Northern Thai in Western Melbourne: Bonus Content

Austin Bush has been hanging out with me in Melbourne over the last week and we’ve been doing the sort of thing that food bloggers do when they run into each other: drink every single pale ale made in Australia and New Zealand; eat several times a day with no regard for socially accepted “meal times”; and cook food that takes regional authenticity to ludicrous lengths which he has amply documented on his Thai food blog.

Both Austin and I are huge fans of Northern Thai food, the cuisine that skirts the Burmese border in Thailand’s northern provinces. He’s been spending plenty of time up there and myself, not nearly enough. Austin came up with a menu.

Here’s my take on it.

Sai Ua

Sai Ua at home

I’d been keen to make David Thompson’s recipe for sai ua in his book Thai Food for quite some time. It’s a greasy pork sausage from Chiang Mai that is packed full of chilli, lemongrass, coriander, shredded lime leaves and hog fat. You spot it throughout Northern Thailand as a , chopped into bite-size chunks and served in a plastic bag. The chilli-reddened grease from it coats the inside of the bag and as a consequence, your hand.

When I came across the handful of sausage recipes in Thai Food, it did make me wonder, how many of these recipes have ever been cooked by the owners of Thompson’s tome? Chiang Mai sausage making requires an interlocking interest in regional Thai cuisine and charcuterie. In my experience, these fascinations tend to be mutually exclusive.

I’m not going to repeat the recipe here. Do David Thompson a favour and buy his book. Recipe is on page 518. My liner notes for the recipe:

  • There is no need to smoke the sausage over dessicated coconut. Just grill it over an open fire. I get the feeling that Thompson added this step because it works in a commercial kitchen. If you’re cooking commercially, you can smoke the sausage in advance then finish the sausage on a flat grill because it is much quicker than the leisurely route of slow-cooking it over coals.
  • More chilli. The recipe suggests 6-10 dried chillies and we used about 20. If you feel unsure about this, grind up the sausage mix with only half the chilli then fry up a test patty. We still didn’t get the color quite right – it needed to be redder. The next batch that I try will use a mix of powdered chilli and dried chillies. Otherwise the mix of herbs is spot on.
  • If you’re using a commercial sausage maker, use the coarsest grind available and aim for a fat content of around 35-40%. They’re fattier than your average sausage and don’t need to bind as firmly as a western sausage. The herb mix can run straight through the meat grinder instead being pounded into a paste as Thompson suggests. The result is much closer to Austin and my recollection of Northern sausages, which have very coarse chunks of lemongrass and fine shards of lime leaf still intact.

Kaeng Hang Ley

Austin brought with him a collection of spices from Mae Hong Song, including the freshest turmeric powder I have ever smelled and the local Mae Hong Son “masala” powder, so we hit up Footscray for fresh ingredients. If you’re keen on making this particular curry, Austin has the hang ley recipe. For Thai ingredients in Melbourne, visit Nathan Thai Grocers at 9 Paisley St in Footscray. They’re amazingly well stocked with Thai goods and have a pre-prepared Hang Ley paste. At Nathan, we could find a Thai-brand sweet sticky soy and shrimp pastes just to take the dish to an extreme of regional correctness. As a coincidence, I already had Thai tamarind pulp (which is really no different from any other tamarind).

Pork belly is official local meat of Footscray. It can be found at every single butcher in the suburb, apart from the two lonely Halal meateries. I buy mine in Footscray Market because there are enough suppliers there that you can always pick out the right piece.

Saa

This recipe calls for young pea shoots and leaves, we had to settle for some slighty older and more bitter ones from Little Saigon Supermarket in Footscray. Multiple vendors had deep fried pork skin used to top this salad, but the Northern Thai-style of pork crackling which is cut into thin strips was nowhere to be seen.

Key Sources

Nathan Thai Video and Grocery, 9 Paisley St, Footscray. They’re friendly guys and even have a blog, documenting incoming Thai videos.

Little Saigon Market, 63 Nicholson Street, Footscray. Best for vegetables from across Asia. Also a good spot to pick up hard to find dried fish.

Footscray Market, 81 Hopkins St, Footscray. I only visit here for meats, mostly fish and pork.

The road to Mae Hong Son

wat and street market at maehongson
Night market in front of wat at Maehongson

The road to Mae Hong Son in Northwest Thailand is dream trip for motorcyclists. A road of endless switchbacks, freshly paved, glides you through hidden valleys filled with stepped rice paddies, small farms, streams revealing waterfalls, hidden caves and palaces abandoned until the next warm season drives royalty into the highlands. Bamboo arches over the road in the lower reaches of the hills to be replaced by stark pine forest as you snake your way up the summits.

The road runs close enough to Burma for bored Thai military police to be stationed every few kilometres checking for contraband or smuggled people but unconcerned with Westerners on motorbikes. Lookout points stare over the mountain ranges. By all rights there should be no great reward at the end so as to prove a cliché about the intrinsic nature of journeys and destinations. But there is and it’s Baan Phleng Restaurant.

