As elsewhere in Thailand, one of the pleasures of a visit to Chiang Mai is the chance to dine on fine food. The dining options range from Thai, which is rapidly gaining popularity in the West, to Continental and Asian. Best of all, the prices are quite resonable. An added attraction of eating out in Chiang Mai is the lovely settings of its restaurants: old Lanna homes, riverside inns and gardens ensure a different dining experience every evening.
Thai dishes are as individual and as varied as the chefs who prepare them. The cooks rely on garlic, lemon grass, chillies, coriander, fish paste and dozens of herbs and spices to impart an astounding variety of flavours to the dishes. Although most dishes are spicy, they can be made less fiery on request. Among the spicy favourites are thom yam gung (piquant soup with shrimp), gaeng khiew wan gai (a hot green curry with chicken or beef) and gaen phet (a red curry with beef).
Non-spcy dishes include: thom kha gai (coconut milk curry with chicken), plaamuk thawd krathiem prik thai (squid or fish fried with garlic and black pepper), nua phat namman hoi (beef in oyster sauce) and muu phat priew wan (sweet and sour pork). In addition, there is Chiang Mai's own cuisine whose key dishes are listed below.
For a Thai-style breakfast, wander into the side streets by the Ton Lamyai market. Sidewalk vendors will be deep-frying the tasty X-shaped pastries called patongkoh. Order them with the very thick but tasty Thai coffee served with a layer of condensed milk at the bottom. Insist on Cafe Thai or you will be served Nescafe which, while delicious, lacks the punch of the Thai variety.
Desserts are invariably sweet. Try coconut ice cream (ice cream kathit) and a host of sweets with a base of coconut milk and incorporating sticky rice and luscious fruits. The traditional Thai meal-ender is a plate of fresh fruit, usually papaya, pineapple and watermelon, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks. Vary it with banana, tangerine and seasonal fruits like jackfruit, rambutan, mangoes and mangosteen. If you crave a taste treat akin to a gourmet Limburger cheese, bit into a durian.
For a refreshing drink, try a shake made of pureed fruit, crushed ice and a light syrup. Chilled young coconuts are delicious: drink the juice, then scrape out and eat the tender young flesh. Soft drinks like Coca-Cola are found everywhere. Try Vitamilk, a refreshing drink made from soybeans. For a revitalising cooler, order a bottle of soda, a glass of ice and a sliced lime. Squeeze the lime into the glass, add the soda and, voila, your thirst is slaked. Coffee drinkers will enjoy the very strong Thai coffee bolstered with chicory or tamarind. The odd orange-coloured Thai tea is sticky sweet but delicious. On a hot day, the Chinese drink a glass of hot, very thin tea, as they belive that ice is bad for the stomach, but all three drinks taste great over ice.
Local beers include Singha, Chang and Kloster. The best local whisky since 1939 is called Mekhong, distilled from glutinous rice and usually bought by the half-bottle. It is best drunk with plenty of soda, ice and very importantly a squeeze of lime. Most foreign liquors are available, and the better Western restaurants normally have wine lists.
Khao Niew. Northern food is generally eaten with khao niew or sticky rice. One kneads a bit of rice into a ball and dips it in various sauces and curries.
Sai Oua. A chewy, oily, spicy pork sausage also called nam and associated with the North. It is roasted over a fire fuelled by coconut husks which impart a delicious aroma to the meat. Although normally prepared hygienically, it is best to buy sai oua only at better restaurants. Hot prik kii nuu chillies buried inside the sausages present the unwary with a painful surprise.
Khao Soy. Originally a Burmese speciality, this delicious egg noodle dish is filled with chunks of beef or chicken, and served lightly curried in a gravy of coconut cream. A sprinkle of crispy noodles and chopped garlic goes on top.
Nam Prik Ong. Minced pork, chillies, tomatoes, garlic and shrimp paste are blended and chilled. It is served with crisp cucumber slices, parboiled cabbage leaves and crispy pork rind (the latter is another Northern snack).
Larb. A minced pork, chicken, beef, or even fish, dish. Larb is associated with Northeastern cuisine where it is throughly cooked. Larb in the North, however, is normally eaten raw. It is served with long beans, mint leaves, cabbage, and other raw vegetables which contrast with its full-bodied meaty flavour.
Gaen Hang Lay. Originally from Burma, it is one of the Northern dishes. Those with tender palates should approach this dish with some caution. Tamarind imparts to this pork curry a somewhat sweet and sour flavour. The curry is especially suitable as a dip for balls of sticky rice.
Mieng is a Burmese delicacy of fermented tea leaves that tastes a lot better than it sounds.
Khantoke. This buffer of northern dishes provides an excellent introduction to Northern cuisine. Lest you think it is served only to tourists, wander through a morning market and see steaming pots of its key dishes set out for customers. A typical Khantoke dinner includes five main dishes: gaeng hang lay (pork curry with garlic and ginger), nam prik ong (minced pork with tomato and chilli paste), khaeb muu (pork crackling), larb (minced pork, chicken, fish or beef) and sai oua (spicy northern pork sausage).
Eating out in Chiang Mai generally costs much less that Bangkok and other tourist centres like Phuket and Koh Samui. The approximate cost of a meal for one person, without drinks, is categorised as follows: $ = less than 50 baht, $$ = 50 - 100 baht, $$$ = 100 - 250 baht, $$$$ = over 250 bath.
Antique House ($$$) at Charoen Prathet Road serves Thai food in a beautiful, old house. Recommended dishes here include its delectable steamed chicken which is prepared Chiang Mai-style, as well as the various spicy salads. From 7 pm there are traditional dancing shows.
Krua Khun Phan ($$$) is at 80/1 Inthawarorot Road (near Suan Dok Gate), tel 214557. It is one of several Thai restaurants that are behind Wat Phra Singh. The restaurant's appeal lies in its display of ready-made Thai dishes and in the homely atmosphere of its dining hall.
The Smiling Monkey ($$$), 40/1 Bumrungburi Road, tel 277538, is a pretty garden restaurant in the old city, right next to the southern moat. Good Central and Northern Thai food. This is also an ideal location for a quiet drink; at the back of the restaurant is a friendly little bar. Open daily 11 am - 2 pm and 4 pm - 2 am.
Diamond Riverside Hotel ($$$) on Charoen Prathet Road serves a Lanna khantoke dinner at 7 pm followed by classical Lanna and hilltribe dancing. This is a good way of combining Northern Thai cuisine with Lanna culture. Call 270080 for reservations.
Chiang Mai Cultural Centre ($$$) at 185/3 Wua Lai Road offers a similar programme with a khantoke-style dinner beginning at 7 pm followed by a cultural show in a large hall and a hilltribe presentation outside. The dinner show ends at about 10 pm. Call 275097 for reservations.
Khrua Sabai ($$), at the golf driving range opposite Airport Plaza, tel 274042 has Thai-Chinese food that is highly recommended.
Aroon-Rai ($$) at 46 Kotchasan Road (tel: 276947) has been around for decades. Ambassadors and ministers of state have had meals here, praising its tasty Thai and Northern Thai dishes. The staff are friendly, and used to helping English-speaking visitors find their way around the menu.
Riverside Restaurant ($$) at 9-11 Charoen Rat Road opposite Chinda Hospital, tel: 243239, has been for some years a popular meeting place for visitors. If you are looking for a quiet dinner, go elsewhere. If you want a cheerful, convivial atmosphere this is it. Overlooking the Ping River, it serves excellent meals and offers a host of live bands playing middle-of-the-road classics.