Notable for its lack of spiciness, Northern Thai food is the food of the lush green valleys and cool, forested mountains of the Thai highlands. The former Lanna Kingdom was once the ruler of this Northern region. It was also home to the majority of the ethnic groups of Thailand. Its food is often extremely seasonal in nature and is indicative of the relatively cool climate of the region.
What you are used to trying at your local Thai restaurant will not in any way resemble Northern Thai food. This is often the case in Bangkok as well. In fact, it is extremely difficult to find authentic Northern Thai food outside of the north.
Sticky rice, or Khao Niaw, is traditionally eaten, rather than normal steamed rice, Khao Suay. You will rarely find the addition of coconut milk or cream, with curries and other dishes relying more on dried spices for flavour. One of the exceptions to that rule is one of the most popular dishes in the north • Khao Soi.
There are some Northern dishes that are now prevalent all over Thailand. Two such dishes are Khao Soi (ข้าวซอย) or Chiang Mai Noodles (Thailand’s version of a Laksa) and Sai Ua (ไส้อั่ว) or Chiang Mai Sausage, a wonderful combination or pork mince with red curry paste, lemongrass, lime leaves and many other ingredients. These can be seen in all the major areas of Thailand now.
Other notable Northern dishes are Gaeng Hang Lay (แกงฮังเล), a rich jungle curry made without coconut milk, Naam Phrik Ohng (น้ำพริกอ่อง), also known as Thai Spaghetti Bolognese when served with Khanom Jiin (ขนมจีน), fermented fresh rice noodles.
A Northern relish, which is quite a taste sensation, is Nam Prik Num (น้ำพริกหนุ่ม). It is made from roasted young green chillies and served with either crispy pork skin or vegetables. It may look spicy, but is generally very mild, with the sharp tang of green chilli. There are many, many other dishes to try.
Laap is an ancient salad, possibly originating in the Yunnan Province of southwest China. The merchants of this part of China, the Chin Haw, may have helped to spread this dish throughout Myanmar, northern and northeastern Thailand, along with Laos, where it is the unofficial national dish.
The laap you will find more commonly across Thailand is the version from the Northeast, or Isaan region. This cooked salad generally consists of a minced protein gently simmered in a little water or stock. To this, a dressing is added which consists of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, ground, dry-roasted dried red chillies and, very importantly, Khao Khua, which is ground, dry-roasted sticky rice, which gives this salad its specific nutty flavour and adds a crunchy texture. Coriander and mint leaves and chopped spring onions finish off the dish. It is often served with a side dish of raw green beans, cabbage and Bai Horopa • Thai Basil or other leafy green vegetables.
In the north, however, which borders with Myanmar and Laos, they serve a very different version of this salad. Fish sauce is omitted, as is lime juice or any other souring agent. Often animal blood is added to add to flavour.
Due to Chiang Mai being an important trading post for Chinese merchants on the legendary Silk Road, an elaborate mix of dried spices are used to season their version of laap, including cumin, cloves, star anise, long pepper, cinnamon and prickly ash seeds (Sichuan Pepper). Many of these spices became a part of the Lanna Kingdom’s cuisine. With the addition of roasted aromatic vegetables, this mix is pounded to a smooth paste in a mortar and pestle. Called Naam Phrik Laap, this mix is used to season the laap in the cooking stage. The resultant dish is more rounded in flavour, with a much more slow-acting heat, slight bitter undertones and an almost floral sweetness. Laap is best eaten with glutinous rice known as Khao Niaw (ข้าวเหนียว) • sticky rice. In the north, it is called Khao Neung (ข้าวนึ่ง) • steamed rice.