I moved half way around the world to Northern Thailand in order to eat better. You might say that I'm more than a little interested in food.
I remember the food writer and TV celebrity chef Jamie Oliver saying that he dreams about herbs. Surprisingly it is the only sensible and normal sounding thing I have ever heard him say. It's not unusual for me to spend days or weeks thinking about particular recipes or foods, although I haven't yet dreamed about herbs … I'm sure though it's only a matter of time.
The foods available in Northern Thailand must rank amongst the most interesting and amazing in the world. There are influences from throughout Asia including China and India and the fragrant dishes of Malaysia, Indonesia, Lao, Vietnam and Southern Thailand (the old Siam). It's a giddy mixture and a life's work to get to know and understand them all … but I'm prepared to give it a go. It's a life changing experience in itself.
Part of the wonderful food experience in Northern Thailand is the strong market culture. There are excellent fresh markets throughout this whole region that sell the freshest and best food anywhere on the planet. Huge piles of mangoes, cabbages, chilies, coriander, strawberries, jack fruit, limes, lemon grass and every other fruit or vegetable you can think of fill the buzzing markets.
The part of the market that I frequent the most is the rice section. Back in the UK rice is just something you buy and cook and don't think a great deal about. Here in Chiang Mai, the main city in Northern Thailand, rice is almost a revered commodity. There are endless types of rice available for sale either piled high in big sacks, or already cooked in big steaming vats. My favorite and probably the most popular in this part of Chiang Mai is locally grown sticky rice. I had sticky rice once in London in a Thai restaurant and quickly wished I hadn't. It was a bit like eating glue. The sticky rice here is completely different; it's warm and soft … more like fluffy mashed potatoes than rice. It's the kind of food that will always be eaten because, like mashed potatoes, it is so damn good.
So, once you have your warm sticky rice what next? There are different ways you can go from here. Either you could try some Thai soups or curries and dip the rice straight into it, or you could invest in a tiny pot of spicy dry chili sauce called "Nam Prik Ta Dem" which is popular all over Thailand. Some people do eat the rice and the dry sauce as a meal in itself … it's the cheapest complete meal available at most markets. If however, you have a few baht left over (which I'm sure you might) you could think about getting something from the grilled section. Thai sausages are excellent, but vary enormously in spiciness. There are also grilled fish which range from the excellent and locally farmed Catfish to the expensive Snake Head Fish with soft flaky flesh or perhaps you may prefer some chicken, or honey marinated pork satay, or deep fried vegetable tempura or land crab pate or any one of the most delicious and unusual foods in the world.
Today, when it's market time I'm heading for the fresh seafood section, and buy myself a big bag full of Tiger Prawns and perhaps some Soft Shell Crabs. I'll then trundle round to the fresh herb section and pick out some big bunches of Coriander, Lemon Grass, Basil and Spring Onions. I can't wait to get cooking with all these fresh flavors. I'm sure that if Jamie Oliver shopped down at my local market he'd find it difficult to work out the difference between when he was dreaming about herbs and wide awake!
Enjoy Northern Thai food.