Ben Whelan is a Denver chef and former instructor at Emily Griffith Technical College's Culinary Quick Start program, where he taught for the last two years before he embarked on a one-year mission to Thailand to work, cook, train and eat everything in his path. Whelan arrived in Bangkok in July 2019 and will be sending dispatches on the cuisine, culture and characters he encounters along the way.
While the “stoplight curries," fried rices and noodles of southern and central Thailand get most of the play on Thai menus in the U.S., the distinctive cuisine of Northern Thailand boasts some of the most complex and flavor-packed dishes you will find anywhere in Southeast Asia. Many cultures have passed through what was once the ancient Lanna kingdom, and their influences can be felt in myriad ways that truly set the cuisine of this region apart. Here are a few of my favorites that I've eaten in the past few weeks — plus recommendations on where to try a few of them in Denver.
The quintessential dish of Chiang Mai, khao soi can be found at every cart and on every corner in the Northern capital. This Malay-influenced coconut curry is much sweeter than its cousins to the south and features a curry heavy with turmeric (both dried and fresh) as its base. Unlike some of the more ubiquitous curries, khao soi is served over egg noodles rather than alongside rice. Topped with a whole braised chicken drumstick and garnished with the same noodles after they’ve been fried until crunchy, as well as raw shallot and fermented cabbage, this is a complete single-serving dish. There is also a version served almost exclusively in halal eateries (khao soi nuea) that is made with braised beef and a broth reminiscent of a hearty beef stew.
Khaeng Hang Le
In this local pork curry, fall-apart chunks of shoulder and belly swim happily in a thick broth that's a nod to the Burmese influence in Chiang Mai, as these northern neighbors occupied the city and surrounding territory for more than 200 years. You will not find many of the usual Thai suspects in this hearty dish, as lemongrass, kaffir lime and chiles are traded in for heavy notes of ginger, garlic and tangy tamarind. The “curry” comes in the form of a dry Burmese powder that contains a fragrant mix of cinnamon, turmeric, cumin and coriander, which is surprisingly reminiscent of North African cuisine.
“Khanom," roughly translated as “snacks,” are a family of small bites perfect for grabbing before a trek into the jungle or out onto a pub crawl. This northern variety is made with a simple batter of coconut milk, rice flour and palm or coconut sugar poured from a kettle into divoted cast-iron pans similar to those used to make Japanese takoyaki or Danish aebleskiver. A thin layer is poured in the pan to set, and then the pan is filled the rest of the way with batter, covered and left to steam. The end result is a hemisphere of crispy, crepey goodness filled with a barely set coconut cream that is topped with a sprinkling of sweet corn, finely diced pumpkin or scallions.
Another Chiang Mai staple, this traditional sausage is available in coils up to a meter long that are grilled to golden-brown perfection and sold by weight at the numerous night markets sprinkled throughout the city. The fattiness of the pork filling is cut by healthy amounts of lemongrass, galangal and red curry paste that give this sausage a tangy spice like no other.
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Kao Ka Moo
A very simple, homestyle dish, kao ka moo is a whole pork hock gently braised in soy, ginger, onions and stock. The result is pure pork essence in the form of perfectly tender meat in a pouch of sticky and unctuous skin, hacked up with a cleaver and served over local jasmine rice. Accompanied by braised mustard greens, an egg that's been hard-boiled in the pot with the meat, and a fiery chile sauce, this street specialty is a great way to fill up on a budget.
Som Tam Pu Pla Ra
While som tam (green papaya salad) can be found all over Thailand, and all over the menus in the U.S. as well, som tam pu pla ra highlights some of the more unique flavors prominent in the north and east. What makes this version distinctive is the use of naam plaa ra, a fermented fish sauce that brings even more funk than lighter fish sauces, and the inclusion of brined and salted field crabs. Chunks of the whole, small crabs are tossed into a mortar and pestle with papaya, chiles, garlic, lime juice, tomato, raw Thai eggplant (another northern twist), peanuts and the uber-pungent fish sauce, and mashed together to create a cacophony of huge flavors poised precariously on the line between mouth-wateringly craveable and completely overwhelming.
Many of these dishes are hard to come by in Denver, but visit Taste of Thailand (2120 South Broadway) for some of the best khao soi in town as well as northern Thai sausage served as an appetizer. For green papaya salads with a choice of salted crab, fermented fish, shrimp or raw blue crab, try Farmhouse Thai (98 Wadsworth Boulevard). You can also find a hearty hang le curry there.