Northern-style Thai cooking is influenced by the nearby Burmese, Yunnanese, and Lao cuisines. Many northern Thai dishes are not served with steamed rice, but khao niaow (glutinous or sticky rice), which can be cooked as an accompaniment to a savory dish or used in dessert. Sticky rice is sometimes served simply in a knotted banana leaf or in a small cylindrical basket with a lid. Chiang Mai specialties include sai ua (Chiang Mai sausage), khao soi (a spicy, yellow, Burmese-style curry with pickles and both fried and boiled noodles), and many other slightly sweet meat and fish curries. You may be relieved to know that chili peppers are used less than in other Thai regional cuisines.
The formal northern meal is called khan toke and refers to the practice of sharing a variety of main courses, with guests seated around khan toke (low, lacquered teak tables); eating is done using the hands.
Chiang Mai folks take their khao soi -- Burmese curry and noodles -- pretty seriously; it's a favorite lunchtime dish. It is considered the “national dish”…of the city (so to speak). Khao soi (sometimes spelled kow soy) is an egg-noodle dish served in a coconut milk curry topped with pickled vegetables, shallots, and deep-fried noodles for a crispy texture. While generally on the mild side of Thai spicy, some dishes can pack heat; it all depends on the broth. The origins of the dish are murky, but it is believed to have traveled from China to Myanmar and Thailand with the Yunnan traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. Served mostly at lunchtime because it’s cheap, filling and fast, all the venues listed here sell bowls for 40B 60B. One of the best in town is at Khao Soi Lam Duan Fah Ham (352/22 Charoenrat Road; 9am 4pm) located along the east bank of the Ping River. If you want to compare and contrast, order just one bowl here and then walk north to the nearby Khao Soi Samerjai (391 Charoenrat; 8am 5pm) to taste the difference in the recipes of these family-run shops. Kao Soi Fueng Fah (Charoen Phrathet Soi 1; 7am 9pm), another highly recommended vendor, is on Halal Street and the nearby Khao Soi Islam (Chang Moi Soi 1; 8am 5pm) makes a delicious halal version.
Eating at street stalls in Chiang Mai is not only an incredibly affordable way to dine it often yields more delicious fare than at formal restaurants. Here is a quick primer on where to go and what to eat.
Somphet Market, on the northeast corner of the city, is visited by most cooking schools during the day when it’s a food market packed with produce. At night, it bustles with locals and young backpackers looking for cheap meals. The number of stalls fluctuate depending on the time of day (there’s mid-day lull) but 20 to 30 hawkers sell a wide variety of noodles, fresh fruit shakes, satay, and more here.
Phatu Chang Pheuak (North Gate Market) gets its name for its location just west of the northern gate. This is a delicious place to be when the sun goes down (it’s open 5 11pm). The most famous vendor at the market can be identified by her cowboy hat. Her culinary contribution, a slow-cooked pork leg, was famously enjoyed by Anthony Bourdain when he filmed an episode of Parts Unknown in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai Gate, on the south side of the Old City, is a reliable spot for takeaway dishes, fruit smoothies, Muslim rotee, and red curry stir-fry. The morning shuffle (5am noon) is busy with working locals grabbing snacks and lunches to bring to work. The 6pm-midnight shift offers more filling options like soups and curries for the throngs of hungry people.
In addition to the markets above, we heartily recommend the walking streets that are only open on Saturday and Sunday for food as well as souvenirs.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.