San Francisco Chronicle
Thailand's northern outpost claims a cuisine of its own
Mai Pham, Special to the Chronicle
Wednesday, June 27, 2001
Exotic banana blossom salad, shown here, and sai ua (frie... Exotic banana blossom salad and sai ua, fried sausages pe... Kaeng hung lay, a Burmese-style curry without coconut mil... "Folded" lotus flowers, shown here, and ornate leis are c... More...
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East To West
Standing here in the sala, a gazebo extending from my room at the Regent Resort north of Chiang Mai, I can see the sun descending behind the hills. A small brigade of groundskeepers clad in indigo tunics and Thai straw hats are welcoming the night, scurrying to light up the torches and oil lamps scattered on this lush property of rice fields and tropical gardens. Crickets, lizards and frogs are chirping and croaking. The serene feel of the "Land of a Million Rice Fields," as this region was once known, begins to set in.
I can't help but flash back to my childhood in the 1960s when our family lived in Thailand and we would come here for vacation. Every summer, we looked forward to escaping the heat and hustle and bustle of Bangkok and indulging in the cool, northern mountain retreat of Chiang Mai.
I remember the thrill of riding elephants, screaming every time they moved because each step took us up or down several feet. We loved visiting the monkey farms and hiking in the wilderness and seeing the ethnic tribes in their colorful dress. And in the afternoon, we'd go to the flower market and buy lotuses and beautiful leis to take to the temples. Once, we bought caged birds and set them free, a ritual believed to bring good luck. Then, in the early evening, we would hit the night market, eating our way through our favorite food stalls until our very last baht was spent.
Now as an adult I find more pleasure in revisiting the dishes that I loved as a child, and in experiencing places like this hotel where elements of the ancient Lanna kingdom have been thoughtfully recreated in classic designs.
"Look here," says Uemporn Atsameejam, who teaches northern Thai cuisine at the hotel. "The center of the banana blossom is the best and most fragrant part," she says, pointing to the dark red oval fruit.
On my first day, I've decided to sit in on her cooking class. Soft-spoken and graceful, she takes a small paring knife and swiftly but gently glides its blade through the petals, sending tiny banana fruits spilling to the table. She rolls the leaves, then thinly slices and tosses them into water with a squeeze of lime.
This popular salad, enjoyed throughout the country in many versions, is a fluffy mound of curls tossed with shrimp and pork and a puckeringly sour dressing made of lime juice, tamarind juice, dried shrimp and fish sauce.
"Most foreigners are familiar with the foods of Bangkok and the central region, but here in the north we have a wonderful cuisine, too," Atsameejam says as she places half a banana blossom on the plate for garnish.
Local cooking is influenced by Burma, Laos and, to some extent, China, since many of the early settlers were from southern Yunnan province. The seasonings are not as sweet, and coconut milk - a staple ingredient used in Bangkok and the central region - plays less of an important role.
Because of those historical and cultural influences, and its remote mountainous location, Chiang Mai has maintained its regional identity. Locals prefer khao neow, or sticky rice, over plain rice. They eat lots of roots and vegetables such as raw eggplants, winged beans, young bamboo shoots and cabbage, usually accompanied by a version of nam phrik, a thick dipping sauce made with pounded fresh chiles, garlic, shrimp paste and sometimes ground pork.
Curries, such as the Burmese-influenced khaeng hang ley, are mildly spiced and prepared without coconut milk. Naem, a spicy sausage made of pork, lemongrass and herbs, is a favorite snack, eaten at all times of the day.
Decades ago, my siblings and I would run down to the corner near our rented summer home nearly every day for a bowl of kao soi, a local specialty of egg noodles in curry broth that is neither Thai nor Chinese. This time, my guide wants take me to his local favorite kao soi shop in the old section of Chiang Mai, an area surrounded by ancient walls and moats.
It's a small place patronized mostly by locals. A Muslim woman works the front cart, sending smoky aromas into the street as she flips and turns skewers of satay on the grill. Across the street, a vendor throws roti into the air, pulling, stretching and slapping until the flaky dough is spread out enough to be shaped into a small flat bread and fried. I succumbed to an order of each.
