Before it became part of Thailand, the north of Thailand was once home to the Lanna kingdom. And the Lanna heritage is still reflected in the language, local festivals and architecture of the region. And it can also be seen in the food. North Thailand’s culinary heritage draws on influences from Burma, Laos and southern China.
The geography and climate of the area also plays a big part in the style of local food. With a generally cooler climate compared to the south and mountains instead of coastline, the food here features healthy vegetables, comforting meat dishes, and herb-infused dips. We’ve put together some of our favourite dishes that we like to eat when travelling in north Thailand.
If there was one dish above all others that can be described as northern Thailand’s signature dish, it would have to be khao soi. This satisfying blend of soft and crispy noodles in a creamy, curry broth is typically offered in three varieties; beef, chicken or pork. Served with a side dish of dried curry paste, lime, pickled cabbage and shallots, khao soi can be found in towns and villages throughout north Thailand with Chiang Mai offering up the biggest selection of eateries.
Try this khao soi recipe from Gary Butler (aka The Roaming Cook)
Another iconic northern Thai dish that visitors should try at least once during their travels in the region is gaeng hinlay. Stewed pork belly and ribs are combined with an array of aromatic spices in this rich, flavour-packed dish which has its origins in neighbouring Burma.
Khanom jeen nam ngiao
Introduced to north Thailand by the Tai Yai (Shan) people, this spicy noodle soup is another dish which conjures up a real taste of the north. Made from thin rice noodles with the addition of tomatoes and a choice of either pork or beef. When the ingredients are mixed together, the dish takes on a rich red colour from the tomatoes, chilli paste and cubes of chicken blood. Khanom jeen nam ngiao can be found in provinces around the north including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan, Phrae and Mae Hong Son.
A classic northern Thai dish, sai oua is a spicy grilled sausage that can be eaten as a snack with sticky rice or as part of a more substantial meal. The sausage filling is typically minced pork meat and a variety of herbs and spices including chillies, garlic, galangal, coriander, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass.
If you ever travel on a domestic flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, you may notice Thai people cramming big bags of kep moo into the overhead lockers to take home as gifts. The crunchy pork rinds are a simple, but incredibly tasty northern Thai snack that combine wonderfully with a dip such as nam prik noom or nam prik ong (see below). With similarities to pork scratchings, kep moo also makes for a tasty beer snack.
Nam prik noom
A savoury dip made from young chilies and aubergines, nam prik noom is often served in a small bowl as an accompaniment to vegetables or kep moo. The tangy green-coloured dip also goes well with khao niao (sticky rice) or moo ping (grilled pork). The name comes from prik noom, a particular type of green chilli commonly found in northern Thailand.
Nam prik ong
Nam prik ong is another popular northern Thai dip that is eaten with vegetables. Milder than the green-coloured nam prik noom, this red-coloured dip combines chillies, ground pork and tomatoes.
Laab muang moo
Laab moo is associated with Isaan in north-east Thailand, but there is also a version which is unique to the northern region. Although minced pork is the main ingredient in both, the northern variety is quite different to the Isaan version. Less sour, northern laab muang moo uses roasted rice powder and dried spices to give it a pungent kick. In some recipes the inclusion of fat, offal and pork blood can make it an acquired taste, but a dish worth seeking out especially if you like the Isaan version.
Last but by no means least in our round-up of must-try northern Thai dishes is gaeng khanun. Jackfruit curry isn’t often seen outside of the north and very much a regional speciality. The key ingredients in this distinctly northern dish are jackfruit, pork, tomatoes and local herbs. As an added bonus, the word for jackfruit, khanun, is an auspicious name in Thai culture. Because of the association with good luck, dishes featuring the fruit often appear at special events in north Thailand.
Where to try these dishes in Chiang Mai
Most tourists visiting north Thailand will travel through Chiang Mai at some stage. And while these dishes can be found at locations across the north we’ve included five suggestions below for Chiang Mai where you can try a selection of these northern classics:
Huen Man Jai
Khan toke dinner at Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre
Kao Soy Nimman
Tong Tem Toh
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