Can ONE MEAL change EVERYTHING you know about food?
IF you forage for every ingredient in pristine Thai jungle… and cook with a Karen hill tribe… YES IT CAN!
If you travel to Chiang Mai in Thailand’s ‘Golden Triangle’, the influence of neighbouring Myanmar and Laos is so strong you can taste it.
Eat street food anywhere in Chiang Mai, and you’ll savour the feisty ‘lanna’ cooking that’s unique to the Golden Triangle. Translated as ‘land of a million rice fields’, the ancient Lanna kingdom once spanned the jungles that connect today’s Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Hundreds of years later, the lanna influence lives on – marrying the distinctive flavours of Burmese, Lao and Thai cooking, and fusing them into something unique.
For me, those bold lanna flavours also make Chiang Mai the most delicious city I’ve ever visited.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to eat in ‘bucket list’ foodie destinations… including Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, New Orleans, Hyderabad and Kolkata. My god, these cities each do food so well! But for choice and inventiveness – and for sheer, foodie ecstasy – there isn’t a city on Earth to touch Chiang Mai.
The ‘old town’ may be compact (you can walk across it in 15 minutes), but there are edible temptations waiting on every corner. In fact, the logic of street food in Chiang Mai seems to be that wherever there’s a flat space big enough to fit a cart – someone will be cooking there. Food seems to spring up in Chiang Mai as irrepressibly as daisies in a British summer lawn.
With this much choice, where do you begin?
If I were your guide, I’d start by inviting you to head uptown to the foodie paradise of North Gate (Chang Phuak). En route, we’d pick up some sai ua – the deliciously plump, almost circular sausages that bring three unlikely bed-fellows together (who’d have thought that pork, offal and lemongrass would make such a happy ‘menage a trois’?). Derived from the Thai words sai (intestine) and ua (to stuff), this delicacy is unique to Chiang Mai – and fuses Thai, Burmese and Lao cuisine. Essentially, it’s lanna cooking on a stick… genre-defying, bold and in-your-face.
Arriving at the food stalls just beyond Chang Phuak Gate, the choice gets giddying. We try a portion of laab – the smokey, cocksure dish that blitzes pork (and sometimes even fish) with a salad steeped in herbs and basil. It shouldn’t work – but it does! Alongside, we try some nam prik ong, a fiery appetiser that mixes dried chillies, pork and tomato into another iconoclastic lanna classic.
Sassy, confident – and supremely streetwise – lanna cuisine is somehow both raw and polished, down-home and complex, edgy and comforting. It’s an edible oxymoron. And a bit overwhelming.
If lanna food were music, it would be as intense as hearing the Rolling Stones… play Sympathy for the Devil… to you and your partner… in your bedroom.
And that’s before we meet the Queen of Chang Phuak Gate, Chiang Mai’s very own Cowgirl! Serving literally hundreds of portions every night of her signature khao ka mu (braised pork knuckle with rice and pickled vegetables), Cowgirl seems not to have aged a day in the five years since I first visited Chiang Mai. Costing just 80 baht, her food will be the most delicious £2 you have spent in your life.
For dessert, we trek 15 minutes south to Chiang Mai gate, and a portion of kanom krok. You can get this lanna/ Lao dish all over the city, but for me the lady who serves it at south gate doesn’t just do it better than anyone – she exemplifies the Thai philosophy of life.
Let me explain.
Using the classic ‘two kettles’ method, Kanom Krok Lady first makes the crispy, waffle base in tiny, conker-sized moulds in a griddle pan. She then fills them with a molten coconut filling… that’s somewhere between a souffle and maple-syrup-drenched pancake. It’s insanely delicious.
And here’s the Thai genius… the giggle-inducing sweetness of the coconut if offset by a dash of salt, and by the savoury topping of your choice (sweetcorn, green onions or taro). For me, this is living proof of the Thai philosophy of sanuk – finding pleasure in everything you do.
