Good Food without the Frilly Bits

 |  July 30, 2009

As I sat in a bar contemplating a bowl of fermented fish puree and the sliver of strange green fruit I was supposed to dip into it, I was pleased to be diverted by a Thai friend. ‘You’re going to eat that?’ he asked, nodding at my dripping fishy fruit slice, ‘or you want to come get an orgasm in your mouth?’ The choice was surprisingly easy and a short bike ride later we arrived – not at an establishment where gentlemen go to rub oil onto other gentlemen – but at an unassuming little restaurant just south of the city.

Chef Seng’s place is a simple affair like most places worth regularly eating at in Chiang Mai. Plastic plates, plastic chairs, posters advertising coke and 7UP. You can eat inside with air con, or outside under the branches of a Bodhi tree. The kitchen itself is a bustle of stoves and work tops built around the base of the tree. I asked Seng as we sat down for a chat if it wasn’t a little risky having the flaming stoves attached to a tree made almost entirely of wood. He grinned. “The tree gives us protection and luck. I could cut it down and make room for more customers, but that will never happen. We all pray to the tree in the morning. The tree brings the customers.”

This is one of the many fantastic things about living in Chiang Mai. Around every next corner and under every next Bodhi tree is what proper restaurant reviewers call ‘another gastronomic delight’. The number of little hidden away places to eat in this city is far more than anyone armed with a Nancy Chandler map and a GCSE in math could ever hope to calculate.

This is because food is so central to Thai life. I was once told whilst discussing beggars in Chiang Mai that nobody here goes hungry. There is always food to spare. Whether or not this is true, it is a fact that food is not just a part of life here, it permeates every aspect. Pop next door to your Thai neighbour’s to borrow a cup of sugar and you will probably end up discussing what you have or haven’t recently eaten for a quarter of an hour, be invited to share lunch and leave some time later with a bag of hairy fruit and a bottle of homemade lao khao for the trip home.

Chef Seng is a handsome sixty-four year old, dressed smartly in shorts and a polo shirt with understated gold around his neck and wrist. Perched on a chair near the kitchen he keeps an eye on everything. Every dish passes him for quiet approval before being served. Every farang’s crotch is also passed over for approval by the snuffling muzzle of Seng’s enormously fat black Labrador.

I asked Seng about his regular customers. Many come here when they travel from Bangkok or the surrounding provinces. “I used to have a regular come up from the palace”, he told me proudly. Just behind us sat two body-guards munching on a simple pad thai, ready to spring into action whenever their Lacoste wearing boss, who was eating alone inside, needed the Jag brought round. Looking about I noticed that everyone was smartly dressed in that: I’ve just come off a professional golf tour look. My flip-flops and Songkran Hawaiian print singlet just felt cheap next to their brogues and starched polo shirts. It seems that if you want to go where the A-list go, then forget Gwyneth spotting at the Four Seasons and get yourself into a little out of the way place with a randy Labrador. My friend put it perfectly when I asked why so many great food places are so no-frills. Thais care about the food, not all the rubbish that comes with it to draw the tourists. There’s no piped gamelan orchestra playing the greatest hit of Chris de Burgh and the waiters don’t feel the need to dress as palace slaves.

So here’s my suggestion: You may choose to eat at Seng’s or at any of the other places reviewed in this issue of Citylife, and that’s cool. But if you have the time, go down that little dead end soi not mentioned in the Lonely Planet, sit down at a table and ask to try whatever the person holding the big spoon next to the steaming pots and flaming grills recommends. You might just surprise yourself with a cheeky oral orgasm.

Under the Buddha tree, opposite Wat Sriping Muang, next to the big fat dog. 19 Sriping Muang, Chang Klan Road, Tel: 081 453 0591

Opening hours: 9.30 a.m. – 2 p.m., 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.