The kao soi cook, whose family is Chinese Muslim, occupies the largest counter. Her delicious family recipe blends a thick curry of chicken simmered in turmeric, ginger and spices and a light coconut broth. To assemble the dish,
she grabs a handful of bamee, or egg noodles and dunks them into boiling water for a minute or two, then places them in a bowl. A spoonful of curry sauce goes on top followed by a ladle of steaming coconut broth from another pot.
When my bowl arrives at the table, I can smell the sweetness of the coconut and the fragrance of spices and chopped cilantro. I squeeze some lime and garnish the noodles with fresh chiles, shallots and pickled mustard.
After slurping and chewing the succulent noodles, I'm sated, ready for our day's trip to Lamphun, a small town south of Chiang Mai.
After a half-hour drive, the stark, white buildings and wide concrete highways that dominate the center of Chiang Mai begin to disappear, and a quieter, rural Chiang Mai - the one I remember - comes into view.
The blocks of gift shops and Internet cafes are replaced by small country roads with old, dark teak homes crowned with pointed, carved rooftops; storefronts with clusters of bananas hanging from the beams; and sarong-clad women walking past orchards of mangoes and longans.
Almost every home has a spirit house, a tiny temple that houses "forest ghosts" displaced by human habitation. There are even han naam, platforms of clay jars holding rain water, from which visitors can quench their thirst.
Every so often, wats, the sacred temples of everyday Thai life, rise from even the smallest of villages, their ornate red and gold facades standing in dramatic contrast to their simple surroundings.
I grew up with these structures but seeing them as an adult is powerful. They're everywhere - along the roads, behind homes, among the rice fields and perched up high on the hills. Monks dressed in bright orange robes pour out of these wat compounds to collect offerings of food and flowers.
As I walk the grounds of one temple, admiring the elaborate wood carvings of an old, weathered Lanna structure, I'm gratified by all that I'm seeing. Although part of today's Chiang Mai is unfamiliar, this region of northern Thailand still captivates me.
There's a magical, fleeting moment just before sunset when the day's last light casts a golden glow over the temple rooftops and grounds, blessing the region with a soft tranquility. It's an image that stays with me long after I've returned to Northern California.
For now, until I can once again immerse myself in that alluring and meditative landscape, I'll head out to the Asian markets, gather up some banana blossoms and other ingredients and recreate those scrumptious meals from Chiang Mai.
Northern Thai restaurants
Most Thai restaurants serve dishes from Bangkok and the central region because they are the most popular of the country's four regional cooking styles. In the Bay Area, however, a few restaurants, including the following, also offer some northern Thai dishes, either on the menu or as specials.
-- Chiang Mai Thai Restaurant, 5020 Geary Blvd., San Francisco; (415) 387- 1299.
-- Dara Lao Cuisine, 1549 Shattuck Ave. (at Cedar), Berkeley; (510) 841- 2002. Lunch and dinner daily.
-- Lanna Thai Restaurant, 1245 Noriega St. (between 19th and 20th avenues), San Francisco; (415) 665-8080. Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
CURRY NOODLE SOUP WITH CHICKEN (kao soi)
One of the most interesting flavors of this dish comes from pickled Chinese mustard, used here as a garnish. Pickled mustard can be found in the produce or refrigerated-food section of Asian markets.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon curry powder
2/3 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into bite-size strips
2 cups chicken stock
3 cups coconut milk
1 teaspoon turmeric
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1 pound fresh egg noodles, or 2/3 pound dried egg noodles
1/4 cup oil
1 scallion, cut into thin rings
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 shallots, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped pickled mustard
4 lime wedges
4 Thai bird chiles, or 2 serrano chiles, cut into thin rings (optional)
2 tablespoons garlic oil (optional)
Heat the oil in a medium-size pot over moderate heat. Add garlic, curry paste, cumin and curry powder and stir until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Add chicken and chicken stock and simmer for 5 minutes. Add coconut milk, turmeric,
fish sauce and sugar. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a low simmer.
To prepare the noodles: Heat the 1/4 cup oil in a medium pot over high heat. Take a small handful of the noodles and deep-fry until they puff up and are crisp, about 1 minute. Remove noodles with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels.
