Food To Thai For: A Culinary Tour of Chiang Mai

Aug 01, 2023


Chiang Mai is a food paradise. Before you see the street stalls and food carts, you smell them: mu ping (pork skewers), sai ua (spiced lemongrass sausage), khao kha mu (stewed pork knuckle over rice). Food is everywhere in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. According to novelist Deepti Kapoor, you can pick any point on a map of Chiang Mai, go there, and eat something wonderful. Or you can just eat your way from one end of the city to the other.

There’s something surreally communal about food culture in Chiang Mai. Up and own the streets, shop owners set up small gas burners after work and drink cold beer and cook meat. Nondescript neighborhoods turn into thriving food markets. Street chefs serve steaks and oysters out of the back of old pick-up trucks, and it’s not uncommon to see deep fryers attached to motorbikes. In Chiang Mai, everything happens on the streets.

Taking Pleasure in All that You Do

Chiang Mai is close to the Myanmar border and surrounded by hills and jungle. According to Michelin-starred chef Andy Ricker, Chiang Mai’s relatively isolated geography created its unique and vibrant cuisine. Traditional central and southern Thai staples such as coconut milk, palm sugar, and fish sauce, were not available. Instead, people used roots, herbs, and plants from the surrounding jungle, creating spicy meals with distinctly sour, bitter, and pungent notes.


Lanna (northern) food, however, is about more than just geography. It’s a fusion of climate, landscape, and character –the city’s large student population gives it a late nigh, Austin vibe. Or perhaps the freewheeling tone more closely resembles the food truck culture you see in Portland, Oregon. Either way, food is not just food in Chiang Mai. It's family, work, and play. It's something shared. Food culture in Chiang Mai is a perfect example of sanuk, the Thai philosophy of taking pleasure in all that you do. 

So Much to Eat, So Little Time

With so many street stalls, food markets, barbecue joints, and noodle and curry dishes, where do you begin your culinary Thailand tour?

Start with one of Chiang Mai’s most traditional and famous dishes: laab. Laab is a smoky mincemeat, offal, and blood salad. It can be served as part of a main course set, which also includes papaya salad and sticky rice, or as an appetizer. Nam prik ong is another example of a traditional Lanna dish. Nam prik ong is a tomato pork dipping sauce similar to a ragu. It’s eaten with steamed vegetables or deep fried pork rinds. Restaurants such as Cherng Doi and SP Chicken serve excellent versions of kai yang, a northeast Thai barbecue chicken. Meanwhile, over at eateries like Khao Soi Islam and Khao Soi Khun Yai, you'll find khao soi, a fragrant, spicy sweet and sour noodle soup. And then there are Chiang Mai’s food markets. The night-time street food at Wororot features 30 stalls. Other popular markets include:

- Sompet
- Thanin
- Chiang Mai Gate
- Chiang Phuak Gate

Of course, the best way to get the most out of your Thai trip with Affordable World is to take the sanuk approach. It doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you take pleasure in eating it!