Northern Thai Food 5 Must Try Dishes in Chiang Mai
We won’t pretend we’re experts on Northern Thai food, but there are several dishes that we find ourselves gravitating to in Chiang Mai that are distinctly ‘Lanna’ flavored and a far cry from the ubiquitous pad Thai. If you’re looking for something a bit spicy, pungent, and otherwise out of your comfort zone but undoubtedly delicious, here are five dishes we think are a great introduction to the flavors of the North.

If you’ve ever eaten at an overseas Thai restaurant or browsed through recipes on Pinterest, you’d think Thai food was synonymous with the lemongrass-chili-peanut flavor combo, when in fact there’s a lot more to it than that. In fact, even though Thailand is a relatively small country, it has four distinct regional cuisines: Northern, Southern, Central, and Northeastern Isaan, and each has their own flavor profile.

A little background on Northern Thai food

Here are a few regional characteristics of Thai Lanna cuisine:

  • It’s heavily influenced by northern neighboring countries such as Burma, Laos, and China
  • Soups and curries have a clear broth base and do not often use coconut milk
  • The cooler, jungle climate produces a variety of ingredients such as wild vegetables, mushrooms, and aromatic herbs used in cooking
  • Northern Thai cuisine is prominently salty and bitter and is not as spicy as Thailand’s hotter southern region’s cuisine or as sweet as the central region’s cuisine

Rather than serving fluffy steamed jasmine rice at meals, the staple food is sticky rice. It’s locally known as khao niaow and is made from glutinous rice. At first we didn’t care for it, but now we look forward to receiving small bamboo woven baskets of dense, pull-apart sticky rice at Thai restaurants.

Northern Thailand

Map courtesy of Nation’s Online

01  Kanom Jeen Nam Ngiaw ขนมจีนน้ำเงี๊ยว

Northern Thai food: Kanom Jeen Nam Ngieow

How to Really Pronounce It
“kah-nome-jeen nahm ngee-ow”

What to Look For
An island of bright white, skinny rice noodles swimming in a thin, dark red broth in a bowl. The soupy part will contain slow cooked meaty bits of pork or beef and stewed tomatoes. It may be topped with slivers of cabbage, pickled mustard greens, crisp white bean sprouts, fresh cilantro, and fried garlic.

What Nam Ngiaw Tastes Like
This dish is packed full of smoky, tangy flavor. True to Northern Thai food style, this curry has no coconut milk but is flavored with beef or pork, tomatoes, and dried smoky chilies. The broth is a deep rust red color, slightly pungent and a little oily, but full on delicious. Yes, it’s spicy (and probably the spiciest dishes on this list), but it’s definitely worth braving up and trying. Our particular version had chunks of oxtail that had been slowly stewed, making it very easy to pick away the tender meat from the bones.

Don't be afraid to try nam ngiaw, a dish found in Northern Thailand

Unusual Ingredients
It contains an interesting looking long, spindly herb that is the dried flower center of the red cotton tree. And we probably shouldn’t be telling you this but the dark red cubes are blood cake. Think red tofu. Seriously, you wouldn’t have known the difference. Red tofu!

Where to Find Nam Ngiaw in Chiang Mai
Huen Phen 112 Ratmakka Road  |  (053) 277-103  |  Open daily from 8:30am to 4pm and 5pm to 10pm

02  Sai Oua ไส้อั่ว | Northern Thai Sausage

One type of Northern Thai sausage is known as Sai Oua

How to Really Pronounce It
“sigh oo-ah”

What to Look For
Long, circular coils of pork sausage that can be easily spotted in Thai markets, at food vendors, and on menus of Northern Thai restaurants. The outer casing is charred red brown and when sliced on the diagonal reveals an inside with a golden brown color with speckles of green and light yellow.

What Sai Oua Tastes Like
The prominent flavors of this Northern Thai sausage is lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, and galangal. It’s smoky from the grill and has a little heat to it from the added chilies. To be fair, if you’re not familiar with how the first three ingredients taste (hint: lemongrass does not taste like lemon and kaffir lime leaf does not taste like lime), then it’s hard to imagine the flavor. But hey, that’s all the more reason to sample sai oua while you’re in town.

Sai Oua is a Northern Thai food easily sampled from Thai market

How to Eat It
This is finger food. Eat the bite sized slices as is, punctuated with small pinches of sticky rice or dipped in nam prik noom, a classic Thai dip made of pounded grilled green chilies, garlic, herbs, and fermented fish. Small bamboo skewers are often offered to be used as a utensil. Sai oua goes great with a cold bottle of local Leo or Singh beer.

Where to Find Sai Oua in Chiang Mai
This is one food we’d recommend eating from a food stall or Thai market. Go to any food stall set up – along Suthep Road by Chiang Mai University or at Chiang Mai Gate (open every evening starting around 5pm). The Saturday and Saturday Night Walking Street Markets are good places to start, too.

