Sunday, December 17, 2006

Chiang Mai: The Food


Sunday Market

I have to confess: we broke our cardinal rule about eating only cooked street food yadda yadda and ate everything in sight, raw food, iced drinks et al. And why not, everything looked fresh and smelled amazingly good, and cost only 5B (SGD $0.25) to 20B (SGD $1), and there were lots of people eating. As HM pointed out, everywhere we went there were Thai people in mid-munch (and this was true at any time of day). We figured if not now, then when...

How much can we eat in one night? Well, just for starters, we had beetroot juice - really orange juice with a top note of beetroot - in a bottle. Then there were fresh strawberries in a plastic cup, topped with sugar and salt in a typically Thai way.

grilled squid onnastick

HM abstained from the above, for fear of an allergic reaction. Too bad for her, hehe, but I had a stick.

sausages of all shapes and sizes

We had a squishy greasy fatty pork sausage with glutinous rice stuffed inside. I can honestly say it was absolutely delicious.

vendor frying up omelettes

And then we had omelettes on rice. Mmm, nothing like a freshly cooked omelette on piping hot Thai rice. It's real comfort food.

ain't these cute?

We would have had these but we didn't want to fight the local kiddies for a bite.

Like a green papaya salad but mango instead.

Then there was green mango salad. Our very kind vendor heeded our pleas for "not spicy" and toned down the heat for us wussy non-chilli eating Singaporeans. Still, we ate our salad gingerly, careful not to choke on the chilli while slurping down the sour salad dressing.

We ate all this while walking around. Since HM claims I do not multitask well i.e. I cannot eat, and walk, and shop at the same time, we eventually found our way to one of the many food areas set up within the compounds of temples and other buildings. Here, amidst the religious statues and lush foliage, we sat down with the throngs.

pad thai eaters (they don't eat anything else)

fried corn fritters

HM didn't care much for these crunchy snacks but I lurved them.

say cheese!

HM preferred these instead: rice flour rolls with prawn, pork and shredded veggie.

beef noodles, with a touch of chilli

We are beginning to like soupy noodles with just a little heat added. It's comfort food with a bit of a kick. This one had just a touch of herbal flavour as well which added to the taste.

For dessert, we had ice cream and something that everyone thinks of when you say "Thai dessert".

everyone loved having his photo taken

There were all these stalls selling "ancient" ice cream (methinks they want the word, "traditional") so we opted for "ancient" coconut.

mango with sticky rice

This isn't one of HM's favourites - she doesn't like savoury desserts and the coconut milk does so make it savoury-tasting - but I had to have some.

To end the night of feasting, we wandered into a Black Canyon and bought an iced latte. Bad mistake. For those who have read the Bangkok blog, you will remember a similar misadventure with an iced latte bought from a vendor at a train station. Little did we expect that this international (albeit Thai-owned) coffee chain would also sell lethally sweet concoctions like this. Suffice it to say, from then on, we never ordered coffee without saying "mai nam tan" (or "no sugar puh-lease!").

P.S. We survived the street food!

Food Court at Kad Suan Kaew

We went out to Kad Suan Kaew, a shopping centre just outside the old city, in search of handicrafts. We found them in the basement but nothing caught our eye. Instead, there was a food court which we thought was worth trying since we were there. It seemed busy enough, with many locals having lunch there.

Armed with coupons bought from the cash counter, we had:

pork sukiyaki with glass noodles (25B/SGD $1.25)

Thai chicken rice (25B/SGD $1.25)

I'm not sure if I actually ordered the steamed chicken, as opposed to the roast chicken, but it certainly tasted like the roast chicken rice we get from the Malay nasi ayam stalls.

For dessert, we had more mango with sticky rice (20B/SGD $1) and an iced herbal drink called jub liang (we think) (10B/SGD $0.50). Altogether, it was a cheap and good meal, if not a remarkable one.

Night Bazaar

We were never hungry enough to actually eat anything at the Night Bazaar, perhaps because we usually made our way down there having had dinner or at least tea.

bugs! - maybe next time...

