JAMES BEARD AWARD FINALIST • Welcome to a beautiful, deep dive into the cuisine and culture of northern Thailand with a documentarian's approach, a photographer's eye, and a cook's appetite.
Known for its herbal flavors, rustic dishes, fiery dips, and comforting noodles, the food of northern Thailand is both ancient and ever evolving. Travel province by province, village by village, and home by home to meet chefs, vendors, professors, and home cooks as they share their recipes for Muslim-style khao soi, a mild coconut beef curry with boiled and crispy fried noodles, or spiced fish steamed in banana leaves to an almost custard-like texture, or the intense, numbingly spiced meat "salads" called laap.
Featuring many recipes never before described in English and snapshots into the historic and cultural forces that have shaped this region's glorious cuisine, this journey may redefine what we think of when we think of Thai food.
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About the Author
Austin Bush has lived in Thailand since 1999. He speaks, reads, and writes fluent Thai, and has written extensively about Thai food. His writing and photography has appeared in more than twenty books for Lonely Planet, as well media outlets, including BBC, Bon Appétit, CNN Travel, Condé Nast Traveler, Olive, Monocle, the New York Times, Saveur, TIME, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, VICE,The Wall Street Journal Asia, and the Washington Post, among others. His blog was a finalist in Saveur magazine's Best Food Blogs awards. He works closely with Andy Ricker and has photographed the New York Times bestseller Pok Pok and its follow up, The Drinking Food of Thailand.
Read an Excerpt
I’m driving a rental car, navigating the 1,219 curves of northern Thailand’s so-called Death Highway. The nickname stems from the challenge the road has presented to car brakes over the years, a fate I’m hoping to avoid while on the way to Um Phang, a tiny village tucked between mountains near the border with Myanmar. I’ve been to Um Phang a few times before, for both work and pleasure, and know what’s waiting for me there: a dish of northern Thai–style laap. Combining finely minced beef, sliced offal, herbs, and a fragrant spice mixture that threatens to numb the tongue, it’s a world away from the spicy, tart “larb” found in Thai restaurants abroad—or even in Bangkok. Indeed, accompanied by a bamboo basket of steaming sticky rice and a platter of herbs, vegetables, and bitter greens, these are ingredients and flavors that are really only available in Thailand’s north. For me, it’s the kind of meal that’s worth the risky drive.
I’ve been visiting places like Um Phang since I moved to Thailand in 1999. I originally came to the country on a scholarship at Chiang Mai University, where I learned to speak, read, and write Thai. After I was done studying, I landed a job teaching English. During school breaks I’d travel the country, going to remote places, camera in hand—an effort, I suppose, to wrap my head around the place where I was living. But it didn’t take me long to realize that food is almost certainly the best way to learn about Thailand. I was both overwhelmed by and obsessed with Thailand’s cuisine, but I also found food a way to improve my language skills, meet people, and learn about the culture. Since then, I’ve worked as a writer and photographer, having contributed to more than twenty books for the travel publisher Lonely Planet and other publications. I started an acclaimed blog about Thai food, and shot the photos for Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok cookbooks.
For most of this time, I’ve lived in Bangkok, epicenter of the “pad Thais” and green curries that have made Thai food so famous worldwide. Yet it took traveling outside the capital to learn that Thai food is anything but a single entity. Nearly twenty years of eating in just about every part of the country have taught me that, from region to region, Thailand’s flavors, ingredients, cooking methods—even for staples like rice—differ immensely. And it’s these uniquely regional dishes—a fish curry at a roadside stall on an island in southern Thailand that was so intensely spicy I was, momentarily, high; an unexpectedly sweet and fragrant salad of raw minced buffalo eaten at the edge of a rice field in Thailand’s north; a crunchy, intensely herbal stir-fry of dried cobra served from a shack in central Thailand—that I’ve found myself most frequently drawn to.
Yet of Thailand’s vast spread of regional cuisines and dishes, I find that I keep coming back to those of the country’s north. The food of northern Thailand is a world away from the highly refined, royal court– and Chinese-influenced style of cooking associated with Bangkok and central Thailand—the Thai food that most of us are familiar with. It’s a cuisine with its own distinct identity, one that is rustic and earthy, meaty and fragrant; one with roots in the Thai repertoire but with branches that extend beyond the country’s borders; a cuisine that manages to feel ancient and contemporary, domestic and foreign, all at the same time.
Led to remote destinations in the course of work, I’ve had the chance not only to eat northern Thai dishes in every province in the region but also to talk with northern Thai home cooks, restaurateurs, and academics. I have photographed rural markets and cooked with locals. I have spent time in libraries, poring over old texts and recipes, and hours in the kitchens of food vendors and housewives. From these experiences, I have assembled a body of knowledge and photographs of a cuisine that few in Bangkok know much about, let alone those in the English-speaking world.
What, then, is northern Thai food? We have the rest of this book to explore that question, but for now, my mind flits to sitting on the floor, cross-legged, at the edge of a short, squat table, plucking sticky rice from a bamboo basket. I think of rolling that rice into a ball with my fingers and swiping it into dips that are smoky, spicy, and salty. I’m reminded of soups packed with so many herbs that identifying a single one is an almost impossible task. Of hazy grills stacked with mysterious banana leaf packages, coils of sausage, and unidentifiable pork parts. And of home cooks preparing food from muscle memory, not recipes. To me, northern Thai food means dishes made from raw meat that are as delicious as they are intimidating. And noodle soups that are so fundamentally, effortlessly tasty that there’s no barrier to entry; they’re just plain good, no matter what you grew up eating.
