From Chiang Mai to the Isaan plateau, the northern provinces are the birthplace of a host of Thai culinary classics. Journey through Northern Thailand on a food trail, taking in the sights as you savour the best food, flavours and local specialties in each region.
Food Trail through Chiang Mai
Must-Try Food in Chiang Mai: Khao Soi Curry Noodles
Best known for its ancient temples, Chiang Mai is also the undisputed centre for northern Thailand’s distinctive cuisine – an aromatic assortment of pungent soups, spicy sausages and fiery dips. If you try one dish during your visit then it has to be khao soi (curry noodles), a warming bowl of egg noodles in a thick broth usually served with chicken, but also available with beef and pork.
CC2.0 / Alpha
Where to Eat Curry Noodles in Chiang Mai:
It’s not clear where or when this dish really originated, but that doesn’t stop the owners of Lam Duan Faham (352/22 Charoenrat Road, 053 243 519) claiming they invented it. To be fair, their rich broth and crunchy fried noodle topping warrants the fame the shop has attracted.
Another good option, which has the added bonus of serving up a lot of other local specialties, is Samerjai (391 Charoenrat Road, 053 242 928).
352/22 Charoenrat Road
053 243 519
391 Charoenrat Road
053 242 928
Must-Try Food in Chiang Mai: Sai Oua
When it comes to northern treats I confess a real weakness for sai oua, the intense herbal sausages usually served with an equally feisty chilli dip.
CC3.0 / Takeaway
Most people head to Damrong, a small stall piled high with the meaty treats and found at Warorot Market (aka Kad Luang) on Wichayanon Road. It’s good, but I think Kad Ton Payom Market (intersection between Suthep and Canal Roads) is even better for getting your sausage to go, and it’s also close to Nimmanhaemin Road, which is home to lots of cute cafes and cool boutiques.
Best Place for Sai Oua in Chiang Mai:
Northern food is all about hearty, spicy dishes, something you can sample in the rich and fatty kaeng hung lay (pork curry) and fiery dips, such as nam prik num (green chilli paste) and nam prik ong (tomato chilli paste), served at both Huen Phen (112 Rachamankha Road, 053 814 548) and Krua Petch Doi Ngam (267 Mahidol Road, 053 204 517).
Huen Muan Jai (24 Ratchaphruek Road, 053 404 998) has the added bonus of being located in a beautiful old teak-wood home, while Tong Tem Toh (11 Soi Nimmanhaemin 13, 053 894 701) offers a tasting plate, so you can sample those famous dips with the more-ish cab moo (pork crackling).
However, our personal pick would probably be Huen Jai Yong (64 Moo 4, Buak Khang-Sam Kampaeng Road, 086 671 8710). It might be 20 minutes from the city centre but the setting is charming and the gaeng khae pla (fish curry) makes it well worth the trip.
112 Rachamankha Road
053 814 548
267 Mahidol Road
053 204 517
24 Ratchaphruek Road
053 404 998
11 Soi Nimmanhaemin 13
053 894 701
64 Moo 4
Buak Khang-Sam Kampaeng Road
086 671 8710
Food Trail through Isaan
Unlike Chiang Mai, the north-eastern region of Isaan is not on many people’s radars, yet it happens to be the birthplace of many of Thailand’s most popular (and famous) dishes. Som tam (papaya salad), moo ping (grilled pork), kor moo yang (grilled pork neck) and laab moo (spicy pork salad) – and many more – all originate in the region, which takes strong culinary cues from Laos and Cambodia.
CC2.0 / Ron Dollete
While Isaan is beautiful, it isn’t an obvious tourist destination and is among the poorest regions in Thailand, which means many of its residents are drawn to the bright lights of Bangkok. The one positive of this economic imbalance is that the capital is blessed with an abundance of shophouses, restaurants and stalls selling grilled chicken and fiery som tam.
Must Try: Northern Som Tam Thai Papaya Salad
Papaya salad is, of course, omnipresent in the Land of Smiles, but the Isaan version tends to be more pungent than the sweet som tam thai you’ve enjoyed in Bangkok. That’s thanks to the addition of pla ra (fermented fish sauce) or pickled rice-paddy crab. You’ve been warned!
Best Places for Som Tam:
One Bangkok eatery offering a good introduction to the dish’s real nuances is Somtum Der, which does intriguing regional variations such as a pasteurised version of som tam pla ra for the fainter of heart.
CC 2.0 / Premshree Pillai
Jay Ouan Moo Jum is a more down-and-dirty alternative, which has a good choice of som tam and some decadently fatty grilled pork neck.
Jay Kee hidden away down a tiny alley is another solid option. As well as a potent som tam pla ra they’re particularly known for that other omnipresent Isaan dish – grilled chicken. While it doesn’t quite match up to the grilled chicken found in Khao Suan Kwang in Khon Khaen province, it’s still very good and is positively drowning in garlic bits.
CC 2.0 / Alpha
The smoky, juicy meat goes particularly well with the spicy chilli dip nam jim jaew. In fact, we’d argue that jim jaew, a magical combination of fish sauce, dried chilli, shallots and lime, is pretty much the ideal accompaniment to anything grilled.
The cosy Supanniga Eating Room certainly makes an attractive spot to try Isaan-style grilled beef and pork, while long-term favourite Som Tam Nua does a refreshingly zesty laab moo and a sour tom saep (spicy soup).
To finish, you just have to try my personal favourite – laab moo tord. These herbal, spicy deep fried meatballs go great with a cold beer, which is handy, as I reckon rooftop bar Sky Train Jazz Club does the best in Bangkok.
5/5 Saladaeng Road, Silom
02 632 4499
Suan Plu Soi 3, Sathorn
086 170 5806
137/1–3 Soi Polo
Th Withayu/Wireless Road
02 655 8489
160/11 Soi Sukhumvit 55,
between Thonglor Soi 6 and 8,
02 714 7508
392/14 Soi Siam Square 5
02 251 4880
5/F, 6 Rangnam Road
02 640 0303