Thailand is renowned for its cuisine, from eye-watering curries to delicious morsels freshly prepared by street vendors. During my trip to Chiang Mai, the country’s mountainous northern hub, I set out in search of authentic Thai food. Along the way, I learned to appreciate the local flavors — and how to make a few quintessential dishes myself.
Sampling Must-Try Chiang Mai Specialties
As I walked the streets of Chiang Mai, a delightful deluge of sights, vibrant colors, noises and smells bombarded my senses. But I was most interested in exploring the city’s tastes. So I set out into the city’s Old Town, eager to try as much food as I could at the many hole-in-the-wall restaurants and street stalls.
Many Western visitors who visit Thailand expect to find dishes that are pervasive at take-out restaurants back home — for example, pad Thai and sweet peanut-based curries. I, too, shared this impression of Thai food, until I discovered Chiang Mai’s varied and complex flavors. I learned that Northern Thai cuisine is influenced by the ancient Lanna kingdom, as well as neighboring Chinese and Burmese flavors. It’s unapologetically pungent and typically quite spicy.
One of my favorite Chiang Mai dishes was khao soi, featuring wrinkled yellow egg noodles and braised chicken swimming in a thick, red, coconut-based curry and served with fresh herbs and lime. I also salivated over sai oua, a famous Thai pork sausage stuffed with chili, lemongrass, lime and ginger. I often found it served in bites on a stick at many outdoor food stalls. Since I have a woefully low spice tolerance, I paired it with a bag of sticky rice, which provided a nice buffer to the flavorful burn of Thai chili.
To avoid Bangkok Belly — aka food poisoning — stick to hot foods, as opposed to cold or lukewarm dishes. Choose a busy food stall or restaurant, as the kitchen is likely turning over ingredients quickly. Drink bottled water and bring some Imodium and Pepto-Bismol, or consult with your doctor about which medicines you should pack for your trip.
Exploring a Thai Market
My companions and I decided that a private cooking class would offer a unique way to learn about Northern Thai cuisine. So we signed up for a class taught by a local chef, who picked us up in the late afternoon from our lodging and promptly shuttled us to a bustling local marketplace.
Thai markets certainly assault the senses (don’t put your nose too close to any of the fermented pastes). Look around and you’ll see whole animals straight from the farm, fresh-caught seafood, piles of mysterious spices and chilies and rows upon rows of vegetables of all shapes and sizes. The magic of Thai cuisine starts here, with chefs typically procuring fresh ingredients just hours before they prepare a dish.
Our instructor introduced us to the staples of Thai cooking — such as lemongrass, various chilies, shrimp paste, shallots and basil — as we gaped in wonderment at the market’s hustle and bustle.
Getting in the Kitchen
After we purchased our ingredients, we returned to the culinary school, located in a quiet neighborhood and equipped with an enclosed cooking patio. As we approached, we could smell the subtle, delicious aromas of local residents preparing dinner nearby.
Next, we prepared the ingredients for homemade curry, laboriously crushing them into paste with mortars and pestles — and I began to appreciate how much work went into Thai dishes. After carefully grinding chilies, lemongrass and other herbs, we wrapped spring rolls and mixed our own dipping sauces. We even learned the finer points of wok cooking, all under the watchful eye of our instructor.
Thai cuisine is not easy to master, I discovered. My first rolls turned out a bit fat and lopsided, and I probably could have added more chilies to my paste. Still, the instructor guided me and helped me troubleshoot when needed. I felt like I could play and enjoy without worrying about ruining my dinner.
The meal, when we finally sat down to eat it, was especially satisfying because we had cooked it ourselves. By the end of the evening, we’d filled up on spring rolls, noodle curry, tom yum soup and mango dessert. Just as importantly, I had glimpsed into the lives of the Thai people and gained a new respect for the complexity of their cuisine. The class was a novel way to revitalize the typical vacation itinerary, and a great activity for groups or families.
Just the other week, I invited friends over for dinner and whipped up the curry from my cooking class. In a small way, I felt like I was sharing a part of my trip with them. So if you visit Chiang Mai and its vibrant culinary scene, don’t miss your chance tie on an apron and get in the kitchen as well.
Discover the Thailand culinary tours available through the Marriott Vacation Club Explorer Collection.