I never considered Chiang Mai to be much of a “foodie” destination in the past, and my intrigue was more for the further-flung borders, where influences of neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Yunnan share their own interpretations of local Lanna and northern cuisine. But on a more recent visit we found ourselves in Chiang Mai’s ‘Nimman area’, known for its graffitied wall art, mountain backdrop, and the feeling of ‘Ta Ton Yon!’ which means ‘Chilled!’ in the north. And it surprised me with its diverse and vibrant food along with the usual Thai street food scene.
Welcome to Nimmanhemin Road
Chiang Mai is a huge destination for both tourists and expats, and the laid-back sois of Nimmanhemin Road, often known as ‘Chiang Mai’s coffee street’, has become the setting of a centralised café culture. But this appears to be more of the beginning of a developing food scene, and while the area does at first seem somewhat “local”, it in reality is a hugely popular destination for a mixed and youthful Asian crowd. And with them comes a myriad of food as the area is seemingly shaping to satisfy this Asian interest, and their demand for the staples of back home.
Nimman’s Cute Cafe Culture
But more noticeable in Nimman is the local ‘Fung-Fing’ culture, Thailand’s equivalent to Japanese ‘Kawaii’, which shares the same obsession for a selfie-centric cafe scene. And while this does run alongside a wider coffee culture, followed by the more discerning expats of the area, I do find myself indulging more in the whimsy of the cute side of life. Which does mostly come with their love of Korean Bingsu, a shaved ice dessert, which features highly on almost every sweet menu, and is every dessert lover’s dream when matched with durian.
It’s all about the Mala
So each night we would be travelling through food, as the okinomiyaki transports us back to Osaka, and the Sichuan hot-pots to Chongqing China. As these foods are really quite tricky to track down outside of their origins. But the most noticeable influence would be “Mala”, a Sichuan obsession, combining chilli flakes and mouth numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and there’s more or less an entire stretch of Nimman dedicated to Chuan’r charcoal grills, serving kebabs dusted and barbecued in a mix of salt, chilli flakes, a cumin spice mix, and most importantly the Sichuan peppercorns, for that delightful face numbing food sensation.
The Local Lanna Food
But presiding over Nimman will always be the local Lanna food where shophouse noodle stalls dish out the northern staples of Khao Soy, a coconut curry noodle soup, alongside ‘Khanom Jeen’ rice noodles in a spicy ‘Nam Ngiao’ tomato based broth. And the ‘khantoke’ favourites are also there, often served a bit like Tapas, with spicy ‘sai oua’ sausage, and local chilli dips of ‘nam prik noom’, a toasted green chilli dip, and ‘nam prik ong’, a minced pork and tomato based dip, which come shared alongside a variety of boiled veg, pork scratchings, and maybe a rich ‘Hang Ley’ pork curry to round off the table. Eating really doesn’t come much better.