Baan Phleng

If there is one thing that I’ve learnt about dining in Southeast Asia, it is to avoid any restaurant with the words “authentic”, “local”, or “traditional” plastered out the front in English. It is the sign that the restaurant embodies none of those things and most often personifies the opposite. In this case, I was wrong. Contained within the ornate temple-cabinet were five or six dishes, only one of which was entirely familiar, the rest were surprises.

20071103_0988

The great thing about an average firm tofu is that it carries fat and meat flavours so well and thus is wasted on vegetarians. Fatty and chilli-hot carnivore tofu.

20071103_0982

I’d spotted bundled, spiralling fronds of ferns at the northern Thai markets in Pai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son itself, but resigned myself to not being able to find it on a restaurant menu because I couldn’t find the Thai word for it and was too embarrassed to phone a friend for translation help. I’d mentally consigned it to that group of foods that I believe, rightly or otherwise, only get cooked at home and never see the light of day on a restaurant menu in one of the languages that I can read. Despite the large amount of sesame seeds and deep fried garlic mixed through, the above fronds had a nutty flavour all of their own.

namprik

Nam prik, a tub of ground pork as hot as freshly-dropped napalm, accompanied by eggplant and flowers. Any botanical help on the steamed flowers served alongside the pork would be much appreciated. I snapped what I think is the flower on the plant from which it came, but can’t be sure.

flower

As an ingredient, they might make for a workable local substitute for zucchini or pumpkin flowers, although much more fragile and slightly bitter.

chickencurry

Gaeng Kai Mae Hong Son – Chicken curry with lime leaves aplenty and a few local herbs that I can’t readily identify.

Location: Baan Phleng Restaurant, on Khunlumpraphat St, Mae Hong Son

Getting there: Hire a motorbike from Chiang Mai, ride at a leisurely pace out to Pai on day one, Soppong on day two and then onto Mae Hong Son on day three. Repeat in reverse, or complete the “Mae Hong Son loop” through Mae Chaem and then back to Chiang Mai. GT-riders.com sells an excellent map.

Or just catch the bus.

Note: Map link points to Baan Phleng restaurant.

The Other History of Khao Soi

Khao soi from lam duan
Khao soi from Khao Soi Lamduan, Chiang Mai

The best food on earth is the result of cultures butting heads with each other. Khao soi is one of them: a synthesis of Yunnanese-Muslim (Hui or in Thai, Cin Haw) and Shan cuisines that came together in Northern generally thought to be the result of Chiang Mai’s place on the trade route through the Golden Triangle. Hui caravans traded throughout Southeast Asia with the Yunnanese economy more dependent on the southern caravan trade than trade with the rest of China. The Hui population further expanded after the failed Panthay Rebellion caused refugees to flee Yunnan and into Chiang Mai.

Calling it curry noodles is oversimplification. The oily and slightly coconut-creamy curry is cut through with sides of tart pickled cabbage and lime juice, served over flat egg noodles. It is then finished with a hefty handful of deep-fried noodles topping the dish. The spice is dominant but not too much chili heat. While beef and chicken are the most common meats on offer, pork (both meat and ribs) can be found; all falling off the bone or in moist and stringy chunks. You’ll want to eat every bowl that you see, regardless of the animal on offer. There are small variations between vendors – tarter pickles, some finish the dish with a spoon of fresh coconut cream, subtle variations in the spice blend, less or more coconut milk – and there is a need to test the limits both of the dish and your ability to fit as much of it into you as you can while in Northern Thailand.

khao soi
Streetside khao soi

There is a slight similarity between khao soi and the Malaysian laksa – which begs question, is it possible that the dish is more recent and has different origins to the accepted history? The dish definitely has Muslim roots (and most likely, Burmese, given the physical and linguistic similarity to the Shan dish “hkauk hswe”) and the khao soi restaurants are predominantly Muslim-owned, but could they have come from elsewhere? CPA Media answers:

Towards the end of the 19th century, following the Pahang Rising of 1891-95, a group of Malay Muslims was deported to Chiang Mai by the Siamese government. These Malay Muslims eventually assimilated with the Bengali Muslims of the Chang Peuak area, but not before they had introduced peninsular cuisine in the form of satay and peanut sauce, salad khaek, murtabak, etc., to this far northern city

Following their various arrivals in Chiang Mai during the 19th century, the Bengali, Yunnanese and Malay Muslims intermarried to a certain degree. In addition, all groups took local Thai wives and raised their children as Muslims in a convenient and fair exchange – Muslim religion for Northern Thai cultural characteristics.

Maybe the khao soi story is even more labyrinthine (and possibly, shorter) than previously imagined. Does anyone have another reference for pre-1895 khao soi?

Location: In Chiang Mai, the best: Khao Soi Lamduan, Faham Rd, about 200 metres north of Rama IX Bridge opposite a resort named The Resort. Also worth a mention is Khao Soi Islam, soi 1 between Chang Klan and Charoenprathet Roads, near Ban Hor Mosque. In Maehongson, the no-name khao soi joint at the entrance to the market on Singhanatbamrung St.

See Also: In Thailand, Austin Bush has far too many pages of khao soi related material for someone who lives in Bangkok. In New York, Nat is undertaking the task of eating American khao soi. Good luck, Sisyphus. EatingAsia got me thinking about the laksa link.