Rice or Noodles? A Question for the Ages
Of the many beautiful facets of Thai culture we’ve been introduced to, perhaps the one the Thai people are the most proud to share with us is their food.
Thai generosity is deeply woven into daily life and food is no exception. On our first evening in Northern Thailand, upon landing in Chiang Rai and driving to our new town, Phu Sang, our school coordinator (and soon to be dear friend) Jinnipat arranged a welcome dinner for us. As we walked into the restaurant, any trepidation we felt melted away, as we were warmly greeted by the establishment’s owner - a lovely woman named Sripai. We soon learned that Sripai was not only the restaurant’s owner, but also the head of the foreign language department at our school (#sidehustling at it’s finest).
While getting to know each other over bottomless glasses of Leo beer, we enjoyed large prawns cooked in a creamy garlic, coconut curry sauce, chicken with locally grown vegetables, fish with a golden flaky crust, and steamed white rice - a staple in Thailand. The company was just as excellent as the food. Over the next few days, we were impressed to learn that our new Thai friends appreciated food possibly even more than we did.
If it wasn’t for the Piggy Gang taking us under their wing, David and I might still be doomed to surviving solely on Pad Thai and peanut butter (yes - they even sell Jiff in Thailand!). But luckily for us and our taste buds, our new family graciously introduced us to a delicious gamut of Northern Thai cuisine. So much so, that we already have some favorite local spots for Tom Yam Moo (soup with pork and noodles) and Khao Mun Gai (chicken and rice). Many Thai dishes are built on a foundation of rice or noodles with chicken, pork, or sausage. In our department this has become somewhat of a joke. Most days, the Piggy Gang goes out to lunch together; which is something we look forward to everyday. When deciding where to go for lunch, our friends will often smile and ask somewhat jokingly, “what are you in the mood for today - rice or noodles?”
But don’t let this seemingly simple question fool you. Northern Thai cuisine is actually quite versatile in flavor. Depending on the type of meat, width of the noodle, style of rice, accompanying vegetables, and your preference for sweet vs. spicy, Thai dishes can be personalized to satisfy most anyone’s palate. Dave and I have experienced this first hand during our month and a half here. After noodling on it for a bit (pun intended) we’ve consolidated a list of our current top 10 favorite dishes we’ve tried so far (and an honorable mention or two..) for your reading pleasure:
1 - Khao Soi (Kao Soi Nimman - Chiang Mai)
Kristen: A noodle dish native to Northern Thailand, Khao Soi is a coconut milk based curry with boiled egg noodles and your choice of chicken, pork, or shrimp. It’s topped with deep fried, crispy egg noodles (in case the boiled egg noodles weren’t enough for you), shallots, and ground chilies. Lime slices, raw onions, and pickled banana peppers come on the side. It is a smorgasbord of deliciousness, sure to leave you wanting more.
David: Khao Soi is a Northern Thailand specialty and is #easily my favorite dish that I have gotten to try since we have been here. Descended from Muslim culture, Khao Soi originated when traveling Chinese Muslims passed through Northern Thailand on their way to Myanmar. Khao Soi is basically a creamy Panang curry base with egg noodles and spices topped with crispy noodles and your choice of meat. Coconut Curry + Noodles + Other Noodles + Protein = Glorious flavor and texture. If you are feeling adventurous they give you a slice of lime, raw onions, and pickled cabbage & peppers to add in (read: always do that) that gives a nice combo of flavors to keep the taste buds guessing. My favorite version of Khao Soi was at a place in the cultural (and food) capital of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, called Kao Soi Nimman. Their take did it for me with the extra creamy broth, crispy fried pork (something about the way Thai’s do pork really works for me), and a little bit of spice that gives it a slight kick but not too much that I have to chug water after each bite.