Whatever the Thais create… a dish, a drink, a temple, a spa… they will find a way to dial up the pleasure it gives you. It’s the essence of sanuk.
And for the dessert we’re about to eat… if that means bending the rules between sweet and savoury to make the dish truly unforgettable… they will do it.
For me, kanom krok is sanuk on a plate.
Enlightenment is yours… for 20 baht… or 50p.
For a final word on lanna cuisine, no foodie journey to Chiang Mai would be complete without a meal at Khao Soy Mae Sai. Where to start?
Maybe with the delicious fact that this street-food restaurant serving main dishes at 50 baht, (£1.25) is Michelin-listed? Or with the fact their chicken noodle khao soy takes a lanna classic – and turns it into taste journey that thrills you with every mouthful. Is it spicy… or sweet? Is it soft… or crunchy? Like every lanna masterpiece, it’s a bunch of foodie contradictions that embrace all of the above. Weeks after eating it, I genuinely still miss their khao soy.
Back to your roots
But here’s the rub… for all its sassy, streetwise genius, the lanna food you’re eating in Chiang Mai has wandered from where it was born… strayed from its roots.
Look up from almost any point in Chiang Mai, and you can see the jungle canopy that stretches all the way to Myanmar and Laos.
That’s the womb where lanna was conceived.
The raw flavours that thrill your tastebuds at the street stalls are descended from the wild herbs and fruits of the jungle… cooked by the people who live there.
On my first trip to Chiang Mai, I didn’t make the pilgrimage to the jungle.
In 2022, I had to go.
I had to get out of the city, and trek the hills.
My mission was to forage every ingredient of a meal in the jungle, and to cook it from scratch with a hill tribe.
I’d be tasting 100 per cent pure, wild lanna – cooking alongside people with lanna in their veins.
I was hungry to start.
Kicking off with a three-day trek into the jungle, I got my eye in. Travelling with a small, organised group, we lived the jungle experiences that everyone wants to do: showering under a 100ft waterfall; sleeping in a tribal village; riding rapids on bamboo rafts; bonding with elephants.
Thank you Chiang Mai Trekking – and thank you jungle buddies Franc and Linda (France), Pam and Zori (Holland), and Hannah (Scotland) – for a blessed time.
In fact, our journey was blessed… literally.
Minutes before heading into the jungle, drinking a final coffee in a roadside bar, we heard a buzz on the street below us. Out of curiosity, I left the group and ran to follow the crowds.
Striding ahead was the energised figure of one of Thailand’s most-revered monks – completing the final days of his solo 1,500km trek from south to north Thailand… barefoot.
Finding my place among the followers who’d queued for hours to glimpse Luang Ta Bun Chuen, I received a blessing as he passed – tapped on the head with a felted stick.
It felt like the whole foodie pilgrimage was blessed.
After completing my first trek, I still had three days in Chiang Mai – just enough to do one more jungle visit.
The lanna wouldn’t let me go.
Our guide from the first trek, nickname ‘K’, understood exactly what I wanted – a march over as much jungle as we could cover, passing through as many types of terrain as possible. We’d forage food wherever we went, and prepare our meal with lanna cooks in a remote tribal village.
For two days, we’d be off-grid. We wouldn’t eat a mouthful of food that didn’t come from the jungle; we wouldn’t use power other than wood we’d gather.
100% pure lanna.
Nobody has asked Chiang Mai Trekking for this before.
Modern comm’s kicked in. Jit and Peroon, owners of Chiang Mai Trekking, hit social media to put the lanna jigsaw together.
With 48 hours to go before my flight home – cutting the whole adventure to the wire – K arrived at my guesthouse at 8am on the dot.
K and I would travel north to meet his family in their Karen village, Muang Khong, then trek 18k through the jungle.
We were on.
After a two-hour drive, we reached K’s village. His family were charming. Offering me a drink of green tea grown on their land, his Mum made me a gift of the handmade bamboo cup I was drinking from.
