I remember the food writer and TV celebrity chef Jamie Oliver saying that he dreams about herbs. Surprisingly it is the only sensible and normal sounding thing I have ever heard him say. It’s not unusual for me to spend days or weeks thinking, and dreaming about particular recipes or food, although I haven’t yet dreamed about herbs…I’m sure though it’s only a matter of time.
The foods available in Northern Thailand must rank amongst the most interesting and amazing in the world. There are influences from everywhere in Asia including China and India and the fragrant dishes of Malaysia, Indonesia, Lao, Vietnam and Southern Thailand (the old Siam). It’s a giddy mixture and a life’s work to get to know and understand them all…but I’m prepared to give it a go.
One of the biggest differences between shopping in the UK compared with Chiang Mai is the strong market culture. There are excellent fresh markets throughout this whole region that sell the freshest and bestest food anywhere on the planet. Huge piles of mangoes, cabbages, chilies, coriander, strawberries, jack fruit, limes, bananas (five different kinds), lemon grass and every other fruit or vegetable you can think of, fill the buzzing markets. There are times down at my local market when you literally can’t get in…it’s absolutely packed with hungry shoppers buying their dinner on their way home (Tescos eat your heart out).
The part of the market that I go to first is the rice section. Back in the UK rice is just something you buy and cook and don’t think a great deal about. Bang it in the microwave and it’s done in 2 minutes. In Chiang Mai rice is a revered commodity. There are endless types of rice available for sale, either piled high in big sacks, or already cooked in big steaming vats. My favorite and probably the most popular in this part of Chiang Mai is locally grown sticky rice. I had sticky rice once in London in a Thai restaurant and quickly wished I hadn’t. It was a bit like eating glue. The sticky rice here is completely different; it’s warm and soft…more like fluffy mashed potato than rice. It’s the kind of food that will always be eaten because, like mashed potatoes, it is so damn good.
Once I have my warm sticky rice I start to look for something to go with it. There are different ways I can go from here. Either I could try some Thai soups or curries and dip the rice straight into it, or invest in a tiny pot of spicy dry chili sauce called “Nam Prik Ta Dem” which is popular all over Thailand made out of dark red dried chilis and salted fish. Some people do eat the rice and the dry sauce as a meal in itself…it’s the cheapest complete meal available at most markets that will set you back just 8 Baht (or one third of a Mars Bar using the International Confectionary Conversion table).
If though, I have a few baht left over, which I usually do, (unless I’m in the mood for two thirds of a Mars Bar) I usually think about getting something from the grilled section. Chiang Mai sausages are excellent and famous throughout Thailand, and the rest of the world if I had my way. There are also grilled fish which range from the excellent and locally farmed Catfish to the expensive Snake Head Fish with soft flaky flesh. There is also roast chicken, or honey marinated pork satay, or deep fried vegetable tempura, or mini kebabs of roast garlic and red shallots or fresh water crab pate, or whole grilled squid with sharp and sour fresh lime sauce, or fried quails eggs, or crispy duck or any one of the most delicious and unusual foods in the world.
Today, when it’s market time I’m heading for the fresh fish and seafood section at the back of the market and I’m going to buy myself a big bag full of giant Tiger Prawns and perhaps some Soft Shell Crabs. I’ll then pop round to the fresh herb section and pick out some big bunches of Coriander, Lemon Grass, Basil and Spring Onions. I can’t wait to get cooking with all these fresh flavors.
If Jamie Oliver shopped down at my local market he’d find it difficult to work out the difference between when he was dreaming about herbs and wide awake!
Enjoy your food.