2 - Sen Yei Tom Yam Moo (Some really nice lady’s restaurant that we cannot pronounce - Phu Sang)
Kristen: Most every restaurant in Thailand offers Tom Yam, a sweet and sour soup cooked with lemongrass, shallots, lime, cilantro, mushrooms, and rice noodles. It can be ordered with shrimp (Tom Yam Kung) or pork (Tom Yam Moo). Sen Yei refers to the rice noodles. We prefer our noodles #thick - so we order the “Sen Yei” style noodle. However, you can also order this dish with thin noodles or “Sen Lek”.
David: When we first decided to come to Thailand, I thought my daily meals would consist of my usual Thai food orders back home - Shrimp Panang Curry with steamed rice and “Drunken Noodles” (Pad See Ew) with Chicken (s/o Bangkok 54 on the #Pike). While the flavors are similar (albeit significantly better here) the delivery of noodles in the north almost always comes in a soup form. When we answer “noodles” to the titular question of this post its almost always a version of this Sen Yei Tom Yam and it is dope. It reminds me of all the good parts of Pad See Ew - wide soft rice noodles, chicken/pork/beef, and spices - with an additional authentic Thailand spin of the broth and a soft boiled egg. The broth adds all kinds of flavor that gets better with each bite, as the contents of the bowl continue to absorb it throughout the meal. The best versions of Tom Yam have a couple fried chips on top that are great to dip in the egg yolk and broth when it first comes out. This one is also kind of fun because it's the first dish we learned how to order in Thai - it's always a small win when we can order in our broken farang Thai and actually get what we want.
3 - Pad Kra Pow Moo (Phu Sang)
Kristen: Pork is a staple meat in Thailand. Driving around Thailand, you are likely to drive by several storefronts advertising themselves as “Pork Shops”. While we’ve yet to see any pigs in person during our time here so far, we know there’s gotta be a Thai pig farmer out there somewhere, sittin’ pretty. One of the spicier dishes we’ve tried, that we surprisingly enjoyed, combines ground pork, chilies, a fried egg, and steamed rice. We recommend having a glass of water or two handy before you start chowing down on this stuff.
David: This Pork and Basil northern specialty worked its way into our daily Piggy Gang rotation about a month after we had finally tried all the local Rice and Noodle places around town (there is surprisingly a lot for such a small place!). It is definitely the spiciest dish that I have been able to handle, but the substantial helping of steamed rice helps to cut down on the spice. I also learned the hard way after my first time that the red chilies are in fact super spicy chilies and not the sweet vegetables that I was expecting. I like the flavor that they add to the pork while they are cooking, but the first step I take any time I get a plate of Pad Kra Pow Moo is to pick through and remove all of chilies so I don’t die. The real MVP of this dish is the fried egg. Every restaurateur I have come across on this trip has mastered the art of cooking eggs to accompany pork, noodles, and rice. Whether its a soft boiled egg in Tom Yam or the fried egg with this, the yolk is always cooked perfectly - cooked through so it isn’t raw, but still runny enough to use the yolk as an extra sauce. According to our teacher friends Pad Kra Pow Moo is a common favorite of farangs and I can see why!
4 - Fried Pork Knuckle (Todd Food Fest - Singha Park, Chiang Rai)
Kristen: This is really Dave’s area of expertise. So I’m going to let him take it from here…
David: Thai people LOVE pork. I have never seen so much pork in my life, it's the closest thing to a staple in our meals besides the famous Rice or Noodles. And holy pigs do they know how to do it right. The most common (and tastiest) dish that I have come across is Moo Krob (crispy fried pork belly). It is basically super thick bacon fried until the skin is crispy to seal in all the juices and natural flavors of the meat on the inside. We have had it everywhere from local BBQs with friends in Phu Sang, to street food vendors at city walking streets, to a music festival in Chiang Rai. The Singha Park Farm Festival on the Hill was hosted by the Boon Rawd Brewery - the #1 producer of beer in Thailand with national favorites like Singha, Leo, and U beer. Accompanying the music festival was the “Todd Food Fest”, hosted by the Managing Director of the Brewery Piti Bhirom Bhakdi - who goes by the nickname “Todd” (duh). Among the many food vendors spread around the park was one loud and exuberant man with an assistant selling German Pork Knuckle. He would yell what I can only assume is the Thai equivalent of the famous Varsity in Atlanta “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?”. The chefs would grab these massive pork knuckles and throw them in the fryer two or three a time. When they were done frying the main guy would pull out the knuckle, shake off the grease, and grab a large butcher’s cleaver. He would chop a few large cuts in the knuckle so he could show the customers just how juicy and tasty it looked. His technique clearly worked because the 300 baht ($9 and very expensive for Thailand) knuckles were going fast! Instead of going for the huge knuckle (to pace ourselves for trying other things - like the sponsoring Boon Rawd beers) we opted for a plate of the pork mixed with stir fried vegetables and a spicy Thai sauce. It was the crispiest version of fried pork I have had on this trip and the sauce added an extra flavor that took it to the next level.
