Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The food of Chiang Mai

Oh yes, the post you've all been waiting for - the post about the foods of Thailand. :) I'll be doing one of these for each of the places we visited because well, the food was not necessarily different for each place but I feel it should be spotlighted in every place either way.

As I stated before, Thailand has now tied Japan for first place in my world food list. That's quite a statement. I absolutely loved Japan's food, and it blew all of the other food I'd ever had anywhere else completely out of the water. Crazy enough, Thailand was the same way.

Now obviously I'd had Thai food before - California has Thai food, even Finland has Thai food. And it's always good. It's one of the few cuisines that you really can't mess up no matter where you are. I'm not sure how they do it, but they're sort of like McDonalds in that way - good no matter where you have it.

But it doesn't compare at all to the original thing. There really is nothing like authentic Thai food. And man did my sister and I get our fill of it when we were there.

Note: I don't think we ever spent more than say, $10 total on any meal. That's no joke. Granted we ate most of our meals off of street food carts (because it always looked good and well, we were usually walking around), but we just couldn't imagine that the food restaurants served could be that much better. How do you beat a guy who's making things fresh from scratch in front of you on a jet engine stove? Pretty sure you can't. (Well, you can...but we weren't really interested in it...oddly enough).

Anyway, without further ado, here is the food we had in Chiang Mai:

1. Admittedly my first meal in Thailand was in BKK, the Bangkok airport. After horrendously missing our first flight and needing to stick around the airport for another two hours, even after the 10-15 hour flights we'd both had and the incredible amount of airplane meals we'd been fed, we were surprisingly both hungry. So what did we do since we couldn't actually leave the airport? We ate at the food court in one of the terminals.

Not so surprisingly there was no real authentic Thai cuisine there, or at least not that we could tell, so our choices were pretty standard commercialized fare. There was Burger King (which I really did seriously consider...I do love Burger King that much and I still miss it), Popeye's fried chicken, pizza of some kind, Japanese, commercialized Thai, two donut shops (which we thought was interesting because they were right next to each other), and maybe a sandwich shop. Nothing to be bowled over by.

Now, this is something I'm a bit loathe to admit, but I've actually never had Popeye's chicken before. I know I know, this is horribly embarrassing, coming from America, but it's actually true. I also can't remember the last time I've had KFC. The latter I care a little less about.

So, to Popeye's we went. My sister loves Popeye's and I had heard nothing but rave reviews about it all my life. Apparently it is that much better than KFC and it was about time I'd had that experience for myself.

The verdict? It's all true, all of it. It really is quality fried chicken. A lot better than KFC.

I washed the entire thing down with coleslaw (delicious) and cold Thai chocolate milk that unfortunately I've lost the name of but was quite refreshed by - it was like Nesquik but not as sweet.

I know it's kind of sacrilege to have as my first meal in Thailand, but well, had to eat. And my meals after that were all legit, so, hopefully that gives me some sort of credit.

2. Breakfast the next day: fried noodles with egg and green veggie

Our first foray into street food was a complete and utter success. Wanting to get breakfast before our big day with the elephants, we wandered down the street from our hostel and sought out the first place that looked and smelled good. There were lots of school children in uniform gathered around this street cart, so we took a seat and ordered two plates of whatever everyone else was having. This is what came to us.

It was fantastic. Salty ramen-like noodles covered in egg with crunchy veggies (sorry, I don't know what they are) and bits of meat, most likely pork. It was spicy and I loved it. The woman who was cooking didn't speak any English but was very friendly and everything got sorted just fine.

3. Elephant day lunch

After feeding, commanding, and washing the elephants, it was our time to nosh, and nosh hard. Little did we know that our full-day tour also included a completely homemade lunch. And boy were we in for a treat. Our lunch started off with fried eggrolls:

They came with a delicious tangy-sweet sauce and were fried to perfection. Inside was meat and veggies as one would expect - nothing that strayed from a normal but absolutely delicious eggroll.

Next came the soup and stir fry with accompanying plate of rice. We ate like kings and were stuffed by the end.

The soup had clear noodles, enoki mushrooms, carrots, celery, and some sort of egg jello that had been cut into chunks. When we asked our tour guide what it was he claimed it was tofu but we think there just maybe wasn't a better word for it. It was definitely not tofu and tasted like egg but it was tasty so we let it go. The broth itself was pretty subtle - clean, very light with the sweet hints of celery and carrot and nothing else.

The stir fry, in my opinion, was the all-star of the lunch, and I ate heartily of it.

Massive carrots, chicken, pineapple, cucumbers (which were a surprise to me because I had assumed they were zucchini on first glance), cherry tomatoes and onions all in a wonderful savory sauce. Fabulous. I could eat this all the time, everyday. I ate the dish clean not knowing that in Thai tradition it's expected that you're supposed to leave a little something on the plate, otherwise it means you're still hungry. So just when I thought I had done good and was done and full, the guide came over and refilled the plate! Well I just had to eat a little of it to not be impolite (jeez man, pulling my leg here).

