Thai food is renowned the world over for its complexity of flavors and the masterful blend of herbs and spices. Influenced by neighboring countries as well as immigrants who have set up home in Thailand over time, Thai food is best divided into four regional cuisines.
Somtam (green papaya salad) and larb (minced meat salad) are the most recognized of Northeastern Thai or “Isaan” cuisine, while gaeng som (a sour and spicy fish soup with turmeric) and kua gling (dry curry) fly the banner for Southern Thailand. The food from these two regions packs the most punch, with strong tastes and high levels of chili spiciness to boot. From the Central region, perennial favorites include tom yam and tom kha gai soups, as well as the familiar gaeng keow wan (green curry).
Like its central counterpart, Northern Cuisine is known for having a milder taste than the fiery flavors from Isaan and Southern Thailand. Due to its land proximity, Northern Thai food also features Laotian, Burmese, and Chinese culinary influences.
A traditional way to enjoy a Northern feast is at a kantoke dinner, where guests are seated on the floor around a circular low table, sharing the cuisine while enjoying a cultural dance or theatrical performance.
These are some of my all-time choices for Best Cuisine in Northern Thailand.
1. Khao Soi
Coconut milk does not feature heavily in Northern Thai Cuisine, but in one of the rare instances in which it makes an appearance, is in arguably the region’s most well known (and salivated over) dish – Khao Soi. The single dish features fresh egg noodles swimming in a puddle of coconut milk curry broth – spiced and flavored with black cardamom and turmeric – topped with a handful of crunchy deep-fred noodles. The dish, most commonly eaten with chicken or beef, is often described as having a Burmese influence; in actuality the heritage of this dish is unconfirmed, with Indian, Chinese, and Malay Muslim all touted as influences.
2. Gaeng Hung-Ley
The temperature in the north of Thailand is relatively cooler than the rest of the country, especially in the mountains. This discrepancy is also a contributing factor in shaping the region’s cuisine – a fatter diet that features the spices and herbs that grow in abundance in the temperate climate. Another all-time favorite is Gaeng Hung-Ley, a Burmese-influenced pork dish boasting a thick curry made of dried chilies, curry paste, tamarind pulp, and turmeric powder. The pork – usually the fatty belly – is stewed until it practically falls apart on impact with the tongue. The best part of the deliciousness? It freezes well, meaning a good bowl of mildly spicy curry is always just a re-heat away.
The stewed pork curry is easily distinguishable for their generous amount of ginger slivers
If you could pack all the traditional Thai flavors into one heady bite, Sai-Ua might just be the result. The grilled pork sausage is chockfull of the who’s who of thai herbs and spices – lemongrass, shallots, garlic, galangal, chili, kaffir lime – and traditionally eaten as part of a meal or a snack with a bag of piping hot sticky rice.
4. Nam Phrik Num & Nam Prik Ong
Nam Phrik – chili dips – come in varying consistency and spiciness, and are integral to Thai cuisine. One of the northern favorites is Nam Phrik Num, which comprises roasted green chilies, garlic, and shallot. Another popular savory dip that originates from the north is Nam Phrik Ong, which, with its minced pork and tomato ingredients, often draws comparisons with bolognese sauce, albeit one with an attitude, let’s say. Both these dips are commonly eaten with sticky rice, with boiled (or raw) vegetables, or pork rind cracklings.
5. Kaeb Moo
Pork rinds in themselves might be found in different cultures around the world, but in Northern Thailand their importance is leveraged from their use as dippers for Nam Phrik Num and Nam Phrik Ong (that’s not to say the crunchy saltiness of Kaeb Moo doesn’t make for a guilty pleasure all on its own).The crispy pork skin can be found piled in mini-mountains in the markets, usually in two general types – with or without an extra layer of attached fat.