Boil remaining noodles just until done, about 1 or 2 minutes depending on the thickness. Divide boiled noodles among heated soup bowls.
Bring the pot of curry back to a boil. Ladle the curry broth into the bowls.
Top with chicken, then sprinkle with scallions and cilantro.
Invite guests to garnish their bowls with a few slices of shallots, mustard,
lime, fresh chiles, optional garlic oil, and the fried noodles.
PER SERVING: 835 calories, 36 g protein, 65 g carbohydrate, 51 g fat (34 g saturated), 114 mg cholesterol, 1,176 mg sodium, g fiber.
CHIANG MAI CURRY WITH PORK (kaeng hung lay)
This popular curry exemplifies the Burmese influence on Northern Thai cooking: the use of pork instead of chicken or beef; water rather than coconut milk for the broth; and the inclusion of fresh ginger and ground turmeric. This mildly spiced dish is quick and easy to prepare.
10 small dried red chiles (or to taste), soaked in water for 30 minutes, stemmed and drained
2 tablespoons sliced fresh lemongrass
1 teaspoon chopped galangal
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
2 teaspoons shrimp paste
2 tablespoons brown sugar, or to taste
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2/3 pound boneless pork butt, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 1/2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
2 cups water
3 shallots, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2-inch knob of ginger, peeled, cut into thin slivers
2 1/2 tablespoons tamarind pulp, soaked in 1/4 cup hot water for 15 minutes, then pushed through a sieve
Pinch of salt
Using a mortar and pestle, pound the chiles and lemongrass into a coarse paste. (You can also use a food processor.) Add the galangal and garlic then pound. Add the shrimp paste, brown sugar and turmeric and continue to pound until the ingredients are broken down. Transfer to a small bowl.
Put the pork and curry paste in a large pot and stir a few times to completely coat the meat. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until the meat is firm and the paste is fragrant.
Add the fish sauce and water. Cover and simmer until the meat is tender and the sauce is thick and smooth, about 40 minutes total. Ten minutes before the dish is done, stir in the shallots and garlic.
Place 2/3 of the ginger slivers in a mortar and bruise slightly.
Add the ginger, tamarind juice and salt to the curry. Simmer another minute.
Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the remaining ginger slivers.
PER SERVING: 205 calories, 19 g protein, 17 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat (2 g saturated), 61 mg cholesterol, 609 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
BANANA BLOSSOM SALAD (yum hua plee)
The original recipe from the Regent Resort in Chiang Mai calls for coriander root and pickled garlic, both of which add a distinct savoriness and aroma to the dish. Although you can find these ingredients at Asian markets, this recipe is also delicious with just fresh cilantro.
2 banana blossoms
1/2 lime wedge
1 tablespoon Thai roasted chile paste (nam phrik pao)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons palm sugar or granulated sugar
1 to 2 Thai bird chiles, or 1 teaspoon any chopped fresh chile
1 tablespoon small dried shrimp, pounded fine and fluffy
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
4 ounces cooked pork, cut into thin strips
3 ounces cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 tablespoons fried shallots (optional)
4 tablespoons chopped roasted cashew nuts or peanuts
Peel and discard the tough outer layers of the banana blossoms, and discard the tiny fruit between the petals. You may have to discard 5 or 6 petals before you get to the lighter core. Halve the blossoms and cut across into thin slices; submerge them in water. Rinse in several changes of water, discarding any bits and pieces of the fruit that fall to the bottom of the bowl.
Transfer the banana blossom curls to a fresh bowl of cold water. Add a squeeze of lime then let soak for 30 minutes. Drain well and set aside.
Combine the roasted chile paste, lime juice, fish sauce, water, sugar, chiles, dried shrimp and cilantro in a mixing bowl and stir well to blend. Add the banana blossoms, pork, shrimp, optional fried shallots, and half of the cashew nuts. Toss gently.
Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the remaining nuts.
PER SERVING: 205 calories, 18 g protein, 18 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat (2 g saturated), 74 mg cholesterol, 932 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
Mai Pham, chef/owner of the Lemon Grass restaurant and cafes in Sacramento, is the author of "The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking." You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos by Mia Pham.