That cup is in front of me now, full of more jungle green tea.
After an hour or so with his family, K and I set off, accompanied by his brother, Kao – carrying just water, machetes and empty rucksacks for foraged food.
When did it feel like the trek was going to be something special?
A few kilometres into the jungle, I stopped to take a picture of a waterfall. K and his brother pressed on. Within minutes, I was lost.
The path forked and reforked as it climbed steeply uphill. I was following what seemed like the best route, but moving too fast and forcing my way. When I caught up with K, he pointed to my arms. I’d pushed through thorns, and there was blood everywhere.
Scanning the undergrowth, Kao came back with a handful of Tiger leaves (bai sap hua) which he crushed and pushed into the cuts. The bleeding stopped instantly.
If the jungle could do this to my SKIN… what could it do to my TASTE BUDS?
During a six-hour trek, over rising and falling jungle slopes, we foraged every type of forest.
Following rivers – where we saw footprints of boar and wild dog – we picked the tiny, young leaves of ferns (pak good). On dry, rain-shadowed slopes we picked berries (gi loa sa). In lush rainforest we found an aromatic root (yha luong), drank water droplets from sections of liana (tao wa) and nibbled on face-twistingly astringent wild olive (ma co). Approaching the village we found wild fig (ma dua). We had our ingredients.
As well as being tri-lingual (Thai, Karen and English), K was the perfect foraging buddy. Watching him and Kao gather our meal, what struck me most was the respect they showed to every living thing. When we found the berries, K hunted for a hooked stick to pull the branches gently down from the canopy. What we couldn’t reach, we didn’t take. Not a twig was broken. We took only what we needed.
Towards dusk, we followed an intricate network of aqueducts that trace the side of the hills like arteries – and feed the paddy fields in the rainy season. At the summit, we reached the Karen village where we’d spend the night: a group of a dozen, wooden stilted house, overlooking a river.
As dusk fell, life relaxed. Water buffalo wallowed in the shallows, twitching flies from their face with long black lashes. Smoke curled from cooking fires. Not a glimmer of electric light.
I wanted to sit down, but after an 18km trek, my legs wouldn’t let me.
Relaxing on the slatted terrace of one of the huts, Kao brought me a plastic bottle and a tea cup. The liquid in the bottle was clear, milling around what looked like strips of branch or root.
De-hydrated after our hike, I drank a cupful.
Things changed after that.
The drink electrifies my entire mouth.
The after-taste is sake… but with a touch of Jaeger-bomb, and a thrilling hint of absinthe. I ask what the floating roots are… no one seems to know.
I mime to Kao brother that this is strong stuff. He tops up the bottle with water, and serves me another cup. Diluted, it’s weirdly… somehow… massively stronger. No longer a rice wine, but suddenly a spirit. I almost want to believe in homeopathy.
I’m suddenly, totally happy.
I want to find out more about this strange, lanna aperitif, but the ‘poc poc’ of a stone pestle in a mortar grabs my attention. Kneeling next to the kitchen fire, the lady of the house – Maluemo – is preparing our foraged food.
It’s a lanna master-class.
Everything in the kitchen is either foraged, or pulled from the ground next to the hut.
Whole bulbs of garlic go into the mortar, skin on and roots. A bunch of fresh coriander, again with roots. A fistful of whole galangal, unskinned. Fresh, wet turmeric… dripping orange sweat. Four of the tiniest, most dayglo-green chillies I have ever seen… cooked whole with their seeds. Lemongrass.
Compared with prudish (peel-it, blanche-it) western cuisine – lana cooking feels as liberating as skinny dipping.
Everything gets mashed together.
A pot on the fire is on a rolling boil. When Maluemo wants to lower the heat, she simply draws the burning stick a couple of inches backwards. As instant as an induction hob.
Now there are three pans, on different woodfires.
