Thailand, Part 2: Chiang Mai and One (More) Night in Bangkok
Posted on March 17, 2014
Our first day in Chiang Mai is, honestly, an almost total blur for me. We rolled in at around 11 a.m., took a “red cab” (sorng taa ou, relatively cheap shared taxi trucks) to our hotel in the center of the old walled city, and I just collapsed. Derek did some exploring on his own while I took an epic nap. I did manage to get up for a meal at a sweet little spot just down the street. I had the most wonderfully spicy kai kaphrao khai dao (stir-fried chicken with holy basil—there’s an excellent recipe for a somewhat more complex version of this dish in the Pok Pok cookbook), and Thalia really enjoyed her first khai jiao (a fluffy shallow-fried omelet), this one with enoki mushrooms, draped over a mound of jasmine rice. Comforting food, all of it.
The next morning we were up early. We asked two sorng taa ou drivers to take us to Wororot Market on the eastern side of the city, and they refused and drove off. A third driver laughed and shook his head, but took us anyway. I still have no idea why the reluctance; maybe they didn’t think they could get a return fare?
We wandered around the market ogling unusual produce and proteins. I bought a kilo of mangosteens, and passed on the live eels, snails, small and large turtles, three-inch-long cockroaches* (dead, but laid out with care in neat, tight rows), and live songbirds in delicate pyramidal bamboo cages.
At some point I went out on my own to an open-air food stand called Laap Dee Khom—and I know the name of it only because I read about it on Austin Bush’s invaluable blog—selling readymade dishes with rice. I liked eating from these shops, where you can just point to what you want and they scoop it out for you, because that way they had to serve me the version of the dish they’d give anyone else rather than toning it down in the kitchen for a Western palate. This was fun food indeed. Clockwise from the top in the picture below: Fresh, crisp herbs and greens (mint, cabbage, ??, ??) to accompany laap Isan (the best version I had in Thailand, salty, tangy, textural, soupy with fish sauce); a warm paste that I’ve since determined was most likely tam khanun, boiled and mashed jackfruit cooked with curry paste (here’s a likely recipe, although I didn’t discern any pork in this version)—as I was eating it I had no idea what it was; tender, silky stewed greens of some sort—they tasted, I swear, like artichokes—in a broth with fresh tomatoes and maybe tamarind; and sticky rice. One of the other customers spoke some English. She was surprised I’d asked for sticky rice (“You can eat sticky rice?”) and when I pointed to the unappetizing-looking paste-like dish she said, “You live in Chiang Mai? You eat this?” I’ll admit that was a highlight for me.
If anyone has any idea what the greens might have been, please comment. They were so, so good!
Skipping ahead a bit, Derek bought a young coconut to drink from while we ambled around the streets near the Lanna Folklife Museum. The ones at this shop were on ice, which is brilliant, and I don’t know why we didn’t see more of that.
We were approached twice by groups of school kids practicing their English by asking us questions involving abstract concepts. “What do you think would make the world a better place?” “Are people generally peaceful or warlike?” They took down the responses and our family name in the neatest handwriting I’ve ever seen. They asked us where in America we were from, and we said Nebraska. One boy said, “Ah, Nebraska. The capital of Nebraska is . . . Omaha?” Close enough! Here’s Derek, coconut in hand, chatting about war and peace and redistribution of wealth:
Not in any order, here’s some other food we ate in Chiang Mai. It’s by no means complete—imagine grilled skewers of cracked-coriander pork and chicken livers, coarse-textured herbal Chiang Mai sausages, ice creams, street-fried things. Click through for captions:
Our best meal in Thailand, I think by a long shot, was at SP Chicken, which has a new location just off Th. Samlan (look for Soi 1, just south of Wat Phra Singh) in the old part of Chiang Mai. The famous lemongrass-stuffed rotisserie chicken; smoky slow-grilled but still nice and chewy pork ribs; sweet chile dipping sauce and a sort of unthickened jaew, a tart, spicy dipping sauce I couldn’t get enough of (note that it was not the tamarind sauce described in the Pok Pok book, in which SP Chicken is prominently profiled); and probably the best som tam (green papaya salad) I’ve had.
Also stir-fried water morning glory!
Derek thinks it’s one of the best barbecue places in existence, up there with the great Texas brisket joints and the Carolina pork shrines, and I’m inclined to agree. One point in SP Chicken’s favor is the fact that they serve cold beer (we splurged on Singha, slightly more expensive than Chang). We noticed, too, that one couple, a farang man and a Thai woman, brought their own bottle of whisky.