I seriously considered eating some of the insect-based snacks so beloved by the Thai people, but chickened out eventually. And I was always too full to eat banana rotee (prata with banana), something we couldn't get enough of when we were in Krabi and Koh Phi Phi.

What we did have a number of times were the strawberry shakes.

a refreshing refreshment (40B/SGD $2 for a big one)

Sweet and salty at the same time, it made a good substitute for dessert. The best part was watching the unsuspecting farang drink it for the first time.

chao(3) mei(2) mei(4) (check out her strawberry accessories)

The stall right outside the Anusarn Market was really popular, no doubt because of the chio or pretty vendor behind the juice "bar". She always drew a crowd which in turn attracted hordes of others. And the shakes looked good too. The first-time farang drinker would take a big gulp of the stuff, and then grimace. Who would have guessed that a strawberry shake would contain loads of salt, hehe?


The Writers' Club & Wine Bar

This wasn't on our list of must-do restaurants, but it was just round the corner from Tamarind Village. So, just after we had checked in at the hotel, we decided to grab a bite at some place nearby.

This was in fact our first sit-down meal in Chiang Mai, not counting the archetypal buffet breakfast we had stuffed our faces at the Rydges that morning. Hence, notwithstanding the obvious tourist/expatriate flavour of the place, we ordered the stereotypical "Thai" meal:

lime soda, at 40B (SGD $2)

Thai Coke Light, 30B (SGD $1.50)

grilled beef salad, at 80B (SGD $4)

chicken in green curry, at 80B (SGD $4)

tom yum chicken, 80B (SGD $4)

The green curry was disappointingly bland; it doesn't have to be spicy to be delicious. The other dishes though were tasty enough. Our verdict: good enough for a simple lunch, but there are certainly better places to eat at.

Art Cafe

This came recommended in Nancy Chandler's guide, so, one day, feeling peckish, we wandered into it on our way to the Night Bazaar.

The menu was international, although it came recommended for its Italian and Mexican food. Something about it reminded us of Ho Chi Minh City and its cafes like Brodard.

laid out like the French-style cafes in HCM

and with similar views too!

It was a little early for dinner, so we decided to share a sandwich and a soup, just enough to tide us over till we got to O'Malley's Irish Pub after shopping. We ordered:

pumpkin soup with crackers, how quaint

grilled rosemary chicken sandwich, with 7-grain bread no less

cafe au lait (left) and latte (right)

The food was excellent, as can be expected in a town with a large farang population. The pumpkin soup was hearty and nicely spiced. The bread was crunchy and nutty, and there was a variety of lettuce leaves in the sandwich, something we usually find in Singapore only if the sandwich costs $7 and up. Otherwise it's plain ol' iceberg lettuce. (To be fair, lettuce, I believe, is cheaper in Chiang Mai because, believe it or not, they actually grow different types of lettuces there, up in the highlands.)

The bill came up at 330B (SGD $16.50), including a plateful of cottage fries which we inadvertantly ordered when we asked the waiter what cottage fries were.

O'Malleys Irish Pub

Again, this was recommended, but by a chef on one of the travel forums I frequent. An Irish pub in Thailand? Hey, a sizeable portion of Chiang Mai's population is ang moh, transient or otherwise.

irish green

inside, the dining area

it's a real pub, ya know

We did the proper thing. We had to order pub food, didn't we?

roast pork dinner, complete with mashed potato, apple sauce, gravy, steamed vegetables with cheese sauce, and Yorkshire pudding

beef and Guinness pot pie

We would have gone for the deep dish apple pie as well, but we were stuffed. The roast pork dinner was fun, in a gee-I've-never-had-that-before way. The mashed potatoes were really good (as good as what she makes, HM would have everyone know) but the Yorkshire pudding I could have done without. It reminded me of a custard puff without the custard. HM says it's just there to sop up the gravy. The pot pie was better - the pastry was light and fluffy (we don't want to think about how much butter went into the making of it).

Together with a half-pint of Kilkenny and a diet Coke (no prizes for guessing who drank what), the cost of the dinner came up to 420B (SGD $21).

someone's teapot collection, how twee

The P. Coffeebar

And now a quick word about this little cafe, located opposite one of Chiang Mai City's main tourist attractions, Wat Phra Singh. We highly recommend it for its toilet facilities - the cleanest loo with the most powerful flush, and prettily decorated to boot.

