We are in Bangkok, physically, but still up north in our heads. We love Bangkok. We lived here, quite happily, for a little under a year. When we left it wasn't at all willingly, but with heavy hearts and great regrets about everything we didn't have a chance to experience. We've always thought we'd come back here to live, eventually. But after the North Bangkok seems hot and crowded, if still very delicious.
At any rate, we're still thinking about Chiang Mai and environs, about the people and the food and the vibe and the vistas. Let's start in the 'big city', at a place we feel most at home: a market.
If you've no Thai language skills but can manage a bit of Mandarin you'll do quite all right at Chiang Mai's Ciin Haw market (actually, you'll do fine there with only English, too), held every Friday morning in a parking lot across the street from a mosque near the night bazaar. Ciin Haw are descendents of Chinese Muslims who migrated south from Yunnan in waves centuries ago. Chiang Mai's most well-known dish - khao soi - is usually attributed, in some way or another, to their presence in the region.
Even if you don't speak or understand Mandarin, certain visuals might tip you off to the presence of Chinese or Chinese speakers - such as the row of jars above, condiments produced by Guizhou's Lau Gan Ma Company. We're quite partial to the chili paste on the left, an oily emulsion of black beans, garlic, and crushed dried and roasted chilies peppers that, combined with Chinese black vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce, makes a mean dip for shui jiao (boiled dumplings).
Our love for Lau Gan Ma (which we call 'old lady hot sauce'), blossomed in Shanghai, when our ayi's flight attendant daughter gifted us a jar after a run to Guizhou. (Our continuing affection for the stuff might also have something to do with the fact that the stern-faced, severely-coiffed woman pictured on the label is a dead-ringer for our stern-faced and severlely-coiffed, but soft-hearted, ayi.) When we returned to the San Fran Bay Area from Shanghai in 1998 we hand-carried 6 jars with us. Now you can buy Lau Gan Ma just about anywhere, but beware - the rumor is that copycats abound.
In addition to jars of Lau Gan Ma you might see, at Chiang Mai's Ciin Haw market, faces that look, to us, as Chinese as they do Thai,
containers of homemade fermented (and spiced) bean curd, otherwise known as 'Chinese cheese',
and dishes that sing with the lip-numbing tingle of hua jiao, or Sichuan peppercorn.
But now we're mixing our ethnicities, because the huajiao-spiced dishes we ate at this market are actually of Shan, or Tai Yai origin. The one pictured below is an utterly delicious and comforting combination of thin rice vermicelli (laying unseen, at the bottom of the bowl), doused with a paste made from soy flour (according to the vendor, who described herself as a Shan from Yunnan - but gram flour, according to this wiki entry) and seasoned with crushed toasted soy beans, sesame oil, la jiao (sandy chili paste of dried chilies, salt, and oil), huajiao you (Sichuan peppercorns steeped in hot oil), and lots of fresh coriander. It's bizarrely viscous and gloppy but in a good, warming way - just the thing to fill the stomach and spread heat through the body on cool Chiang Mai winter mornings.
Next to the vendor dishing up this bowl of goodness is a pickle seller, and if you're so inclined you can nab an empty bowl and ask her to fill it with the pickle of your choice, to eat with your noodle 'porridge'.
And there's another Shan specialty worth keeping an eye out for here: donuts.
The sweets, made with ground glutinous black rice, give Malaysian kueh keria a serious run for the their money.
After frying, the donuts are dipped in molasses, which they absorb like sponges through their porous skins.
Despite their soaking the donuts remain crispy outside, but within they're soft and creamy, almost custardy. The molasses cools them down quickly, so you don't have to wait too long after they're done to take a bite - and when you do, molasses spurts into your mouth. Sounds sweet, but all that sugar is tamed by molasses' bitter edge, and the rustic flavor of the black rice dough shines through.
We're thinking that these might just be the world's most perfect (sweet) breakfast food. We went through two bags of five each in the blink of an eye, and I spent a good portion of the rest of our time up North searching for more (in vain, unfortunately).
Other eats at the market include mohynga, which is not Ciin Haw or Shan but Burmese, a thickish fish soup-stew with rice vermicelli. This version was made with thick slices of pickled banana tree trunk, which lent a slightly funky (but tasty) fermented edge, and topped with crunchy daal fritters.
The vendor of this Burmese dish told us that his father was a Ciin Haw who migrated from southern Yunnan to Shan state, in Burma, before finally settling down in Chiang Mai. So although this market is known as Chiang Mai's Ciin Haw market, many of its specialties have some relationship to the Shan, who've long been a point of contact between Burma, Thailand, and southern China.
After many, many donuts, several bowls of noodles, and a lot of vegetable ogling (fresh fava beans! how we wished we had a kitchen) it was time to head off and ponder .... lunch.