What makes a market in Thailand a northern Thai market?
Here's a hint: Oink!
Pork is enjoyed in much of Thailand, but nowhere as much as in the northern provinces. Stand in the middle of a food market in northern Thailand and toss a pebble. Chances are it will land at the feet of a vendor peddling something porcine.
Here, no part of the pig goes to waste. Not the head. Not the slabs of fat, destined to be melted in a hot pan or wok for a stir-fry.
Not the heart, liver, stomach, and assorted other innards which, along with skin, might end up in a northern-style laab, a chopped meat 'salad' spicy from chilies, black pepper, long pepper, and makhwem (a northern Thai variety of prickly ash) and heady with the scent of dry spices like coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, and cumin. Nor the blood, sold as a liquid to be mixed into laab (both laab dip - uncooked - and laab khua - cooked) or in the form of lightly set 'cakes', to be diced and added to kanom jeen nam ngiaow, skinny fermented rice noodles with a thin, lightly soured sauce/gravy of meat and tomatoes.
Northern Thailand's hills hide culinary treasures - like wild boar. Its gamey essence adds heft to curries and its skin, deep-fried, makes for a delightful snack.
It's hard to pass a day in the north without encountering pork rinds, wild or otherwise. They're eaten on their own, used to scoop dips, added to curries, crumbled atop noodles. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that they are essential to the (non-Muslim) northern Thai diet.
Pork balls - for noodle soup, mostly - are a fixture of just about any Thai market, but here it's not unusual to encounter a vendor offering up to ten varieties.
There are, of course, sausages: sai oua (smoked sausage seasoned with curry paste), sai krawp priaow (sour sausages of pork fermented with glutinous rice), and sai krawp wunsen, which substitute wunsen (bean thread noodles) for sticky rice.
Fermented pork is a northern specialty. For naem, the meat is chopped, mixed with glutinous rice and shallots and/or garlic, packed into a clay pot, and left for exactly three days to sour.
Naem needn't be cooked (in a way, it already is), but is especially tasty wrapped in a banana leaf and placed over a grill, so that the meat absorbs the fragrance of the green.
Eaten with a couple of fiery chilies softened from the heat and accompanied by a glass of strong, sweet Thai coffee, naem makes for an excellent early-morning market breakfast.
No Thai market is complete without a mobile vendor selling muu yang, grilled skewered pork. Up north the cut of choice is belly, which makes for a wonderfully (and sinfully) fatty snack.
Every northern market features a range of pork-centric prepared curries.
Especially worth seeking out is gaeng kadang, a sort of pork curry 'jelly' set with sago-sago. Meaty, spicy, flavored with a combination of dried spices and fresh herbs, it holds its shape without refrigeration, making it the perfect travel food. And it tastes about one hundred times better than it looks.