5 - Pad Thai Wrapped in an Egg (Thip Samai Pad Thai - Bangkok)
Kristen: Another one of Dave’s finds was a restaurant in Bangkok known for their Pad Thai. But this Pad Thai wasn’t just your average plate of noodles - this Pad Thai was somethin’ special. Wrapped in a thin layer of scrambled eggs, this masterpiece was akin to a Pad Thai stuffed omelette and it did not leave our taste buds disappointed. We washed it down with some freshly squeezed orange juice. If this seems like an odd combination to you - it’s because it is! But the OJ is a must-try at this restaurant, so that’s what we did… and we enjoyed it too!
David: Our second foodsman adventure in Bangkok was a mission to find the best Pad Thai. This did not take much research as a quick google search or asking anyone around will lead you to Thip Samai Pad Thai, in the old district of Phra Nakorn. This full service sit down restaurant maintains the authentic vibe of a street food stall by having its “kitchen” in front of the restaurant on the street. There are about 10 chefs manning a series of hot fire woks, cooking big bowls of noodles, and running individual plates of the finished product back and forth. They open at 5pm every day and are running those woks until the place closes after midnight. Thip Samai has multiple iterations of Pad Thai on their menu, but they all start with a base of Pad Thai noodles cooked in shrimp oil, which allows them to efficiently churn out large batches of noodles. The shrimp oil gives the noodles their pink color and a sweet seafood flavor. We both decided on the Pad Thai Haw Kai Goong Sot with shrimp. For this dish, the cooks take a portion of the noodles cooked in shrimp oil (including all the traditional Pad Thai ingredients like peanuts, bean sprouts, tofu, onions, dried shrimp, and spices) and passes it to a literal egg magician. This chef cracks a couple eggs in a hot wok and quickly flicks it around to build the base of an omelette. Once the omelette starts to cook, the Pad Thai noodles are dropped in and with a few flicks of the wrist your Pad Thai is perfectly wrapped in a thin omelette. This is served with two shrimp and side fixings of spicy sauces, green onions, and peanuts. On flavor alone, this dish would probably be our #1, but with the higher price (90 baht - you can get Pad Thai for 20 or 30 baht usually) and small amount of shrimp we had to knock it down a few pegs. I would still recommend this as a must try if you are ever in Bangkok!
6 - Fresh produce from the market (Local Market - Phu Sang)
Kristen: The Phu Sang market is well deserving of it’s own blog post. A hub of local vendors selling fresh produce and local villagers buying in bulk - the Phu Sang market is not only an economical way to buy groceries, but also a daily social activity where you are almost guaranteed to run into a co-worker or friend. When we find ourselves growing tired of rice or noodles, we head to the market to practice our Thai and fill up our reusable lululemon bag with fruits, veggies, eggs, and meat. Our typical haul costs us less than 200 baht or $6.67 and feeds us dinner for about a week.
