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Raw Bile, Boiled Stomach and Other Mind-Blowing Chiang Mai Dishes (And Where to Find Them)

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Cuisine, Northern Thailand, Lanna
Uncle Chai has been doling out authentic Northern Thai for decades, with dishes like laap (minced meat salad) and jin som mok (grilled fermented sour pork in banana leaf)

What’s your favorite condiment? Mayonnaise, or maybe soy sauce? Well, in Northern Thailand they use nam phia (boiled contents of cattle’s rumen) and nam dee (raw bile from the same animals) to enhance the flavours of their food. Eat your heart out, Sriracha!

If you’re an uncultured simpleton like me, you’d probably associate Thai food with the usual suspects: luscious green Thai curry and spicy tom yum. These yummy grubs come from Central Thailand, which offers a combination of spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavours. Northern Thai cuisine, on the other hand, tends to be meaty, hearty and herbaceous with a dash of bitterness. You’ll notice that seafood is almost nonexistent due to Northern Thailand’s landlocked position within the country.

While Central Thai noshes are readily available in Northern Thailand, you’ll miss out big time if you don’t try the local specialties. Let me take you on an adventure of Northern Thai cuisine around Chiang Mai, and be prepared to be mind-blown by its exotic and bold flavours!

1. Khao Soi

A bowl of hearty khao soi (spicy noodle soup) is usually topped with crispy noodle garnish

Pin and Moui, my local posse, started me off with something tame. Khao soi, a dish of springy egg noodles and rich coconut soup is synonymous with Chiang Mai. The dish came to Northern Thailand via Myanmar, and is believed to be brought over by ethnic Hui Muslims from China. For more than 20 years, Khao Soi Mae Sai has been serving both khao soi neua (with beef) and khao soi gai (with chicken) for locals and tourists alike.

Where do I get it?

2. Khao Mok Gai

Loaded with fragrant spices, khao mok gai was introduced to Thailand by Muslim traders from India

A word of advice for my Muslim friends, be careful with your khao soi, even if it’s beef or chicken, as curdled pig’s blood is commonly added to the mix. If you’re looking for a halal version, Khao Soi Islam near the Chiang Mai Grand Mosque is a good choice. Aside from khao soi, you should also save some space for their khao mok gai – the Thai version of Indian chicken biryani, which consists of fluffy jasmine rice braised with fragrant spices, served with tender chicken that falls off the bone. Malaysians and Indonesians, a fair warning: once you go Thai biryani, you might not be able to go back to the versions we have back home. It’s that good!

Where do I get it?

  • Khao Soi Islam
  • Charoen Prathet 1 Alley, Chiang Mai
  • Phone no: +66823920142
  • TIP: As Khao Soi Islam is located within the Muslim Quarter, you can also pop by Kalare Night Bazaar if you’re visiting in the evening.

3. Laap

Boldly flavoured laap mueang (Northern-style minced meat salad) is different from laap isaan (Northeastern-style minced meat salad), which favours lighter flavours and a zesty finish

Just like in high school, the most popular might not be the most authentic. Khao soi might be the iconic dish of Chiang Mai, but flavour-wise it’s not representative of the Northern Thai fondness of pungent and bitter things. For a typical Northern Thai dish, go for laap mueang (Northern Thai-style minced meat salad), which will punch you right in the head with its heady mix of pig’s blood and dried spices, including ma khwaen (Zanthoxylum limonella), which leaves a tongue-tingling sensation similar to that of Sichuan pepper. You can find this dish practically everywhere in Chiang Mai, the one I had was at a no-fuss Northern Thai establishment with no foreigners and no English menu in sight, manned by a sombre, but not unfriendly, middle-aged man called Loong (Uncle) Chai.

Laap is considered a manly dish as it is traditionally prepared by men due to the laborious process of butchering, chopping and mincing meat to desired fineness. Pin told me that Northern Thai women would only find men marriageable if they can produce a mean laap. I told her it’s a good thing I’m resigned to a life of celibacy because I can’t even cook instant noodles without burning myself.

Where do I get it?

  • Loong Chai Kiang Larb Pla Pao
  • Mahidol Rd, Chiang Mai
  • Phone no: +66897013297

4. Jin Som Mok

Sour and savoury, jin som mok works well as an appetiser

Loong Chai fed me with enough dishes to last me a whole week, and I wish I had more space to describe every single one of them. But if you allow me to mention another one from his restaurant, it’ll be jin som mok (fermented pork with egg grilled in banana leaf). Just like naem in Central Thailand, the fermented pork is sour but not overwhelming, well complemented with a slight smokiness from the grilled banana leaf.

