After spending time in southern Thailand, John and I headed north for a few days to Chiang Mai.
Steeped in culture and history, Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand. The city center, or old Chiang Mai, is surrounded by a moat and remnants of a wall once erected to defend the city. The streets of Chiang Mai are busy and bustling, with markets and vendors occupying every available space.
Chiang Mai is host to many beautiful Buddhist temples, as well as Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya Buddhist University, which houses Wat Suan Dok, a temple built in the 14th century which has recently undergone a restoration. It is not unusual to see groups of monks walking around town in their unmistakable bright orange garb.
One of the highlights of our entire trip had to be the elephants. John and I spent the day at the Elephant Retirement Park, a place where elephants are rescued from hard labour and tourism. Yes, I know what we were doing was technically elephant tourism, but the Elephant Retirement Park is unlike other elephant tourism businesses. At these other sites, bull horns are used and large devices are strapped onto elephants’ to allow tourists to ride them, devices that are not good for the elephants’ backs. Where we were, there were no bull horns and we weren’t allowed to ride the elephants. The Elephant Retirement Park welcomes tourists to help fund the park (it is expensive to feed an animal that eats over 300 lbs. of food a day!)
I think the elephants loved us as much as we loved them, eating bananas and giving us hugs and kisses with their trunks. It was amusing when the baby elephant played his favourite game, one where he would try to head-butt you onto the ground and sit on you. Although he was a baby, he still weighed half a ton! Not cool to get sat on by him. Luckily, John and managed to avoid this fate.
The elephants got so excited for the mud bath (that inevitably turned into a mud fight) with all of the elephants and tourists in the mud together. The elephants got us as bad as we got them, filling their trunks with muddy water and spraying us. A messy and fun affair! Elephants are our new favourite animals.
The food vendors were left right and center in Chiang Mai. You couldn’t walk a block without seeing at least one, if not dozens. On some streets, there were rows of food vendors selling everything from rice sausages to fresh grilled fish. These guys are truly masters of their craft, preparing whatever dish they happen to be serving with remarkable skill and ease. With so many street food vendors in town, John and I were amazed that they all seemed to be busy with customers.
Surprisingly, Chiang Mai wasn’t flooded with northern Thai cuisine. We saw it here and there on menus. With the help of our Lonely planet guidebook, John and I managed to find a few well-reviewed restaurants that specialized in the regional cuisine.
When ordering our northern Thai dishes, we started out by selecting our chili dips, or nam phrik. We ordered the hot green chili dip, and the more mild red dip with tomatoes and ground pork. The dips were served with pork rinds. Did we mention that northern Thai cuisine is very pork heavy? Along with the pork rinds, we saw and sampled minced pork, pork sausages, pork curries and pickled pork! All common on these northern Thai menus.
Northern Thai cuisine also features some Burmese influenced curries. Among these, our favourite had to be khao soi, a yellow curry soup. We ate this soup on several occasions, and just had to try and make it when we got back from our trip. This brings us to this week’s recipe, Khao Soi!
Khao Soi is just wonderful. The mild heat of the yellow curry is tempered with creamy coconut milk. To serve, add cooked egg noodles and top with crunchy egg noodles. And as opposed to chicken chunks, khao soi is served with full chicken drumsticks!
- For the crunchy noodles, the classic method is to deep fry some fresh egg noodles. However, I typically don’t like dealing with the mess of deep-frying, so I purchased a brand of noodle that can be eaten uncooked for our garnish.
- Use fresh or dried egg noodles, both taste great!
- Bird’s eye chilies are the small Thai chilies (as seen in Khao Soi photo at top of post)
Herb of the week
KAFFIR LIME LEAVES
A common ingredient in Thai cooking, kaffir lime leaves have a similar scent to a regular lime, but distinctly different. When using, kaffir lime leaves can be left whole and removed before eating or mortar and pestled into a paste. Some Thai recipes will call for kaffir lime rind, but typically you can just substitute the lime leaves as the kaffir limes can be hard to find.
Chiang Mai had to be the most memorable leg of our trip to Thailand. The people, the culture, the animals and of course the food came together in an experience that John and I enjoyed immensely! If Chiang Mai were an ice cream sundae, Khao Soi would be the cherry on top!
Special thanks to John for really tapping into his artistic food-arrangement skills for the Khao Soi photograph!
Click here to view other posts from the Thailand Series:
Part 1: Railay Beach and Tom Yam Soup
Click here to view printable Word version of recipe:
Yellow curry chicken noodle soup
Serves 4 – 6
Egg noodles (fresh or dried)
Crunchy Asian noodles – to be eaten uncooked
2 cans coconut milk
2 cups chicken broth
2 tbsp palm sugar (or regular sugar)
At least 2 tbsp Fish sauce – more to taste
6 – 8 pieces of chicken, drumsticks preferred (1-2 drums per serving)
Chopped cilantro and sliced lime wedges to garnish
2 Thai bird’s eye chilies (red or green)
2 small shallots, or 1 large
4 cloves garlic
1 stalk lemongrass,4-6 inches. Peel outer layer.
3 kaffir lime leaves
A knob of fresh turmeric – 1 to 1.5 inches
2 slices galangal
A pinch of salt
1 tsp coriander seed (or 1 tsp ground coriander)
1 green cardamom pod (or a pinch of ground cardamom)
1 ½ tbsp shrimp paste
(If you are using ground coriander and cardamom, skip steps 1 and 2)
- Dry roast coriander seed and cardamom pods. Heat a pan and roast for 30-45 seconds, until seeds are aromatic. Remove and allow to cool
- In the mortar and pestle, crush coriander seed and cardamom pod until it is ground. Remove from mortar and pestle.
- Cut paste items into smaller pieces. Place all paste items except for shrimp paste and ground coriander/cardamom in mortar and pestle, pound to combine until fine paste is formed, about the consistency of peanut butter. Incorporate shrimp paste, ground coriander seed and ground cardamom pod into paste.
- Heat oil in soup pot. Add paste and stir until paste is aromatic, less than a minute.
- Mix in coconut milk, chicken broth, palm sugar and fish sauce. Add chicken and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to a simmer.
- Cook, mixing occasionally, until chicken is cooked, about least 30 minutes.
- While broth is simmering, cook egg noodles by soaking in boiling water until desired done-ness is achieved, a few minutes at most.
- When broth is done simmer, season to taste. Add more fish sauce if desired.
- Divide cooked noodles into bowls. Add chicken to each bowl. Fill each bowl with broth. Top with crunchy noodles. Garnish with cilantro and lime wedges. .
If you don’t own a mortar and pestle, you can make the paste in a Magic-Bullet style blender.