Nyack’s Ben McCarthy Goes on a Culinary Adventure Through Thailand
by Ben McCarthy
It’s 12:15a on an unusually cool night and we’re walking down a dimly lit street just outside of Chiang Mai’s old city in Northern Thailand. We’re looking for Midnight Fried Chicken/Midnight Sticky Rice, a restaurant that is only open from 10p-5a and serves up some of the best drinking food in the city. The restaurant is little more than bunches of scattered chairs and tables open to the street and covered by an old plastic awning. Behind a makeshift counter a woman stands over two weathered woks of hot, bubbling oil, frying up plate after plate as a crowd, fresh from the bars on Nimmahaeminda road, gathers.
There’s fried chicken, a fried version of the herbal northern Thai sausage, Sai Ua, fried pork rib-tips, a smoky grilled chili dip called Naam Phrik Num and of course lots of sticky rice. Like almost all of Thailand, Chiang Mai province is rice country, specifically sticky rice country. Called khao niaw in Thai, sticky rice is the staple grain of the North and Northeastern (Isaan) regions of Thailand and it is eaten, quite simply, with everything.
The food of Thailand is wide-ranging and intensely regional, it can be broken down roughly into four geographic areas: North (meaning the locales around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai), Northeast or Isaan (the provinces that border Laos and draw strongly from its culture and culinary traditions), Central (the area that surrounds Bangkok and the central plains) and Southern (which refers to the southern portion of the country and the Malay peninsula that ends at the border with Malaysia). Even these categories fail to recognize the intrinsic complexity of the cuisine and the subtle changes you see when you travel from town to town or city to city.
Laap, often spelled “Larb” at American Thai restaurants, is a perfect example. In Isaan, the dish is usually spicy and sour, employing dried chillies, lime juice, fish sauce and khao khua (toasted and crushed sticky rice powder) alongside minced meat or fish. In the North however Laap is an almost entirely different dish, although still a “salad” of minced meat it is rich and earthy from the addition of offal, blood and various spices from the region, such as Makhwaen, a type of prickly ash that is a relative of Sichuan pepper.
During our time in the North, we began to notice this culinary diversity more and more. Khao Soi, the noodle curry that is perhaps the North’s most famous dish, was interpreted differently at almost every restaurant or stall. One relied heavily on coconut milk, another was fragrant from the addition of more dry toasted spices. The same was true for Laap, Naam Phrik Num and the other Northern staples. Each stall or shop front restaurant had its own variation, its own subtle twist or technique. Due at least partially to trade, immigration and the country’s geography, the incredible diversity of Thai cuisine is one of the things I have come to love most about it.