All said and done it was a hugely filling lunch and I almost fell asleep in the sun (something I also was completely taking advantage of, having not seen the sun in its real, glorious form in almost a year).

Were the elephants themselves not already a top notch experience I'd almost recommend doing a day with the elephants just for the lunch. That awesome.

4. Pork belly and soft egg

After resting on the zen deck at the hostel for awhile and gathering our strengths, we went to go buy some fruit for our visits to the wats the next morning and stumbled across a rather excellent square of food vendors selling their wares.

Well I couldn't be passing them all by and get nothing, right?

So I stopped and got pork belly. Oh god, delicious pork belly. And a soft egg.

Admittedly I have a recent soft spot for pork belly. My family has started experimenting with making it at home since a recent experience with it at a restaurant involving a clay pot and some amazing squash we found out about called kabocha. Anyway, long story short, I was clearly buying this dish, and bought it was.

This was no mistake by far. It was melt-in-your-mouth amazing. Savory, sweet, little hints of five spice and other delicate aromas. Oh it was heaven. All saucy and soft. There was a little bit of stewed collard greens on the side for flavor and texture (sort of vinegared and rough in comparison) and a deliciously poached soft egg just because.

Oh the soft egg. I have a soft spot for these as well. I have no idea how to make them, but I'm pretty sure one of these days (probably sometime very soon), I will look it up on the interwebs and start going through eggs in my apartment like normal people go through chocolate bars.

Here is a not-great close-up shot of that glorious egg.

Do you see how meltingly awesome that yolk still is? Yes, that kind of egg. Perfection.

5. Sweet strange desserts

Later that night we wandered the night bazaar and decided it was time to nibble on some snacks. Surprisingly the entire time I was in Thailand I didn't buy myself snacks. Considering I absolutely love to snack normally, this is quite a shock. I think it was the fact that I was getting normal food (amazing food, I should say) three times or so a day, so perhaps it was that I was genuinely not hungry all the time, but I do sort of feel sad that I didn't get to explore Thai snack food a little more.

Anyway, when we were out on this particular night, we decided to check out the sweet desserts scene. There were many vendors selling various sweet snacks, so we chose a sweet bun and something else not quite identifiable (the man didn't speak English and actually couldn't tell us what it was).

The bun was pretty much what we expected - like a Chinese bao - sweet rice flour that's been steamed into a slightly sweet white bread with an awesome (in this case) sweet black sesame filling on the inside. It was just what we wanted and was amazingly satiating.

The second dessert, while also equally satisfying, was a bit more...well, weird. We didn't know what it was (and sorry for the horrible picture), but was good.

It was sort of like a steamed white rice cake that had then been slightly baked or lightly pan fried (but wasn't greasy). It was then sandwiched with some sort of green goo on the inside. We actually couldn't, for the life of us, identify this green goo. It didn't taste like anything in particular - just generic sweet, like white sugar and maybe some rice flour mixed together into a thick consistency. Sometimes I thought it might have a hint of coconut in it, but we voted against the coconut version of the sweet dessert sandwich so I'm pretty sure it didn't actually have coconut in it.

So the mystery remains. I have no idea to this day what we consumed. It was tasty though, and I enjoyed it either way.

6. The last meal before a change of location

And so the next day we wandered around temples and gave our offerings of fruit to monks. After we had finished with this we decided to hit up the street vendors one more time for a meal before heading to the airport for our flight to Koh Samui.

I, true to form, had crispy pork belly. Just can't seem to get off that habit apparently.

Although this was still good, it definitely wasn't of the caliber of the previous night's offering, and I finished it feeling like I should probably get off my pork belly horse and move onto a different type of food next time. This one was heavy on the flavoring and the sauce was a bit too cloying. The crunchy fried skin texture was delightful though, and provided good contrast to the sauce.

My sister chose a little more wisely, and went with something we hadn't, until that point, had yet:

Noodle soup with meat balls. It was clean, delicious, made with egg noodles. She decided to check out the spice offerings that were on the table (there is a standard set of four that usually graces any table - a dry red spice mix, a vinegar mix with floating chilis in it, and then the remaining two seem to vary by region). She sprinkled in a very small amount of the dry mix, wanting to turn it up a notch.

Unfortunately this was a bit much, despite the fact that only the tiniest bit had gone into the broth. Just goes to show the potency of their spices.

And thus ended our food adventures of Chiang Mai. Tasty and tastier. It was only going to continue being amazing from here on out.

(Btw we were also fed heavily on every plane ride we went on between locations...I won't document them here but know that they were filling and usually quite good...guess those Thais really do know how to eat...all the time, and everywhere).

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