Hannah Esper is a good friend of mine from our days working together in Chicago. She’s now a journalist and editor living in Michigan. She visited me in Chiang Mai in February this year, and we had a wonderful time seeing the sights and sampling the tastes of Thailand together. I asked her to write up something about her week there, and she obliged with this lovely piece on the things she learned about food in Thailand. Thanks, Hannah!
Many people asked why I had chosen Thailand as my destination to meet Lisa on her trip. The decision was an easy one for me as I had worked as a server at a Thai restaurant when I was younger and had become accustomed to the food and culture. Thai food is still my favorite cuisine and I felt rather knowledgeable and excited about it going on this trip.
As was a main goal of mine, Lisa and I ate a lot during our week in Chiang Mai. Most everything was as delicious as I was hoping for. There was also a couple disappointing dishes as well. The following is list of what we discovered on our culinary adventure:
1. Atmosphere is not a good indicator for quality/taste.
One of the best meals we ate was at this tiny place that was near our hotel. I wouldn’t quite call it a restaurant, as it was more like the back of someone’s house, as many places were. There were two tables in the alley that was basically a woman’s backyard. We were served on mismatched plates and silverware, and served our dishes one at a time, since there was literally one person cooking the food. It was pretty common in Chiang Mai, in fact, for dishes to come at all different times, which made eating with others interesting.
The worst meal of the trip was at a cute, kitschy bar called “The Wall” that was owned by a Westerner. Adorned with Pink Floyd memorabilia, the bar served mostly Western food, including french fries without salt, and a terrible attempt at Pad Thai.
2. You often will not receive what you order, but it’s fine!
As was true at the backyard “restaurant,” mentioned above, you often don’t receive the exact dish that you ordered. The menu might say the chicken is fried, but it comes out grilled. Or the menu says the dish has broccoli in it but you actually get broccoli, carrots, and mushrooms. The most exciting surprise is… when you ask for mild spice and it comes out burn-your-insides spicy! The food was always delicious, though, so we didn’t mind these modifications.
3. Vegetarian options are plentiful; you just have to look for them.
Thai food is great for both meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. The Thai restaurant I worked at in high school was a hot spot for all the vegetarians and vegans in town. In the states, tofu is a common protein option in most dishes at Thai restaurants. In Thailand, however, most food vendors serve dishes with the traditional protein that is intended for that particular dish. Tofu is often served in Pad Thai but not many other dishes. Fortunately, there were many restaurants in Chiang Mai that served strictly vegetarian food. After a couple days in town, Lisa and I got better at finding them. At these restaurants, traditional dishes were served with meat substitutes, but we found that most dishes were so flavorful that it wasn’t even necessary. We were content with just the rice/noodles, vegetables and curry.
4. Expensive does not equate to better.
Probably the best food we ate in Chiang Mai was bought on the street, and cost less than $2. The first night I was in town, Lisa and I went to the Saturday night market, which had many vendors selling cheap eats on sticks. I did not partake in the meat-on-a-stick, but Lisa enjoyed it. I did, however, eat fried banana with condensed milk and it was quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever tasted. The Sunday night market had even better food and we enjoyed the best Pad Thai of the trip. The cook had a huge bowl of the pre-made ingredients, which she tossed in the wok with some fried egg and sauce and served up in a banana leaf.
5. Fruit shakes – a surprising delight.
On every corner. Every fruit combination. All delicious and cheap. Check out our favorites.
6. Nobody cooks Thai likes Thais.
Since moving to Mississippi a few years ago, my mom has been going through Thai food withdrawal. We bought her a wok and she’s begun to cook her own Thai dishes. She’s even started teaching other Mississippians who’ve never had the pleasure of having good Thai, or any Thai, for that matter. Her dishes are good… but it’s just not the same.
Over the years, I’ve attempted to replicate dishes from my old restaurant. I picked up a few things while working there, but I just can’t get the tofu as crunchy or rice as sticky. During our trip, Lisa and I took an excellent cooking class at one of the local schools. We learned to make a couple traditional dishes, including curry paste, and were sent home with a simple recipe book. Everything we made that night was incredible. Now that I’m home, I will try yet again to recapture the tastes of Chiang Mai.