Photo Essay: Northern Thailand's Rich Food Culture

Photos of Northern Thailand's rich food culture

Green curry? "Pad Thai"? Chicken rama? Not in northern Thailand—at least, not traditionally.

Thailand's food is devoutly regional, and that of its northern provinces couldn't be more different from the overwhelmingly Bangkok- and Chinese-influenced dishes served at most Thai restaurants in the U.S.

When it comes to northern Thai food, you can forget any notions of sweet, stir-fried dishes or ingredients such as coconut milk or shrimp. The food of Thailand's North is predominantly earthy, meaty and rustic, relying on ancient techniques like grilling and fermenting, and obscure ingredients including water buffalo and bitter herbs. Even Thai staples such as fish sauce have made few inroads into landlocked and remote northern Thailand. And compared to the country's other regional cuisines, northern Thailand's dishes are graciously mild, getting their kicks from a few select herbs or relatively mild spice pastes, rather than from a handful of chiles.

Northern Thailand's rice fields constitute around 20 percent of the country's land dedicated to rice agriculture. In the more remote regions, much of the planting and harvesting continues to be done by hand, including here, outside Tha Ton, Chiang Mai.

In parts of northern Thailand, such as the remote village of Tham Sakoen, Nan, planting and harvesting rice is a group effort, requiring the cooperation of the community for as long as a week. Those who pitch in are sometimes paid in rice.

Making khanom jeen, thin noodles made from a rice flour-based paste, in Nan.

A dish of khanom jeen nam ngiaw at a stall in Chiang Mai.

Serving up bowls of khao soi at a restaurant in Chiang Mai.

A man gathers makhwaen in Song Khwae District, Nan. The spice is gathered by hand from tall trees in Nan and elsewhere in northern Thailand beginning around October, and is dried before being used in a variety of northern Thai-style meat dishes.

Grilling sai ua, a northern Thai-style sausage that combines pork and a variety of fresh herbs, at a market outside of Chiang Mai.

A typical northern Thai grill. Moving clockwise from 12 o'clock: pork belly, chin and tongue; banana leaf packets of sour fermented pork; pork-and-herb sausage; eggs; and freshwater fish.

A Shan cook making local-style sweets at his home kitchen in Mae Hong Son, Thailand.

Tucking into an Akha-style meal in Chiang Rai. Like Thailand's other hill tribes, who tend to live in remote, elevated communities, the Akha are almost entirely self-sufficient, relying on a relatively simple yet full-flavored diet based around rice, vegetables and herbs.

In recent years, restaurants in the U.S. like Pok Pok have shed some light on the dishes of Thailand's North, but most diners remain unaware of the region's fare, making it perhaps the least-known regional Thai cuisine, both in Thailand and abroad.

So to give you a leg up, here's a crash course in northern Thai food: its staples, main dishes and influences. But don't make the rookie mistake of conflating northern Thailand with northeastern Thailand, the region also known as Isan. Although the two cuisines share some characteristics, U.S. Thai restaurant staples such as papaya salad and grilled chicken are Isan, not northern.

Northern Thai Staples

Perhaps the most important food item associated with northern Thailand is rice. Yet unlike the fragrant, delicate, long-grain jasmine rice that's standard at your local Thai joint, the residents of northern Thailand traditionally eat sticky or glutinous rice, stumpy, starchy grains that are prepared by steaming rather than boiling. When cooked, sticky rice is kept warm in bamboo baskets called katip, and is eaten by hand, rolled into a ball and dipped into the various dishes.

Your local Thai place may serve noodles, but it's unlikely it'll have khanom jeen, fine, round threads made from soaking, fermenting, grinding, pounding, boiling and extracting rice—almost certainly the most beloved noodle in northern Thailand. Served exclusively fresh and thus never exported, khanom jeen are also thought by some to be one of Southeast Asia's only indigenous noodle (most other noodle and noodle dishes eaten in Southeast Asia were introduced by the Chinese).

The most common use of khanom jeen in northern Thailand is in a dish called nam ngiaw, a hearty, tomatoey, pork-based soup—a northern Thai Bolognese of sorts—supplemented with cubes of steamed pork or chicken blood.

One noodle dish that has made it outside of the North is khao soi, a combination of wheat-and-egg noodles and a curry broth that was most likely imported to northern Thailand from Myanmar by Muslim traders from China. Khao soi is one of the few savory dishes in northern Thailand that employs coconut milk. A bowl is served with slices of lime; tart, crunchy pickled mustard greens; and bits of shallot—all effective foils to the rich broth.

In the U.S., diners tend to associate Thai food with big, fragrant, fresh herbs, such as lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaf. In northern Thailand, dried spices also play a big role. One of the most noteworthy is makhwaen, an evergreen shrub related to the Sichuan pepper and prickly ash. Makhwaen has a distinctively fragrant and spicy flavor and, perhaps most notably, imparts a slight numbing sensation.

Another northern Thai staple that rarely makes it to U.S. menus is nam phrik, chile-based "dips." Northern Thailand's nam phrik superstar is undoubtedly nam phrik num, a combination of grilled chiles, garlic and shallots that have been pounded in a mortar and pestle to a stringy, spicy paste. A bit of nam phrik num, a basket of sticky rice and a few parboiled vegetables and deep-fried pork rinds is among the simplest—and most delicious—meals in northern Thailand.

A Love of Meat

Your local Thai joint may serve larb (aka laap, larp or lahb), a tart "salad" of minced meat, fresh herbs and seasonings with roots in Thailand's northeast. But few diners, including most Thais, are aware of the version served across northern Thailand: a combination of typically raw, finely minced beef, uncooked beef blood, honeycomb tripe, a fragrant spice paste and fresh herbs.

Indeed, northern Thais love their meat, and the most ubiquitous type of restaurant in the region is undoubtedly the bare-bones laap restaurant, which generally also features a grill of mixed meat, cheap rice-based booze and an almost exclusively male clientele.

Outside Influences

Thai dishes sold in the U.S. can often be traced back to Bangkok's royal palace, or even China. Northern Thailand's food is closer to what the Thai people probably ate centuries ago, when outside influences were fewer and less cosmopolitan. In Thailand's north, the influences tend to come from groups such as the Shan, a people closely related to the Thais who speak a similar dialect and share numerous cultural—and culinary—traits. The Shan are thought to have introduced khanom jeen nam ngiaw, as well as dishes like khao kan jin, rice combined with pork blood and minced pork, wrapped in banana leaf packages and steamed.

Other influences have come from the region's so-called hill tribes, ethnic minority groups who inhabit the remote, mountainous areas of northern Thailand. With origins in southern China and the Tibetan Plateau, these groups migrated south approximately 200 years ago, eventually settling in parts of Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, and northern Thailand. Northern Thailand's hill tribes often rely on high-altitude, cold-weather crops not generally grown elsewhere in Thailand, such as chayote, potatoes and corn, some of which have made their way into the northern Thai repertoire.

The Chinese have also influenced northern Thailand's food, both in the distant past, when Chinese traders leading mule caravans introduced khao soi, and more recently, when after the communist victory in 1949, Chinese soldiers fled their homeland for the remote regions of Thailand's north, settling in remote mountainous regions to grow tea and other crops.