David: The local market in our small town of Phu Sang is the perfect way to experience a snapshot of all the things we love about living in Northern Thailand. Everyone is friendly - each vendor is constantly smiling and is patient with us when they have to repeat the price for us in Thai about 3-4 times, while we figure out what “yee sib ha” baht (25 baht) means. Everything is inexpensive - delicious desserts for 10 baht (~30 cents), 1 kilogram of locally raised pork for 100 baht (2.2 pounds for ~$3), 10 fresh eggs from locally raised chickens for 35 baht (~$1). It has the smallest of small town vibes - every time we go we run into a couple students, a couple teachers, and familiar faces that smile and are happy to see the farang teachers supporting local business. Finally, the unique options for produce and snacks - at the market you can get everything from dragon fruit, to live fish caught that day, to homemade waffles, to thick cut pork belly, to the biggest carrots you have ever seen, to weird looking mushrooms that are crunchy and awesome, and much more.
7 - Fried Bananas (“The Banana Lady” - Phu Sang)
Kristen: Thailand is a banana lovers paradise - a bushel of bananas will run you about 15 baht. Banana bread, banana muffins, and banana roti (more on that later!) are sold on almost every street corner. We even have a banana tree in our backyard! Soon after arriving in Thailand, we learned about a new form of banana we had never before encountered - the fried banana! When in the mood to “treat yo’ self” - we head to the nearest street vendor in town who sells these warm nuggets of sweet banana fried to perfection. If you ask us, it’s the perfect dessert to follow any meal.
David: One of the best parts of the Foreign Language Department at Phu Sang Wittayakhom School (the Piggy Gang) is that they love to randomly bring in snacks from local vendors at any time of the day. One of the best is definitely the fried bananas. Our favorites are made by a local woman in town with a small food cart, who makes fried bananas and fried sweet potatoes. The bananas are sliced long ways, then deep fried in a thick pancake-like batter until they are crispy brown. I don't know if they use extra ripe bananas or what but once these get fried they are extra sweet and soft on the inside, while the batter makes them crispy on the outside. It's easy to lose track and eat 1, 2 or 7 without even realizing it.
8 - Banana, Nutella, Peanut Butter Roti (Saturday Night Walking Street - Chiang Mai)
Kristen: While meandering through the Saturday Night Walking Street Market in Chiang Mai one weekend, a sweet aroma stopped us dead in our tracks. We watched intently as a chef poured a buttery, yellow batter over a hot stove, creating a flaky golden crust, known as Roti. Customers chose different fillings and toppings to create either a savory or sweet Roti. We went the sweet route - choosing banana, peanut butter, and nutella. We then proceeded to demolish that bad boy in about two minutes flat.
David: Of all the desserts we have tried during this trip, the clear winner and favorite is the Thai Roti that you can find on any street market in Thailand. Roti is another Muslim inspired dish that is similar to the Indian and Malaysian versions. Thai Roti starts with a stretchy dough that is slapped on a hot griddle (usually in a street food cart) that has been lathered in butter. The chef continues to stretch and flip it as it begins to cook into a thicker version of a crepe. We first came across Roti in Chiang Mai when we saw around 10 carts serving it on the street during the Loi Krathong Festival. We ordered one with Banana, Nutella, and Peanut Butter and it was absolutely fire. It had all of the flavors of a stuffed crepe, but because of the dough it comes out thicker with a consistency more like a pancake or donut. Anything with the combo of Banana/Nutella/Peanut Butter that is doughy on the inside and crispy on the outside is a huge win in my book.
9 - Green Curry Chicken (Khao Gaeng Jake Puey - Yaowarat, Bangkok)
Kristen: Leave it to Dave to find a hole in the wall food stall serving up some of the best curry in Bangkok. Sadly, when we arrived ~ 6PM the vendor had already sold out of the dish that we wanted to try (sidenote - the restaurant didn’t even open until 4PM! If that’s not a sure sign of a fire restaurant, then I don’t know what is). Unfortunately, we only have a measly snapchat photo to remember this delicious moment with, but we both affirm that this dish was absolutely photo worthy.
