Chiang Mai in August is not Chiang Mai in February.
In August the air -- relatively clean, with not a trace of dry-season smoke or dust -- is heavy with moisture. You love those steely gray clouds, you pray for them. Even torrential rain is tolerable, certainly preferable to blue skies. Because when the sun comes out it's so clammy-hot that sweat begins dripping from your earlobes in minutes.
Chiang Mai markets in August are not Chiang Mai markets in February. The result of monsoonal rains is evident in the mushrooms, mushrooms everywhere. Last month we cooked, in our adopted apartment, bushels of petite chanterelles and a few other varieties varieties of mushrooms I can't name, often with tender curlicue-tipped gourd vines displayed in fist-thick bundles by seemingly every other seller at Muang Mai market.
We ate no mangoes, but devoured plenty of school bus-orange sour starfruit picked in someone's home garden and sold from a basket in front of a travel agency on Tha Phae Road. The travel agency owner also offered up bushel baskets of fresh santol -- a tart, somewhat astringent fruit with vanilla to blush pink flesh and velvety peach-fuzzed skin -- and had a refigerator case stocked with homemade santol jam (delicious stirred into fresh yogurt) and santol pickled with chilies. Last month in Chiang Mai the vanilla scented watermelon we purchased every evening outside Don Lam Yai market in April were scarce; our preferred vendor proffered green guava instead. And carts laden with pomelos lined up in the lane behind Warorot market.
Some of the rainy season's bounty finds its way into seasonal somtam. To sample a salad made with santol -- which is gatawn in Thai, ba dtun in northern Thai -- we payed a visit to our regular somtam guy, in the alley next to Bpu Bpia temple (behind Warorot market). Dtam ba dtun is what we ordered ("pounded" santol), and asked him to exclude the salty preserved crab he usually pounds into his version. Into his big mortar went the fruit, meticulously cleavered into thin slices, as well as sugar, a bit of lime, chilies, and several mini ladles of bplaa raa.
What came out of the mortar was a surprisingly rich dish of soft-ish fruit thickly coated with a fishy "dressing" reminiscent of that which cloaks anchovy-heavy Caesar salad. For us fishiness is not a bad thing, and the dressing played nicely off the assertive tartness of the fruit. We picked our way around pieces of pit and ate our dtam ba dtun with morning glory (water spinach) stems and sliced cucumber to tame the heat of the salad's fresh green chilies.
After a week of searching off and on for dtam som-o (pounded pomelo) -- the fruit is a favorite of Dave's, who is especially enamored of tart-sweet Thai pomelos -- we found it on our last morning in town at a row of stalls across the moat from Chiang Mai old town's Somphet market.
This was a fairly straightforward dish: pomelo pounded to near bits with green chilies, fish sauce, a bit of bplaa raa (at our request) and a little lime. Quartered green golfball eggplants added a hint of of bitterness. Overall the dish was bracing, refreshing, just the thing on a soggy-sticky late morning during northern Thailand's wet season.