Death thwarted, I pull into Um Phang, but only to find that the laap shack is gone. Instead, there’s a shiny new 7-Eleven—Um Phang’s first—by far the brightest and most modern building around, drawing the town’s hungry like moths to a flame.
Nearly two decades of documenting food in Thailand have also instilled in me a sense of urgency. The way people eat is changing rapidly and profoundly. Across the country, modernization and increasing wealth are having a huge impact on Thai food. A Western-style diet is becoming the norm, and these days, hot dogs can seem as common as tom yam. Likewise, Thailand’s local cuisines are becoming increasingly homogenous, and the current generation of cooks is probably the last who will have been direct witness to the full vastness of the country’s culinary diversity.
This book is not an encyclopedia of northern Thai food. The recipes included here are not meant to define the cuisine, nor are they exhaustive. Rather, they stem from six provinces in northern Thailand that boast particularly vibrant culinary legacies. Nor is this book meant to be a nostalgic reminiscence of what people used to eat. My hope is that it can serve as a snapshot of the culinary world of northern Thailand as it stands today, of the people, dishes, ingredients, and cooking techniques that form this unique, fascinating, and delicious cuisine.
Naam Phrik Num
A Northern Thai-Style Dip of Grilled Chilies, Shallots, and Galic
“It should be spicy,” offers Areerat Chowkasem, a former restaurant cook, from her home kitchen in Mae Rim, outside of Chiang Mai.
Overt heat is unusual for a northern Thai dish. But naam phrik num, a dip revolving around grilled chilies, is the exception to this rule.
The dish consists of little more than northern Thailand’s famous slender green chilies—the eponymous phrik num—garlic and shallots, grilled over coals until charred, soft, and fragrant, before being pounded with seasonings using a mortar and pestle.
“I don’t pound the chili too finely,” explains Areerat while gently blending the ingredients with the pestle; naam phrik num shouldn’t have the consistency of a uniform paste, but rather that of a tangle of pale green, spicy strands.
It’s this simplicity—and also that heat—that has made naam phrik num the flagship dish of the northern Thai repertoire, beloved by just about everybody and sold at every market—including from souvenir stalls at Chiang Mai International Airport.
Traditionally, the dip is eaten with sticky rice, steamed or parboiled vegetables, and ideally also some deep-fried pork rinds (see page 70). Yet it also functions equally well as a dip for sai ua (northern Thai–style sausage; page 74), or, my personal favorite, deep-fried chicken. Similarly, countless variations on naam phrik num exist, in which its core elements are supplemented with ingredients ranging from deep-fried pork rinds to grilled fish (see opposite and page 44 for two of these).
Phrik num are unavailable outside of northern Thailand, but Andy Ricker, in his book Pok Pok, suggests that mild Anaheim, Hungarian wax, or goat horn chilies, supplemented with spicier serrano chilies, serve as an acceptable substitute. Traditionally, naam phrik num is seasoned with little more than salt, but Areerat, somewhat unconventionally, opts for soy sauce; I’ve gone with a balance of the two. If you want to go completely old-school, you can eliminate this ingredient altogether and season your naam phrik num to taste with salt or even plaa raa, unfiltered fish sauce.
For the Dip
500 grams / 18 ounces large fresh chilies (ideally phrik num, or a combination of serrano and other milder chilies)
80 grams / 3 ounces shallots, unpeeled
12 garlic cloves, unpeeled (60 grams / 2 ounces total)
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon white soy sauce (optional) (see page 328)
600 grams / 1 1/3 pounds of parboiled or steamed vegetables, such as pumpkin, cabbage, long bean, small eggplant, and/or raw vegetables, such as cucumber or Thai eggplant, cut into bite-sized pieces
160 grams / 5 1/2 ounces deep-fried pork rinds (see page 70)
sticky rice (see page 54)
THAI KITCHEN TOOLS
Thai-style charcoal grill or barbecue metal or bamboo skewers (the latter soaked in water), or a grilling basket
1. Using a Thai-style charcoal grill, light the charcoal and allow the coals to reduce to medium heat (approximately 350°F to 450°F, or when you can hold your palm 3 inches above the grilling level for 5 to 7 seconds).
2. Skewer the chilies, shallots, and garlic separately. When the coals are ready, grill the chilies, shallots, and garlic, turning them occasionally, until fragrant and soft, and their exterior is uniformly charred, around 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the charred exterior from the chilies, shallots, and garlic.
3. Pound and grind the shallots and garlic to a coarse paste with a mortar and pestle. Add the chilies and pound and grind just enough to combine; you do not want a uniform, fine paste but rather a tangle of strands. Add the salt and white soy sauce (if using), mixing with a spoon.
4. Taste, adjusting the seasoning if necessary; the naam phrik num should taste spicy and salty, and should be fragrant from the garlic and the grilling.
5. Remove to a small serving bowl and serve with steamed or parboiled vegetables, deep-fried pork rinds, and sticky rice as part of a northern Thai meal.