Essential Eating: Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand

Northern Thai Food (Lanna food) is a unique food set which presides in the Northern regions of Thailand. Foods which originated from the ancient Kingdom of Lanna (hence Lanna food) and many which are hard to find in other regions of Thailand. Traditionally eating in Northern Thailand is haunched at small, round tables known as Khantoke tables (pictured below) and if given the chance do not pass on a Khantoke feast. Here you will find Northern Thai food at its best. Note that Northern Thai food is not the same as Northeastern Thai food (Isan Food). While Isan food can be found in Northern Thailand it is very different to the foods of Lanna. Here are my Top 10 Northern Thai food (Lanna Food). Two of the better cities to find Lanna food in include Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

1. Khao Soi Curry (Khao Soi, ข้าวซอย)

Khao Soi Curry is easily the most popular dish with visitors to Northern Thai Food. For me it also the most underrated of curries in Thailand. Khao Soi should top everyone’s ‘to do’ list when eating Thai Food. A mild, coconut-based curry served over soft egg noodles and topped with crisp egg noodles. Perfected by optional additions of lime, onion, chilli and pickled cabbage. Khao Soi is easily found at both Thai street food and restaurants throughout Northern Thailand and costs around 30 to 50 baht per bowl. You will also find Khao Soi on many Bangkok menus.

2. Northern Thai Sausage (Sai Oua, ไส้อั่ว)

Or ‘Chiang Mai Sausage’ as it is often known. This tasty, spiced pork sausage is found everywhere in the North and is not to be missed. While hard to admit it even beats my beloved Isan Sausage. It is honestly that good. Sai Oua fuses many of the signature Thai tastes; the sour of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, the heat of chillies and of course the all important kick from galangal (ginger). Prepared in spiral lengths and sold at most street sides and local markets of Northern Thailand. It is also a big favourite at the Khantoke Table. For those who can’t get enough Northern Thai Sausage it is also found uncooked to fly home with (as we do). Costs roughly 300 Baht per Kilo.

3.  Chilli Dips (Nam Prik Ong น้ำพริกอ่อง / Nam Prik Noom


Both the above are popular Northern Thai chilli sauces; both essential eating at every Khantoke table. ‘Nam Prik Ong’ is the more popular of dips a blend of red, birds-eye chillies with pork and tomato. My preferred dipping sauce however is the ‘Nam Prik Noom’ a fiery dip combining flavours of toasted green chilli, onion and garlic. If no feasts planned during your visit you can still find these dips on restaurant menus matched with nibbles of Kap Moo (deep fried pork skins), sticky rice and a selection of vegetables.

4. Northern Pork Curry (Kaeng Hang Lei, แกงฮังเล)

A tender, stewed pork curry which reminds me of the generic microwave ‘curries’ of the UK (if that means anything to you). The sauce of Kaeng Hang Lei is the least spicy of curries I’ve come across in Thailand and is slightly fruity with tastes of tomato. Of course 100% delicious and makes the perfect curry for those with a less fiery palate. Kaeng Hang Lei brings a slight Burmese influence infusing turmeric with tamarind, ginger and garlic. While popularity doesn’t quite match the Khao Soi curry it does rank highly on Northern Thai menus. Another favourite at Khantoke feasts.

5. Leaf Wrapped Bites (Miang Kham, เมี่ยงคำ)

Miang Kham is essential nibble food and offers the perfect introduction to Northern Thai Food and essential Thai flavours. With Miang Kham you can pick and mix your own combination of sweet, sour, salty and hot flavours. Wrap ingredients in a Cha Plu leaf and pop in your mouth. While ingredients vary with Miang Kham they do normally include a similar set of shallot onion, chillies, ginger, peanut, coconut and lime bits. While occasionally found on restaurant menus the Khantoke table is the better option. Also available pre-wrapped or sold as sets in local markets.

6. Fermented Pork Sausage (Naem, แหนม)

A minced pork and sticky rice sausage with a unique sour taste from a 2 day fermentation process. Flavoured with garlic and chilli this meaty treat is not so different to the better-known Isan sausage from nearby North East regions. It is also one of the few Northern Foods common to Bangkok streets often found sizzling and skewered over hot charcoals at city street food vendors. While Naem can be eaten raw I would stick with the cooked option.

7. Northern Noodles (Khanom Jeen Nam Ngiao, ขนมจีนน้ำเงี้ยว)

‘Khanom Jeen’ – fresh rice noodles and ‘Nam Ngiao’ – spicy tomato-infused broth. Bring together for a uniquely Northern Thai noodle soup. While there are heartier options of this dish; traditional preparation uses minced pork balls and generous chunks of jellified pigs blood, mixed with rices noodles and served in a thin, tomato and spice infused pork broth. Only made better by additions of lime, beansprouts, pickled cabbage and kap moo (deep fried pork skin).

8. Unripe Jackfruit Curry (Kaeng Khanun, แกงขนุน)

A Northern Thai equivalent to the better-known Tom Yum? Except not as delicious. The Kaeng Khanun is a hot and sour soup which infuses an added fruity flavouring of young unripe jackfruit and the Northern Thai favourite of cherry tomatoes. Often served with welcome chunks of pork. I won’t say my Kaeng Khanun is my least favourite of Northern Thai foods but given the above options, it comes low in the pecking order.