A word of warning about the drinks: that orange-coloured drink is iced tea. Don't ask us why it's not tea-coloured. What we can say is that it was sweet.


The Riverside Restaurant

By all accounts, this restaurant was a must, for the food and the ambience.

guess where it's located...

When we arrived, it was barely past six p.m., a little early for dinner perhaps but we were hungry. Peering into the wooden building (of the sort that the Sentosa management optimistically used to build along its coastline in the hope of evoking some kind of casual seaside dining atmosphere), we saw empty tables. HM suggested that we take a walk and return later. After all, it was so declasse (LC to those of you more conversant in Singlish) to be so early. Just then a waitress popped out and insistently ushered us in. That's when we realised that the area on the river bank (see photo below) and the porch area overlooking it were in fact populated.

local clientele - a sign of good food

by the banks of the Ping River

iced lemongrass "juice"

Sipping our iced lemongrass "juice", we admired the sunset while waiting for our food to appear. A river boat was berthed alongside, waiting to set off on the dinner cruise. Meanwhile, 80s music was emanating from the sound system. We wondered when the live music would begin.

grilled cuttlefish, chicken skin and fish maw salad

Our first dish arrived! In place of the more usual deepfried pork rind, a Chiang Mai speciality I believe, this dish used deepfried chicken skin. The salad was a mixture of crunchy and chewy textures, an appetising start to the meal.

serpenthead fish, Northeastern style

The main dish we had chosen was a fish dish we had not tried before. The fish was super fresh and had been deepfried with a deft hand to achieve a crispy exterior while remaining fluffy and moist on the inside. Accompanied by a piquant spicy, sour and salty dipping sauce, presumably a Northeastern recipe, the fish was worth spending time over. As we slowly took the fish apart and picked over its bones, we realised that an invisible pianist had taken over the job of providing live musical accompaniment to this repast. Not bad for a zi cha place, albeit a slightly more upmarket one.

stir fried mixed vegetables

To compensate for the overtly unhealthy nature of this meal, we decided to at least get some fibre in the form of stir fried mixed veggies.

An hour and a half later, we paid the bill, 480B (SGD $24), and staggered out stuffed to the gills.

Good View Restaurant

Right next door to the Riverside is another Chiang Mai favourite. If anything, Good View is even more popular, particularly amongst the locals, at least on the night we were there.

the crowd

Honestly, the convivial atmosphere was just the kind of thing for company dinners and birthday celebrations and that seemed to be the mainstay of business that night. We actually preferred the quieter ambience of the Riverside, but the food was certainly a match for Riverside's, if not better.

iced lemongrass juice

green tea, served with sugar(!) and milk(!!)

(my apologies for the rather unclear photos which were all taken in low light conditions)

steamed squid with chilli and lime

We started with a typical Thai salad. Despite our standard instruction for "less spicy", this salad had a kick. The chefs here clearly did not believe in compromising the integrity of their cuisine for farang.

fermented pork ribs, served with peanuts, "rat shit" or "bird's eye" chilli, and assorted veggies

Deep fried, the next dish tasted remarkably like our har chiong gai. I suppose the premise is fundamentally the same - the meat is marinated with fermented something or other, in the case of har chiong gai, fermented prawn paste.

tom yam goong

This version of the classic Thai dish was lip-smackingly good. We ate more rice than we should have because of it.

grilled kingfish with herbs

The fish was superbly fresh and with the herbs, it was fragrant indeed.

The bill came up to 740B (SGD $37), a steal by Singapore standards, although it was the most expensive meal we had in Chiang Mai. At that price, I shouldn't complain about the service, but truth be told, the service staff were somewhat swamped that night and didn't always understand English, leading to repeated requests for rice and a mix-up in our drink order. All in all, I'd say the Riverside won by a nose.

