Absolutely must try with the pickled veg, which offer an extra vinegary punch at the end of the dish, and the lime juice you can dribble over it. Oh. My. Word. Heaven in a curry bowl.
Chiang Mai sausage – spicy pork sausage each with a pat of sticky rice rolled in between your fingers. One small bit is delicious; if you can eat an entire coil of sausage, good luck getting a kiss from anyone. The chiles kick in after the first piece. Whew.
Coconut rice dumplings (khanom krok) – a thin layer of rice flour crepe batter crisped up and then poured with coconut milk. The lady made them on a waffle-like griddle. Hot, amazing, and only 10 baht for a decent-sized packet of them.
Thai jelly (khanom chun) & coconut cream jelly (takoh) + pandan, sesame seed, and loads of other gelatinous jellies – worth a try, even if your Western palate isn’t geared toward the gelatinous “jelly snack” scene. I tried the vibrant green pandan jelly, which had a stretchy consistency but a delicate, pandan custard flavour. The coconut jelly is perhaps the easiest to try, as the coconut is fresh and gummy. Also, I recommend the dark brown sugar jelly with sesame seeds sprinkled liberally across the top. They are a bit odd when you’re used to cupcakes and apple pie, but the jellies are worth a snack. Then, you can try the Triple Coffee Jelly frappuccino at Starbucks and have no problem with the espresso jellies at the bottom of your cup. I love the word gelatinous, and I get to use it a lot to describe dishes and desserts in Asia.
Our guide tried to get us to try the ubiquitous pink preserved “century” eggs, but one whiff of its pungent, custard-like interior and I thought, nope, I want to ride the elephants tomorrow, not be rolling around with a poor stomach. I wasn’t sure how much spice and interesting flavour profiles I could handle.
This was a highlight of the trip so far, so I definitely would say to bring an adventurous palate and an empty belly and dig into the northern Thai food scene with a friendly, fun guide! Besides, you never know who you’ll meet on the tour, and suddenly figure out that six degrees of separation really is true.