9. Steamed Pork Salad (Yum Moo Yor, ยำหมูยอ)

A boiled pork sausage with white complexion and rubbery texture. Moo Yor is one of the most common Northern Thai Foods and is therefore in need of a mention. Alone Moo Yor doesn’t really compete with the spice of Sai Oua or sour of Naem and because of this I have made a meal of it. The meal is Yum Moo Yor which fuses the Yum Moo steamed pork with a fiery salad of chillies, fish sauce, lime and coriander. A common dish in restaurants of Northern Thailand. For Moo Yor meat you can easily find it at roadside shops, wrapped in green banana leaf and stacked in pyramids. Costs roughly 30 Baht a packet. Feel free to eat whole like a giant, meat sausage. (Note Moo Yor is also popular in Isan food and is famous in Ubon Ratchathani)

10. Booze (Maa Kratoop Rong, ม้ากระทืบโรง)

As always… drink the local liquors. On my recent trip the drink of choice was Maa Kratoop Rong which was the name of the added herb ingredients in the locally produced moonshine rice liquor (pictured below). Very similar to a Yaa Dong mix of Lao Khao. Potent alcohol mixed with ‘health enhancing’ plants and herbs. Today’s tipple said to give power, alertness and most importantly acts as a strong aphrodisiac. Like liquid viagra although I can’t say it worked. Again the best place to these local concoctions is at Kantoke feasts served alongside nibbles and Traditional Thai dancing.

10 thoughts on “Essential Eating: Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand”

    1. So a list of foods to eat in Northern Thailand can’t include those where variations may have originated from Vietnam. Maybe you should go troll the thousands of vendors which sell them rather than tourist blogs. Redo your personality Thanh.

      1. TROLL? Are you kidding me? Tell me why the name is still in Vietnamese “nem”? Is it the area where Vietnamese immigrants settled during the war and they brough the food with them. You’re the one who don’t know everthing but pretend to know everthing.

        1. My sincerest apologies.

          Please don’t eat Moo Yor or Naem in Northern Thailand… They don’t belong there. Don’t eat Kebabs in London, Curry in Tokyo, Pizza in New York. They were all stolen. Please don’t support this blatant theft of identity.

          Hope this helps.


          1. Thanks Alan for that information about northern thai food,nice to see someone making the effort 🙂

      2. “Vietnamese food is very popular in Bangkok for several reasons. Meals often come with fresh vegetables, making it a healthy choice and the seasoning is moderate, not too spicy, so it can be eaten and enjoyed at any time.

        Vietnamese-inspired dishes that are popular in Thailand include naem nueang, khao kriab pak maw, goong phan oy, moo yang kap bai chapu and kuay jap yuan.

        But it took a long time for people in Bangkok to get to know these dishes, and their road to popularity has not been smooth.

        This is not to say that Vietnamese food is a recent discovery in Thailand. The taco-shaped khanom bueang yuan, fresh and fried spring rolls, and the stuffed, steamed sheets of rice flour batter called khao kriab pak maw have been popular for over a century.

        During the early years of the Ratanakosin period, many Vietnamese came to Thailand as refugees. During the reign of King Rama III, royal permission was given for the Vietnamese, or yuan, as they were called in Thai, to form a community in the Samsen Road area. This Vietnamese neighbourhood became known as Ban Yuan Samsen, and had the St Francis Xavier church at its centre.”

  1. Hey Allan
    I’ve just updated my Khao Soy article on Chiang Mai that shows where Khao Soy comes from and how it is enjoyed in its original context. I’ve continued my link to your list which I think is great. Chiang Mai food is very influenced by Burma, Laos, Yunnan and of course Vietnam and as such is quite different from central Thai food. I think you showed great forebearance with your previous correspondent.

    Good luck!

    Kind Regards

  2. cheers Allan; nice blog. Love All Thai food, but Northern & Southern in particular. We are lucky enough to live in Hua Hin, one of the few places outside of Bangkok where you can get all 4 culinary regions. It’s often difficult to get GOOD Northern food outside of the North; similarly with Southern food.

    Odd you find Namm Phrik Ong spicy, as I find it extremely mild; I guess everyone’s spice tolerance is different. It’s such a great dip to put on khaep muu. We have some Northern ladies here at out local produce market and they do some ‘jing jing’ Northern food.

    Have you ever tried Naam Phrik Ong with Khanom Jeen? Thai Spaghetti Bolognese it’s known as.

    Another dish, not strictly Northern, but since you added Naem, try Yam Naem Khao Thot. It is a salad of crispy rice balls broken up and mixed with Naem and the usual salad components; onions/shallots, Chinese celery sometimes, some boiled and thinly slice pig skin, fresh thin slices of ginger, peanuts and so on. It’s hot and really delish.

    There’s also another one these gals do and it is with jackfruit, though instead of doing it in a curry as you’ve shown, they slowly cook it and pound it; I guess it’s a bit like a Dtam (think pounded like Som Dtam), but they call it Phat Kha-noon; really nice.

    Stay in touch, mate. We run a food tour company in Hua Hin, so Thai food is our thing and always nice to find good blogs on food

    I wouldn’t worry too much about someone being pedantic and over-zealous here about their cuisine. Technically she is correct about Naem being of Viet origin, but she might have had some more manners in expressing it. You never said it wasn’t; much Thai food has its origins elsewhere, as does Vietnamese cuisine. I think you might find its first appearance in Thailand would have been in the Isaan region, where there is a large Vietnamese community; Nong Khai springs to mind.

    cheers Allan


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