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Lanna Food: the Sleeping Beauty of World Cuisine

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Lanna Food: the Sleeping Beauty of World Cuisine

JinBy Jin   Posted 5th Feb 2016

Although Chiang Mai as a destination is well known, its food is not! Even the cuisine of the Northeast of Thailand, Isaan, is better known than the food of Chiang Mai. While at its foundation it shares many similarities with Lao cuisine it is also strongly influenced by Burmese, Yunnanese, Isaan and Central Thai cuisines, and is a sleeping beauty just waiting to take its place among the world’s great culinary traditions. The staple of Northern Thai food is sticky rice, a highly glutinous variety of rice favoured in Laos, Northeastern and Northern Thailand as well as by Tai ethnic groups in Myanmar and Yunnan. To accompany sticky rice is the obligatory a chilli paste, the lord of the table, and the main condiment without which a meal would be incomplete. There is a vast variety of chilli pastes, some flavoured by pickled bamboo, others by sour fruits, fermented fish, crushed bugs or even crab paste. But they all share a few common ingredients: fire roasted chillis, garlic, shallots and salt. Next on the list of ‘must-haves’ on the Northern Thai table is a soup. Some of these so-called soups are so full of different ingredients that 'stew' may actually be the better name for them. Chiang Mai style soups are filled with all different kinds of local vegetables and chopped meats. Some popular soups include banana flowers, pickled bamboo, mustard greens, water gourd and green jackfruit, along with other lesser known local vegetables. In addition to the ubiquitous chicken, pork and beef, other sources of protein may include snails, frogs, fish and various dried meats.
Lanna cuisine
A selection of typical Lanna dishes and chilli paste
Gaeng Ho soup, one of the more stew-like versions, shows clearly the fusion of Lanna and Burmese culinary traditions. In addition to the common ingredients of lemongrass and galangal, Gaeng Ho includes curry powder giving it more of the flavour of a Burmese curry. After the sticky rice, chilli paste and soup, the table will normally have an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes. Spicy minced meat dishes are very popular, and are called Laab or Sa. Other methods of cooking include grilling (often with banana leaves used as a wrapping), steaming, stir fry or pot roast. There are also various forms of sausages and dried or cured meats.
Lanna food
Tasty morsels wrapped in banana leaves
Chiang Mai Food Adventures by Bike Really the best way to begin your adventure of discovery into the delights of Chiang Mai food is by taking our 'Chiang Mai Food Adventures by Bike' tour.
Fresh fruit juices
Fresh fruit juices
The first stop of four on the tour, which quenches the thirst while giving a little sugar boost for the ride, is at Nong’s fresh fruit juice shop. Nong makes 100% fresh juices daily from a wide range of local fruits. Here we learn a bit about the culture and history of Chiang Mai, as her shop sits near Wat Inthakin, a temple considered to be at the navel of the city. Taking our bikes we ride across the city moat passing Wat Lok Molee where we stop to listen to the monks chat and spill a bit of holy water on the Buddha to bless us on our night’s ride.
Lanna food in Chiang Mai
A typical Chiang Mai food market
The second food stop is Tannin Market, officially known as Sri Wattana Market. It is here that we really delve deep into the whats and wherefores of Chiang Mai Cuisine. Taking a tour of the market with bento boxes in hand, we will select some never-before-eaten fruits, then have a walk around the market for an intro into the various ingredients of Chiang Mai food. Stopping by the chilli paste stall a paste will be created just for us before we head off to the main food sellers to fill our bento boxes with the various culinary delights of this night market. We then sit down to unpack and discuss the various foods garnered from the market. After a short lesson in how to eat sticky rice we dig in, only stopping after we have finished off the last of the fruits.
Tai Yai Salad
Sitting down to a delicious meal
Back on the bikes we ride off to our third stop. This time just for a light snack to taste another of the delightful cuisines of Northern Thailand, Shan food. The Shan are called Tai Yai by the Thais. Here we stop to have Tai Yai Salad which is made of pickled tea leaves, peanuts, roasted soybeans, chilli, fresh tomatoes and cilantro. Surely by now, you must be thinking that you are full, but there is always room for more when it comes to dessert, right? Our last stop on the tour is by the River Ping in a 150 year old, nicely preserved Chinese Thai merchant's home. Here on the banks of the river under the branches of a rain tree we sit down to a traditional Thai dessert.
The dessert is a surprise as the restaurant manager will personally select the dessert to be served on each particular night. The evening is topped of with a famous Chinese tea from Mae Salong District in Chiang Rai. While you cannot hope to fathom the breadth and sophistication of Lanna Cuisine in just a few hours of a food tour, this will certainly point you in the right direction for further explorations.  
Chiang Mai - Traditional Food Adventures by Bike



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