03  Gaeng Hunglay แกงฮังเล | Northern Pork and Ginger Curry

Gaeng Hunglay, or Pork and Ginger Curry, is a must try Northern Thai food

How to Really Pronounce It
“gang-hung-lay”

What to Look For
This Burmese style dish features a generous amount of large, fatty cubes of slow cooked pork belly (or beef in Muslim neighborhoods) in an oily reddish brown broth. Shreds of softened, julienned ginger and soft peanuts can be found clinging to the meat and speckled throughout the saucy goodness. Served with a side of steamed jasmine rice, sticky rice, or kanom jeen noodles.

What Gaeng Hunlay Tastes Like
This hearty, meatlovers dish is a no-coconut smoky curry with prominent flavors from ginger, soy sauce, garlic, and tamarind. It is subtly sweet and tangy with a kiss of heat, and if properly slow cooked then each bite should melt in your mouth. This is the perfect dish if you’re craving lots of protein.

How to Eat It
Spoon several large, tender pieces and some broth onto your plate along with a scoop of fragrant jasmine rice. No extra condiments are served with this dish unless you want to add a dab of chili paste, splash fish sauce, or a sprinkling of sugar from the standard display of table condiments. Enjoy with a fork and spoon.

Where to Find Gaeng Hunglay in Chiang Mai
Huen Muan Jai 4 Ratchaphuek Road  |  (053) 404-998  |  Open daily (except Wednesdays) from 10am to 10pm

04  Khao Soi ข้าวซอย | Northern Yellow Egg Noodle Curry

Bowl of khao soi gai, or Northern Thai yellow curry with chicken

How to Really Pronounce It
“cow saw-ee”

What to Look For
A bowl of yellow noodles and a rich, fragrant curry broth ranging from an orangy-yellow saffron color to canary yellow. It’s topped with a tangle of fried yellow noodles and often served with a slow cooked chicken and a small condiment dish filled with sliced purple shallots, mustard greens, deep red chili paste, and a wedge of lime. It may also be drizzle with white coconut cream before being served.

Northern Thai Food: Khao Soi Gai

What Khao Soi Tastes Like
Khao Soi get’s its exotic flavor from a curry paste mixture of dried and fresh chilies, anise, coriander seeds, and turmeric. The creamy soup is made with a base of chicken stock that’s been thickened with a generous scoop of coconut milk. This is then ladled over a mound of soft, wavy egg noodles. Usually we go for khao soi that’s been served with chicken – a slowly stewed drumstick to be exact – but we have also had versions served with slices of white meat chicken (meh, not nearly as much flavor), hunks of slow cooked beef, slices of roasted pork, and even some vegetarian versions.

How to Eat It
Grab a set of chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon and dig in. Even though the curry broth is most likely already a bit spicy, you can add more heat to your liking with the side of oily, smoky chili paste. But be warned – a little goes a long way! And don’t fret, the meat should be tender enough pick it off the chicken bones with your chopsticks.

Where to Find Khao Soi in Chiang Mai
You can find it practically everywhere, but here’s a map of our favorite khao soi restaurants and food stalls:

05  Nam Prik Ong น้ำพริกอ่อง | Pork Tomato Chili Dip

Northern Thai Food: Nam Prik Ong

How to Really Pronounce It
“nahm prick awng”

What to Look For
The dip itself looks like Bolognese sauce – a very thick, chunky tomato sauce loaded with ground pork. It’s served in a small bowl, which is usually served alongside a larger platter featuring raw or parboiled slices of cabbage, long beans, okra, cauliflower, and eggplant. It can also be served with fried pork cracklings called kap moo, boiled eggs, and Thai sausages.

What Nam Prik Ong Tastes Like
We joke that it tastes just like rich, thick spaghetti sauce without the western herbs like thyme and basil. It’s garlicy and can range from mild to spicy depending on who makes it. Surprisingly, this particular dip excludes ‘classic’ Thai or Asian flavors such as fish sauce, lemongrass, or soy sauce.

How to Eat It
This is another finger food and doubles as a good appetizer. The vegetables are already cut up into bit sized pieces (generally speaking), so just dip away and consume to your heart’s content. We like this dish when we’re in the mood for something light and ‘healthy’.

Where to Find Nam Prik Ong in Chiang Mai
You probably won’t find this dish at street vendors, so you best bet is to eat it at a sit down Thai restaurant.
Faces (Terra Cotta Arts Garden) Prapokklao Road Soi 2  |  (053) 278 187  |  Open daily from 8am to 11pm

There ya have it! Even though this list barely skims the surface of Northern Thai food, at least you can be confident in sampling a handful of new dishes while you’re in Chiang Mai There’s no point in flying halfway across to globe only to find yourself eating at McDonald’s, amiright?

 PIN THIS POST FOR LATER  

There is more to Thai food than pad Thai! In fact, Thailand has four regional food styles, and if you're traveling to the northern regions, here are five dishes you've got to try.

Send this to a friend