Huen Phen

Our favourite dining experience in Chiang Mai was at Huen Phen, a gem of a restaurant serving Northern Thai cuisine.

turn left at this sign along Rachamanka Road and down the tiki lamp-lined path

Housed in an elegant old house, Huen Phen is an experience unto itself. The decor is eclectic to say the least.

a mish mash that works

curios and antiques

Again, it was reassuring that the clientele was predominantly Thai, although possibly trendy Bangkokians rather than Chiang Mai-ites, with a smattering of Japanese and other nationalities. We ordered our food and sat back to enjoy the setting, with a cup o' tea *little finger sticking out*

holding all this up was an old sewing machine!

Chinese tea for two?

Then the dishes arrived. We tried to order Northern Thai specialities, not that we knew for sure what those might be, so we just went with what sounded unusual or different and hoped for the best.

green papaya and crab salad

The green papaya salad is a Northern Thai classic and this one was hair-curlingly sour, just the way HM likes it. Sadly, I advertantly inhaled something lethally hot, and choked and sputtered and teared, and this was after we had requested for everything to be less spicy. The errant chlli had most likely been left behind in the mortar from the preparation of a previous order of som tam.

Fortunately the other dishes arrived in quick succession to distract me (although HM will testify that I was in pain for quite a while after that ill-fated incident).

fried chicken wings with lemongrass

fried bamboo shoots stuffed with pork

These two dishes were on the chef's list of recommendations. The chicken wings, while nicely done, were a little ho-hum. We much preferred the bamboo shoots. Had the menu said "deepfried bamboo shoots", we may not have ordered it, but it was a good thing we did. Shreds of fresh bamboo shoot were wrapped around bits of pork and coated with a tasty batter. Accompanied by a sweet chilli dipping sauce, these dippers were crunchy yet sweet and flavourful.

burmese pork curry

A much memorable dish was the Burmese pork curry. I think we had a version of this at Bangkok's Lemongrass but that was more... refined? This version was richer, more like a Malay curry, and yet somehow reminiscent of our Peranakan favourite, ayam buah keluak, in taste. The sticky rice, served in woven baskets, was an excellent way of mopping up the gravy.

preserved vegetables with pork ribs soup

With just a little space left in our tummies, we couldn't resist loooking at the menu again. Soup sounded like a good idea, but nothing else spicy. Again, we opted for something Northern, but this time what was served was surprisingly* familiar. We were anticipating Thai preserved vegetables, whatever those might be, but what turned up in the rich broth was Chinese (dang if we can remember what it's called!). Comfort food, just like Mum used to make, and a fitting end to a wonderful meal!

(*Not that surprising actually. Due to its proximity to China and historically the close trade ties, Northern Thailand receives a fair amount of Chinese influence.)

bill please!

At the end of a rather pleasant evening, the bill came up to, unbelievably, only 321B (SGD $16.00). Granted, our choice of menu did not include any premium ingredients. However, the quality of presentation, culinary standards and service made Huen Phen an outstanding dining experience, and a bargain at that.

accolades well-earned

No Name Restaurant

our roadside restaurant

I'm sure this restaurant actually does have a name but there was no sign of a signboard nor is it likely that the name would have been in English. Situated on the way to Doi Inthanon National Park, this cafe was the site of the lunch provided by the tour company on our day trip. In fact, our tour guide seated in the front passenger seat of our mini-van had wound down her window, leaned out and ordered our lunch for later.

Thanks to our fellow tour mates, some of which had dietary restrictions, there would be no pork or beef in this meal, but the tour guide did promise lots of really fresh vegetables, produce from the nearby farms. Indeed, right outside the restaurant were these stalls selling produce straight from the farms...

talk about fresh produce

Our menu:


tofu and veggie soup

stir fried veggies with slivers of chicken

more stir fried veggies


The food was simple homecooked fare but it hit the spot. Still, our tour mates couldn't resist a post-lunch snack of BBQ chicken with sweet chilli sauce.

anything can be barbequed

Ruen Tamarind

Finally, a quick look at the offerings of our hotel's restaurant:

local fare from the breakfast buffet (that's minced pork porridge in bowl)

good coffee

muesli and yogurt, plus lots of fruit (note the shape of the bowl)

We also had a light lunch there one day:

duck and lychee curry

fried wintermelon leaves according to the menu, but funny how everything looks and tastes like kang kong...

poolside dining


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