It is not an incongruous sight to see ladies, hair sprayed and teased to double the size of their heads, Ferragamo shoes swinging, Hermes handbag as arm candy, and Chanel glossed lips slurping a steamy bowl of noodles while perched on a wobbly fold up chair, in a run down, neon-lit shop house.
In Thailand, we all know that great food is best served cheap.
Oddly enough, when some of these shabby venues _ often following the winning formula of Formica-topped folding tables, red plastic stools, and the ubiquitous neon lights for ambiance _ reach dizzying and desired financial heights, they are reluctant to go chichi. Some vendors who have attempted to swish things up a few notches by moving from a road side trolley to a menu-provided restaurant find themselves gastronomic pariahs. Few have managed the transition successfully.
Some of Chiang Mai’s nouveau richest got there one twenty baht bowl at a time. These hard working guardians of secret recipes can often be seen, faces shadowed by sweat and steam, cooking and serving their special dishes out of converted vehicles, cheap stalls or tacky shop houses by day, and probably lounging on their new leather sofa, flicking UBC channels on their flat screen while being waited on by house maids by night. One of my friends graduated with a degree and post graduate degree from the United States, all from the daily sales of her parents’ famous (though now closed, following the aforementioned failed attempt to go high-so) khao soy shop.
As diners, we seem to think that the fewer frills the greater the chef’s skills. Of course this is not necessarily true. At all. That having been said, while we all appreciate fine dining and all the bells and whistles that go with it, there is something bona fide about a simple and modest eatery. One thing you know for sure is you are not going to get ripped off. You will probably have to use the pink serviette provided to clean your chopsticks, you certainly won’t be comfortable nor pampered by the harried staff, you may even have to, ahem, trot home quickly, but for most Thais from all social strata these slight inconveniences are on the most part small prices to pay for the pleasure of enjoying some of the best dishes in the land.
Similar to any other city in the country, Chiang Mai’s locals know that there are some truly special treats out there on the streets, many of which we first visited with our parents or even grand parents, and whose owners have similarly passed on their traditions and recipes to following generations. This month Citylife’s staff engaged in verbal skirmishes and combat, finally agreeing upon our 108 favourite local eateries which we have shared with you. While many of these are fairly well known restaurants or food stalls, to the local community at least, others are a tad obscure and very specialised, probably not suitable to all palettes. Many road side stalls don’t even have names and we have tried our best to give directions according to visual landmarks.
We hope that perhaps our list will encourage you to experiment and try out local delicacies best beloved by Chiang Mai’s very discerning diners.
Citylife this month:
Continuing with the food theme, I visited The Spa Resort and learned how to make raw food, and was pleasantly surprised to enjoy a most scrumptious lunch of raw cuisine. I also share some of my favourite home catering services with those of you who, like me, love to entertain but sadly can’t heat up a tin of baked bean, and James Austin Farrell delves under the fatty layers of childhood obesity. Completely off theme, I interview ex-lady Mayor Dr. Deuntemduang Na Chiangmai, whose name has unfortunately been muddied with scandal, to see what her achievements were and dreams are in politics.
A huge thanks to Alberto Cosi and his wife Buachan Piyasak (www.asistudio.it) for the stunning cover photo, which breaks down the raw ingredients for the iconic dish, grilled chicken, som tam and sticky rice as well as other photos accompanying the 108 story.