Tastes of Thailand: Chiang Mai’s Market-Fresh Foods
Sawadee Krup! Ah, Thailand. The penetrating scent of jasmine, the sputter of tuk tuks, the quiet temples, the cold blasts of Thai iced tea and the smiles for miles. They don’t call it “the land of smiles” for nothing. I spent a month in Thailand last year, and I loved everything about it. But I was so busy beach- and barhopping in Koh Samui, playing elephant polo in the Golden Triangle, and birdwatching atop the misty summit of Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s tallest mountain) that my time in Chiang Mai was limited. I vowed to return, and I have.
Though I’m just as smitten with it today as I was a year ago, I’m also just as mystified. One thing that puzzles me now as much as it did then is the extensive variety of Thai foods I’ve never seen or heard of. I can navigate my way around a Thai menu in the U.S. or Switzerland like a pro. Here, I am completely out of my element.
Determined to demystify Thailand’s food, I enlisted the help of Rewat Srilachai, Executive Chef at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, who has been with the company for 20 years. Srilachai and I stopped at a few street vendors and two markets in Chiang Mai (the Wororot and Sompet), where I learned about everything from bamboo worms and snow lotus to puffball mushrooms and butterfly pea flowers.
Here, in his own words, Srilachai describes 10 Thai foods you’ve got to try (even if you’ve never heard of them).
These small, reddish dried plums are sweet and intensely fragrant.
“Great for snacking on or adding to granola.”
Nutty mango and sour mango
“There are many species of mangoes, and they are all different in texture and flavour.” The sour mango is served with a chilli sauce, while the nutty version is prepared with a thick chilli and shrimp paste.
Butterfly pea (aka Asian pigeon wings)
This edible flower turns up in drinks at juice stands and 7-Elevens. “It’s
light on flavour, but adds a rich violet colour.”
These small bites are sold fresh during the season, but you can find them canned year round. “Thai go crazy for these in season. They taste similar to truffles.”
Khao grieb pak mor
“Morning commuters line up for these street snacks.” These tapioca flour dumplings plumped with minced pork are topped with coconut milk, hot peppers, crunchy cabbage and peanuts.
These small, grub-like delicacies are not for everyone, but they do have a loyal following in Thailand. “You must listen to the bamboo before you cut to know which stalk has worms.”
“Bamboo is also used as a mould for savoury, spicy sausages—most often with pork.”
“It’s simple—just steamed rice. The best comes from the North in
Surin, where my mother-in-law lives. When she visits she always brings some, and wow, the aroma!”
“This is a very popular new vegetable. Like jicama, it’s white with a chilled center. We’re implementing this into the menu right now.”
This simple dish of puréed radishes mixed with flour can be cooked several ways. “They are good grilled with a little bit of oil.”