Chiang Mai cuisine: The city's top snacks and curries
The northern city of Chiang Mai is considered Thailand's cultural capital, while also sitting near some of the country's top natural attractions, most within an hour or two's drive of the Old Town.
But everyone knows that. Less celebrated are all those Chiang Mai street stalls and shophouses hawking incredible northern Thai cuisine and snacks, delicious enough to lure Bangkokians 700 kilometers north for a bite.
Here's a guide to where the locals buy their curries and snacks-to-go.
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1. Khao Soi
The grande dame of northern Thai cuisine is khao soi -- yellow noodles perched in a shallow pool of thick coconut milk curry, topped off with crispy fried noodles and served with wedges of lime, pickled cabbage and shallots.
The ubiquity of the dish means every local will have their personal favorite, generally based on the level of coconut milk, flat versus round noodles and other preferences.
Try to get to Samoer Jai, adjacent to Wat Faham, before the minivans full of tourists arrive around noon. To add some variety to the meal, there are peripheral stalls in the restaurant selling satay (skewered meat eaten with peanut sauce), som tam (papaya salad, and gaeng hang ley (Burmese-influenced stewed pork curry, another must-try delicacy).
Price: 30 baht for a bowl of Kao Soi with chicken, beef, or pork.
Samoer Jai at Faham. +66 (0) 5324 2928, open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except the last Wednesday of every month.
2. Sai Ua
Sai ua, known to foreigners as "Northern-style" or "Chiang Mai" sausages, are salivated over for their gustatory complexity.
Minced pork is stuffed with an orgy of herbs and spices including lemongrass, cilantro, shallot, black pepper and galangal, which is mixed with chili paste to burst forth with a cornucopia of flavors.
Baskets of piping hot sausage coils are hauled out at regular intervals to Damrong shop, where they go straight into bags for patiently queuing customers.
At any given time of the day, the 42-year-old institution is more likely than not to be the busiest stall in an already heaving Warorot Market, making it easy to spot amongst the chaos of vendors hawking dried fruits, spices, and traditional Chiang Mai cuisine.
If spices intimidate you, ask for a bag of sticky rice to go with your sai ua.
Price: 34 baht for 100 grams of sai ua.
Damrong at Warorot Market, ground floor of main building. +66 (0)5 323 4661. Open 5 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
3. Nam Prik Noom
Also located in Kad Luang is a stand that displays one of Chiang Mai's most famous products, nam prik noom.
Roasted green chilies are pounded with garlic, shallots and other ingredients to create a fibrous wet mess that gives a kick to sticky rice, vegetables or kaeb moo (pork rinds).
The stall has been around more than half of the 101 years the market has been in existence, and the Jae Hong brand has grown to become synonymous with premium nam prik noom, with many a shop around the city buying in bulk and re-selling under the trusted name.
The level of spiciness depends on the power of the chilies used, so it may vary from time to time. If in doubt, ask for a taste from the stainless steel mixing bowl, keeping in mind there's always the fallback of sticky rice or kaeb moo to tone down the heat.
Price: 12 baht for 100 grams of nam prik noom.
Jae Hong at Warorot Market, ground floor of main building. +66 (0) 5325 2302. Open 5 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
Wrapping up the Warorot trinity of greats is something for the sweet tooth, although denture wearers might want to stay away.
The Thai-Mon dessert kalamae has a caramel-like chewiness to it. Made from molasses, sticky rice and coconut milk, these treats were traditionally only made for special occasions such as New Year, bringing together entire villages to pitch in and help with the arduous mixing process.
Savoey at Kad Luang is the oldest kalamae shop in Chiang Mai, and carries sesame seed-coated bites wrapped in nipa palm leaves as well as red, green, black and brown gummies wrapped in clear cellophane.
The different colors represent different flavors (green for pandanus, brown for durian), but the slight taste differences and the rate these soft chewies are easily eaten mean the nuances are barely noticeable.
Price: 20 baht for a bag of mixed kalamaes.
Savoey at Warorot Market. +66 (0) 5327 5712. Open 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily.
5. Kaeb Moo
Crispy pork rinds generally deep-fried with salt, garlic and cloves, kaeb moo are the yin to nam prik noom's yang.
Two Amporn branded stalls are both situated in the southwest quadrant of Suthep Market, or Ton Payorm as it's known, serving up two variations of the pork scratching -- curls of just the crunchy skin, or bite-sized rind with a small pocket of fat attached for an added dose of fried pig goodness.
The latter can be deep-fried with or without the pandanus leaf, which when added, is said to absorb any unfavorable odors from the frying pan.
Kaeb moo loses its crunchiness relatively fast, so to cater to its loyal customers that come from far and wide, Jae Hong also sells marinated uncooked rinds for out-of-towners to fry up fresh whenever the craving hits (280 baht per kilo).
Price: 35 baht and 25 baht (with and without fat respectively) for 100 grams of kaeb moo.
Amporn at Suthep Market. +66 (0)5 383 2712. Open 5 a.m.-6.30 p.m. daily.
Steamed buns may be more Sino-Thai (or just outright Chinese) than northern Thai, but with an estimated 14 percent of all Thais claiming Chinese ethnicity and Wikun Panich at San Pakoi making the best sarabao in Chiang Mai, if not the whole of the country, they deserve to be on this list.
Unlike most shops that skimp on the fillings and pad on the bready covering, for more than 60 years Auntie Wikun has been making sarabao stuffed full of juicy minced pork, complete with a salted egg yolk and a slice of Chinese sausage.
As an alternative to the sai-kem (savory) fillings, there are also sai-waan (sweet) buns packed with black bean or cream paste.
Long lines mean these steamed buns, especially the big ones, sell out well before the closing time. Wikun is strictly take-away, but fret not, your buns will be safely incubated in a brown paper bag lined with banana leaves.
Price: 15 and 30 baht for a small and big sarabao respectively.
Wikun Panich, close to Nawarat Bridge on Charoen Muang Road. +66 (0)5 324 1930. Open 6 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.