Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Thailand and Laos Report. Episode 3: On to Chiang Mai

   We took the overnight train to Chiang Mai. Sitting up. All the sleepers had long been booked because of the holiday. Staff brought a meal to our seats at 8 p.m. and the lights went out at nine. 
   We arrived in Chiang Mai to cooler, fresher air,  a relief after the pressure cooker of Bangkok. It was good to be back in this old city with its moat and fountains. Now a regular stop on the "banana pancake trail," Chiang Mai has changed in the five years since we were there--it now has a Starbuck's, grrr--but our favourite guesthouse still has its funky teak houses and cabinets of curiosities in the indoor/outdoor eating area. 
   While Peter drew and painted, I haunted the enormous riverside market, falling hard for cellophane packets of deep-fried peanuts tossed with lime leaves and chili flakes. Northern Thai food is a cuisine in itself with sausage a mainstay, flecked with herbs, and sold individually or as fat coils. We learned to make local curries, and I can now transform red onions into lilies, and tomatoes into roses, all thanks to a one-day cooking course we took. 
   We returned to the glamorous Huan Soontaree restaurant, set on the river and owned by a well-known singer who still performs there at weekends. A not entirely effective mosquito coil burned next to the table as we ate a dish of roasted sour minced pork, a grilled serpent-head fish stuffed with herbs, a salad of Chiang Mai sausage and cashew nuts so spicy that I could feel my lips puffing up as I ate it, steamed vegetables, and rice. Even at an upmarket restaurant like this, food is still a bargain by western standards. Our entire meal with three large Singha beers (which we drank exclusively while in Thailand) came to 880 baht (roughly 20 euros, or $30 Canadian). 
   Huan Soontaree is a fair distance from the city. Our tuk-tuk driver returned to pick us up around 10 p.m. It's a moment, I tell you, rocketing along a major highway on a Saturday night in a tuk-tuk and suddenly seeing a lineup of gorgeous ladyboys on the sidewalk.  
   Somewhere else we liked a lot was a restaurant called Huen Phen. Joe, our cooking instructor told us about it so we set off one night, walking and walking along a long, increasingly dimly-lit road until we came to it. Worth the trip to discover this warren of funkily furnished little rooms and beautifully cooked food. Have you seen a more elegant presentation that that cone of banana leaf filled with sticky rice?
   One of our favourite eating spots was hidden away at the back of a small travel agency. Noi's Garden was where I first discovered kao soi, and instantly became so addicted that I've already tried to recreate it in France. As you can see in the pic, kao soi is a yellow curry noodle soup with prawns or chicken garnished with deep-friend noodles and served with pickled cabbage, chilis and lime. 
   We returned for a khuntake dinner, a number of dishes that are a good introduction to northern Thai cooking. This one included a young chili dip, spicy tomato sauce (another dip), northern Thai curry with pork, a complex spicy minced pork salad with herbs, various steamed and raw vegetables, deep fried chicken--hugely popular here--a couple of other dishes, and bananas in coconut milk to finish. 

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