A mild curry noodle soup that's reflective of the region's Burmese influence, though today it's become essentially synonymous with the city of Chiang Mai. The curry-heavy broth is laced with coconut milk, creating a creamy base for a tangle of flat, chewy noodles and a hunk of bone-in chicken. Topped with a nest of fried noodles and served with a platter of pickled greens, raw shallots, and lime, khao soi is a rich, comforting introduction to Northern Thai food. (Erin was a big fan of her khao soi while in Chiang Mai last month.)
While it looks like raw ground pork, naem—sold in plastic bags, tubes or wrapped in banana leaves—is actually a mix of raw pork, pork skin, sticky rice, garlic, chilis, and spices pounded together, then left to ferment at room temperature for 2-3 days. The finished product has a distinct tang, and is usually served with raw sliced ginger, shallots, garlic, peanuts, and bird's eye chilis to nibble on simultaneously. Every market and many street vendors in Chaing Mai have little leaf-wrapped bundles or plastic tubes of naem for sale, and it's a great on-the-go snack you can eat with your fingers (as is the case with much Northern Thai fare).
Nam phriks are thick chili-based dipping sauces, pounded together in a mortar and pestle, that northerners like to scoop up with sticky rice, blanched raw vegetables, or, in an entirely different caloric direction, crispy pork rinds called kaep moo. There are different kinds of nam phriks: nam phrik noom, a mostly vegetarian version made with charred green chilis, garlic, shallots, lime juice and fish sauce; nam phrik pow, a supremely funky, blackish version made with crushed dried shrimp and shrimp paste; and nam phrik ong, made from cherry tomatoes, dried red peppers, and minced pork simmered together into a thick, satisfying sauce.
One of the most common snacks in Chiang Mai, sai oua (pronounced "cy ooh-ah") are grilled sausages made from lightly fermented pork and a veritable bushel of fresh herbs and spices. You'll see sai oua tied into links as small as your pinkie or as big as bratwursts, or formed into one impressively long coil. Every vendor makes their sausage slightly differently: some finely grind all ingredients together, while others prefer a coarse, chunky texture; and there's no set recipe for the cuts of pork or kinds of herbs used. Eaten with a slip of raw ginger, a bite of bird's eye chili, and a piece of crispy raw lettuce, it's well worth sampling several sai ouas around town.
Khanom jeen naam ngeow
A popular breakfast noodle soup that might be compared to Thai bolognese, this dish is one of Chiang Mai's oft-overlooked treasures. The base is a bowl of fresh, skinny rice noodles, swimming in a meaty chili-and-tomato broth enhanced with minced pork and spareribs. The soup is topped with blood cake cubes and an assortment of crispy raw and pickled veggies. It's often served by the same vendors who make khao soi, one of whom told me that she makes khao soi for the tourists and khanom jeen for the regulars.