David: I like to consider myself a foodsman (rolls off the tounge a little easier than “fatass who always thinks about food”) especially when travelling to new places. Bangkok is widely considered the street food capital of the world so in the little down time we had there during orientation ya boy was all over google trying to find the best food stalls. Khao Gaeng Jake Puey was stop number 1. This place was amazing for three reasons. First, the curry was amazing. Like Kristen mentioned, we arrived only two(!) hours after it opened and they were already sold out of their staple Kaeng kari (coconut milk based yellow curry) so we had to settle for the “second best” dish they offered. We got two bowls of the green curry over steamed rice with boiled chicken legs and slices of Chinese sausage on top. It was creamy, a little spicy, and sooo flavorful. The chicken fell off the bone and the chinese sausage added a nice crunch with each bite. The second reason was the atmosphere. Khao Gaeng Jake Puey is all of three food carts set up in front of big wooden doors in China Town with a few cooks and one friendly man taking orders (and helping farangs translate from “I want that really good curry thing I read about”). Instead of tables, they had about 20 red stools off to the side of the street for people to eat the curry and play musical chairs (in the hopes of jumping on a chair as soon as someone else finished eating). Adding to the atmosphere was the clientele. Especially when eating street food, we look for places frequented by locals and this place nailed that requirement. When we were there the red stools were filled up by tuk tuk drivers, taxi drivers, paramedics, and some classic “old Thai dudes” who looked like they ate at the same place every day. The third and final reason this place was so amazing was the price. For 60 baht (about $1.80) you get a large helping of steamed rice, two perfectly cooked chicken legs, and slices of crispy Chinese sausage. There are cheaper things in Thailand, especially in the north, but this is the best curry food stall in the heart of street food central - Yaowarat (Bangkok’s Chinatown). Next time we are in Bangkok we will 100% be coming back here at 3:30 to lineup for the 4pm opening to get the Kaeng Kari.
10 - Kanom Sai Sai (Local Market - Phu Sang)
Kristen: I don’t think we’ve met a Thai dessert that we didn’t like… well I don’t think we’ve met any dessert we didn’t like (Thai or not), but that’s besides the point. One of our favorite Thai sweets is a combination of congealed coconut milk, sugar, and something else we’re not quite sure of... wrapped in a banana leaf. We were initially introduced to this treat at our co-worker and good friend, Pee Yao’s barbecue. Since then, the piggy gang continues to spoil us by bringing this sweet treat into work every once in while and we are oh so grateful.
David: We often talk about how rural the area we live in is and this dessert is a cool example to represent that. It is clearly made in someone's home kitchen and not manufactured by a company or shipped anywhere. We frequently come in to the Foreign Language Department to find these little pouches of glory sitting on our desks - all of the teachers love making them or buying them at the market and bringing them in to share. The name Kanom Sai Sai loosely translates to “snack with something put inside” and the simplicity of the name is perfect. All it is is coconut and palm sugar covered with steamed flour mixed with coconut cream, wrapped in a banana leaf. They are sweet, cool, and refreshing and the perfect dessert to follow a spicy Thai lunch.
Fried Cashews (Chiang Mai - but basically anywhere in Thailand!)
Kristen: A sage person once said - everything in moderation. While a very noble piece of advice, set a plate of fried cashews down in front of me and any tendency I have toward moderation goes out the window. Most things taste better when you fry em’ and cashews are no exception to this rule. Warm, toasty, a little salty, and a tad sweet, fried cashews have become one of my new favorite comfort foods and I ain’t givin’ them up.
Cappuccino (Doi Chaang Coffee - Chiang Rai)
Kristen: After several weeks of surviving on instant coffee (re: condensed milk, sugar, and a touch of caffeine) the coffee enthusiast within me was beyond excited to check this place out. Doi Chaang is actually a village in Chiang Rai where local hill tribe members (like the Akha, Lisu, and Chinese) have become experts in growing Arabica coffee plants. What started as a 40 acre farm (previously utilized to grow opium) has blossomed into an 11,000 acre coffee producing, social enterprise, providing a source of income to the hill tribe people and delicious coffee for the rest of us to enjoy. There are several Doi Chaang Coffee cafes across Northern Thailand and I would highly recommend you go if you get the chance. The hot cappuccino pairs nicely with a banana, chocolate chip muffin, if you’re so inclined!