5. Saa

Saa neua is made of beef, blood, bile and everything nice

Aside from laap mueang moo (Northern laap with pork), Moui recommended saa neua, another meaty dish, this one is of thinly sliced beef or water buffalo meat instead of minced pork. While not as fatty as the porky laap, it is just as punchy with spices that are pungent and fragrant at the same time, courtesy of the mix of dried chillies, cloves, coriander, star anise, cardamom, black pepper and ma khwaen. Be sure to have your laap and saa cooked for you, because eating raw laap and saa is, apparently, a manly thing to do. Before consuming any raw meat, please consider that salmonella doesn’t give a damn about your macho-metre.

Where do I get it?

  • Laap Dee Khom Kon Yong
  • 41/1 Chotana Rd, Chiang Mai
  • Phone: +6653212499

6. Aeb Ong Aw

You’ll love aeb ong aw once you overcome the mental hurdle, it’s a no brainer!

My hobby of playing online games often leaves me exhausted and feeling every like a brain-eating zombie, but I never thought in a million years that I’d be eating actual brain in Thailand. But Pin, Moui’s quiet but mischievous friend, took me to a roadside stall to challenge me with aeb ong aw, pig’s brains blended with a mixture of shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, dried chillies and shrimp paste. To Moui’s disappointment, I found myself enjoying the silky texture which is akin to soft tofu. If you’re from Indonesia or Malaysia you’d be familiar with otak-otak (fishcake in banana leaf, lit. ‘brain-brain’), and let me tell you, this all-too-real brain treat tastes quite similar to our wannabe brain snack! Wahlao, an actual otak that tastes just like otak-otak, I sure cannot brain wan!  

Where do I get it?

  • Stalls near Wat Mun Tuen
  • Prapokkloa Rd, Chiang Mai

7. Khanom Jeen

Khanom jeen is often dubbed ‘Thai Bolognese’ both for its tomato base and its ease to eat.

It’s been intense with all these exotic eats, so let me dial it down a notch with a simple, yet satisfying, dish. Khanom jeen consists of freshly made rice vermicelli in a pork broth, topped with fresh herbs and pickled greens. Spicy and sour, the dish is surprisingly light enough to be served for breakfast. The version I had was made more special with the addition of nam ngiew, dried flowers from the red silk-cotton tree (Bombax ceiba), to make it even sourer.

Where do I get it?

  • Khanom Jeen Baan Wiang Kao
  • Super Highway, opposite Khum Phaya Resort, Chiang Mai
  • Phone no: +66835755823

8. Yam Bai Cha / Nem Yang

Skip the cake. With yam bai cha, you can have your tea and eat it too

Khanom jeen is believed to have been brought over by ethnic Shan when they migrated from neighbouring Myanmar. Due to its location, Northern Thailand has a strong influence from the Burmese and Shan (ethnic groups from Myanmar). Many Myanmarese-influenced dishes are widely enjoyed in Northern Thailand, including yam bai cha (what they call it in Thai) or nem yang (in Shan). Its main ingredient is young, fresh tea leaves that are picked, steamed and fermented underground for months. The soft, mushy leaves are then served with roasted peanuts and toasted sesame seeds for a delicious medley of textures.

Where do I get it?

9. Sai Oua

This Northern Thai-style sausage is good to eat on its own or with khao niao (sticky rice)

If you’re looking to bring the flavours of Northern Thailand back home to your family and friends, look no further than sai oua, Northern Thailand’s iconic spicy sausage, which is packed with aromatic herbs like galangal and lemongrass. I recommend going to a roadside stall like Mae Khampaeng’s, where the sausages are grilled right in front of your eyes.

Where do I get it?

  • Sai Oua Khampaeng
  • Near PTT Petrol Station on Mahidol Rd, Chiang Mai
  • Phone no: +66869139644

10. Khao Lam

Khao lam is a tasty treat for breakfast worth waking up early in the morning for

Northern Thais prefer khao niao (sticky rice) to khao luay (steamed rice). They can have anything from burger to pasta, but don’t consider it a meal until they have sticky rice. Moui and Pin woke me up at 5am and dragged me to the old walled city of Chiang Mai to have khao lam (sticky rice with coconut milk and black beans in bamboo tube), a breakfast favourite. They had to call Pha Nor, the middle-aged lady who sells them, one day in advance to ensure that her stall would be open. To sell her khao lam, Pha Nor would make a one-hour trip from her village to Chiang Mai in the wee hours of morning. Having the slightly sweet and creamy sticky rice hot off the grill at 6am was one of the highlights of my time in Chiang Mai.

Where do I get it?

  • Pha Nor
  • Catch her before 7am along Ratchaphakhinai Rd, Chiang Mai
  • Phone no: +66956485155 would like to thank A Chef’s Tour for hosting us in Chiang Mai

GETTING THERE: AirAsia flies to Chiang Mai. Book your tickets now at

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Written by Ari Vanuaranu

Albeit claiming to be a vegetarian, this self-professed culture vulture says that he’s willing to make an exception every time he is in an exotic place, as trying the local food is essential to widening a traveller’s horizon. But then each and every single place in the world outside of his hometown in Indonesia’s South Borneo counts as an ‘exotic place’...

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