SP was a very fine way to close out our last evening in Chiang Mai. We took a no-fuss plane (whew) back to Bangkok the next morning. For some reason my food pictures from here out are terrible, but I’ll include them here anyway in the interest of documentation. Indian for lunch! It was another steamy, hazy, smoggy day, and even I couldn’t fathom standing in the sun on a street corner eating food off a grill. We just stepped into this crazy restaurant. I had papri chaat (or papdi chaat?), which was nice and tangy with tamarind and bits of tomato, and I drizzled plenty of cilantro-chile chutney over it for heat. I liked the big tray of breath fresheners offered after the meal. I don’t know what those little green nugget candies are—anybody have an idea?
If SP Chicken was the best meal we had, our last dinner, at the super-swank nahm in Bangkok, was the strangest. It may well be some of the most bizarre food I’ve ever eaten. I have to admit, too, that this meal pretty much defeated me. It was too much for me. If we’d ordered just one of these dishes, plus maybe something a bit less . . . difficult, it would’ve been a wonderful experience; but of course we couldn’t pass up our chance to try these foods. We won’t be back in Bangkok for quite a while, and you might even say it was now or never. The waiter warned us against the appetizer we chose (the spiciest one on the menu, she said) as well as the two main dishes (the spiciest and second spiciest). Maybe we should have listened to her, maybe it’s good we didn’t.
I neglected to take a picture of the amuse bouche: weird sweet balls of pork and nuts and sticky paste set atop slices of pineapple—like pork candy. Also lacking photographic evidence is the appetizer of salted threadfish, green mango, chiles, etc. on beautiful shiny betel leaves (I didn’t notice any stimulant effects). With apologies for the terrible photographs, our main courses:
At the bottom left are fried cassia leaves (they did taste faintly of cinnamon!); behind those is a “relish” of yellow soybeans, ginger, shallots, chiles, kaffir lime, and I think a ton of lemongrass, drizzled with coconut cream (tangy, crunchy, spicy); the relish was to be eaten with the cassia leaves and the raw vegetables in the center bowl (long beans, white turmeric, cabbage, something the waiter called “sour leaves,” the glossy ones in the center, which were indeed sour, cilantro, maybe green papaya). At the far right is something that was somehow supposed to be eaten with the dish that’s pictured on the left below. Sliced-lengthwise chiles, as you can see, pineapple and some other fruit, lots of garlic, ground chiles, spices, who knows what else.
Up there on the left is a dish the waiter told us was very strong, very spicy, with a powerful “aftertaste.” I’ve never had a waiter tell us a dish had an aftertaste, but she was not wrong. The menu describes the dish thusly: “smoked fish curry with prawns, chicken livers, cockles, chillies and black pepper,” which sounds fairly benign but isn’t. It was very spicy, of course, but also funky with tangy fermented fish, curry spices, a bit of that minerally offal flavor. I won’t lie, it was not easy to eat and needed plenty of rice to dilute its effects. How you would eat this curry with the spicy pineapple condiment above escapes me.
At the right up above is a jungle curry of pork with young cardamoms (does this mean green fresh pods, like the ones in this picture? I couldn’t discern them in the curry), green peppercorns, green bananas, and herbs—lots of kaffir, wilted clumps of Thai basil, and probably others. This curry had a most interesting spice profile that I’d never in a million years be able to come close to replicating: warm sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves (all three or maybe just one or two of those). Of course it, too, had a lot of heat. I think it was the jungle curry that was meant to be eaten with the fresh vegetables and fruits in the bowl right behind it in the picture—pineapple, cucumber, long beans, green mango (possibly), halved eggplants, juicy wax apple, and what might have been carambola, or starfruit, sliced lengthwise. In addition to glass after glass of water, I drank a good refreshing cocktail called Thai Sabai, made with Mekhong rum, sugar, Thai basil, lime, and seltzer. This was not a menu designed for kids, but Thalia happened to order something very appropriate for her, and seemed to really like it: an egg custard grilled in a banana leaf folded into an open rectangular boat shape. And she had rice. And a KitKat when we got back to the hotel for being so good and patient and mature while her mom and dad ate crazy food.
This is Bangkok from our hotel:
We left just a few hours later, to make an early-morning flight, and for good measure got taken by the cab driver, who claimed not to be able to break a 1,000-baht bill for a 500-baht fare. We thoroughly enjoyed a three-hour layover in the Narita airport outside Tokyo, the highlights of which were green tea KitKats and top-notch sushi and sashimi opposite gate 33 in terminal 1:
Home in Nebraska, things—the built environment, clothes, food—seem plain and unadorned. But we can drink the water and breathe the air, and even though we didn’t end up eating khao soi even once in Chiang Mai we can easily get all the ingredients we need and make it here.
(Read part 1 here. And see more pictures, if you’d like—temples, random streets, etc.—here. And if you’d like more details about where exactly we ate and where we stayed, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to piece that information together.)
* Those were probably water bugs.