The river fern (pak good) is stir-frying in a wok. I have no idea what’s in there with it.
The berries (gi loa sa) are boiling in a separate pan.
The mash from the mortar joins a whole banana flower in a third pot, with a bunch of ingredients I haven’t been able to follow.
The aromas in the kitchen hug you – like hot air licks your lips in a sauna.
We’re ready to eat.
The dish of stir-fried fern smells too good to wait, so I eat some in the kitchen. It tastes like a member of the pak choi family, but literally jumps off the plate with jungle vigour.
We eat the cooked berries by themselves. The taste is as complex, and as sweet… as what?
As a kiss?
Next, we eat the berries together with a slice of raw jungle fig. It’s startling. There is no vocabulary to describe the sensation. The wild fig is as hard and astringent as green peach. Eaten with the soft, kissable berries, it’s an oxymoron of bitter medicine and indulgence.
The outer edge of lanna.
We come to the main course.
Here, we exit the known foodie universe.
For every other mouthful I’ve ever previously consumed, there’s a construct.
It goes like this… “Hello food, I’m a sentient being. You are inert. I eat you. I decide what you taste like.”
It’s a monologue. I’m in control.
But even as I put the first spoonful into my mouth, I realise this is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
This thing is ELECTRIC, VIBRANT, ALIVE.
It’s TALKING TO ME!
“HELLO SENTIENT BEING… WELCOME TO MY WORLD. HOW ARE WE BOTH FINDING THIS?”
The food is interrogating ME.
It’s a lifeform – camouflaged as food – and it’s exploring my body and mind.
It’s tasting ME.
I feel thrilled – and a bit awestruck.
This journey could go anywhere.
On different travels, I’ve eaten peyote with villagers in Mexico, and drunk hallucinogens with Amazon tribespeople in Brazil.
This is different.
This inverts my whole notion of eater and eaten.
For the first time in my life, I AM FOOD.
And the flavour? I can’t describe it.
My notes from the evening read: Is this what love tastes like? Or life?
With each mouthful, questions pour out of me.
It’s the most delicious, reality-altering meal I’ve ever eaten.
By torchlight, I play a long game of marbles with the village’s seven or eight year-old champion.
The marbles look like the hyper-energised, ricocheting synapses in my brain.
I didn’t sleep much, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Breakfast, served at the same table as dinner, was extraordinary: chicken with baby aubergines, pork stir fry with crispy skin, fish soup, mango, banana and watermelon.
We did a gentler walk to the final village, Tung Nua.
En route, we eat what’s probably the best picnic of my life: pork laab stuffed into sausage skins, barbecued river fish, nam prik ong, sticky rice.
Before we ate, we each washed our hands meticulously with water we were carrying, and served the food on banana leaves.
Anything we couldn’t eat, we left on the forest floor. Even as we packed up to go, red ants were dissecting the meal, and carrying it away. By morning, the place would be spotless.
Walking through the forest, what did I feel?
A weird and deep sense of union with my surroundings. Not so much looking at the jungle as ‘it’… but a new feeling of connectedness.
Driving back to Chiang Mai, K stopped to buy us chilled matcha green tea.
It was delicious.
But it wasn’t ALIVE.
It didn’t storm my senses – it didn’t grab me by the mouth… and ask me if I thought I could finish this journey.
I was back in the world of modern, passive food.
Eating would never be the same again.
Thanks to K, Kao, Maluemo, Jit and Peroon, I got to taste the outer edge of lanna.
More than that, I had the humbling experience of understanding that food – in its truly wild state – is a living thing… an equal partner.
In the years to come, I hope there’ll be more special meals.
Nothing will ever touch my foraged lanna jungle feast.
To find out more about Chiang Mai Treakking, check out their website – or email email@example.com
A big thank you to Adam, Emy, Panda, Freddy and Daisy – for welcoming me to Chiang Mai, and for all the great lanna meals we shared together.