Northern Thailand food: 9 dishes every visitor needs to try

CNN  — 

Northern Thailand is home to elephant sanctuaries, the iconic white temple Wat Rong Khun and the buzzy city of Chiang Mai.

For photographer and author Austin Bush, however, its biggest draw is its wealth of under-the-radar, regional culinary specialties.

Bush’s first book, “The Food Of Northern Thailand,” blends richly detailed photography and fascinating text passages about the region’s culinary history, native ingredients and life, as well as recipes that have never been recorded or shared in the English language before – many of which the Bangkok-based, Oregon native tested in the kitchen of Pok Pok chef/founder Andy Ricker.

“I wanted the book to serve different purposes,” Bush tells CNN Travel.

“It could be a coffee table book with big, beautiful photos you can flip though for the casual reader, and a lot of narrative text so you find the headnote and enough narrative about history and ingredients engaging.

“I acknowledge that a lot of the recipes are pretty esoteric, and there are dishes in this cookbook you would struggle to make even in Bangkok because you couldn’t get the ingredients.

“So I’m hoping there’s enough to appeal to people who don’t cook as well.”

The recipes were largely culled from vendors, stalls and restaurants that Bush has been frequenting for almost two decades, both as photographer and hungry soul (he received a scholarship to study Thai at Chiang Mai University in 1999 and soon became obsessed with the region’s food).

Here Bush, who recommends renting a car or motorcycle to explore the region, lists nine must-try northern Thai dishes, both quintessential and obscure, and his favorite spots to savor them.

Khao Soi

Where To Eat It: Khao Soi Prince, Chiang Mai

A perfumed, textures-rich curry soup with boiled and crunchy fried noodles, pickled vegetables, and tender beef or chicken, khao soi is north Thailand’s most famous and well-traveled staple (think Chicago and deep dish pizza).

Bush recommends this 50+ year-old Chiang Mai institution, where Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker savored his first bowl in 1992, as a mecca to get your slurp on.

“Khao soi is actually a city dish,” Bush notes, “and to be honest, you’re not going to find really good khao soi outside of Chiang Mai. Allegedly, it’s a Muslim dish, and the couple at Khao Soi Prince is Muslim and prepare it in the Muslim style.

They make this thick, meaty curry, and when you order a bowl they just put in the noodles, a little bit of that curry, and even it out with coconut cream.

“The Thai Buddhist version, where they blend the coconut milk and curry in advance, tends to be thicker, but this specific version is really balanced, lighter, more liquid-y, and amazing.”

Khanom jeen naam ngiaw

Where To Eat It: Pa Bunsri, Lampang

Pork rib broth, dried chili-based curry paste, cubed blood and tomatoes, and thin, flat rice noodles make for a salty and savory, near ubiquitous local favorite, and a key old school element makes Pa (“Auntie”) Bunsri’s version stand out.

“In the old days to dry chilies they would have an indoor stove and above that a rack they would put chilies in,” says Bush.

“They would get dried out and smoky. She hires someone to dry chilies that traditional way, so it’s really smoky, a flavor you don’t normally get these days, and is unique and delicious.”

Nam phrik num

The delicious green vegetable dip can be coupled with anything from hard-boiled eggs to fried chicken.

Where To Eat It: Midnight Fried Chicken, Chiang Mai

This northern Thai-style dip of grilled chilies, shallots and garlic is traditionally served with healthy, hard-boiled veggies and sticky rice, but this deep fried chicken joint has found an even tastier, calories-be-damned way to enjoy it.

“They basically have just a bunch of deep fried stuff, and you need to couple it with something, and this really savory, salty, oily, deep-fried chicken dipped in this spicy, green vegetable dip is indulgent and really delicious.”

Khao soi naam naa

Where To Eat It: Pa Orn, Chiang Khong

You won’t find coconut milk or curry spice in this obscure albeit toothsome rice noodle soup, the star of which is a dollop of paste formed from minced pork belly, fermented soybeans and dried chilies simmered in pork fat.

“It’s like a savory, umami bomb,” Bush says. “Pa Orn makes a really simple but delicious broth, and the meaty topping is so good you could just take a spoonful and eat it alone.”

Khao taen

Sticky rice snack khao taen is a flavor explosion.

Where To Eat It: Khun Manee, Lampang

This rice cake snack is anything but bland: sticky rice is mixed with sugar, salt, sesame and watermelon juice, which is then dried in the sun, deep-fried, and drizzled with palm sugar.

“A lot of Thai sweets are kind of weird, but this is totally accessible – crunchy, sweet and delicious and fragrant,” Bush says.

“It’s one of the best sweet snacks in the country, and from this specific vendor they’re not greasy at all. I give them to friends and they love them.”

Khao kan jin

Where To Eat It: Paa Jaang, Mae Hong Son

Although it translates as “kneaded rice,” khao kan jin is more commonly known as “blood rice” and consists of minced pork, pork blood and long grain rice steamed in a banana leaf, and drizzled with garlic oil.

“Blood is a weird, intimidating thing for foreign people,” Bush admits,

“But if I didn’t tell you there was blood in there you wouldn’t know. It’s a Shan [ethnic hill tribe] dish and they love oily, savory flavors, and that garlic oil is just so delicious.

“Paa Jaang has been making this dish with her family for 40 years, and although she serves a couple of things, her khao kan jin is so famous you have to get there within an hour of opening or all the blood rice is sold out.”

Jin tup

Jin tup: Simple but addictively delicious.

Where To Eat It: Phen, Mae Hong Son

Uncomplicated yet utterly delectable, “pounded beef” is a stringy cut of beef marinated in fish sauce and salt, grilled over coal, and hammered: tup is a sound effect a la “bang!”

“You get these strands of super savory, fish saucy, salty beef,” Bush enthuses, “and Phen does this really good dip that goes with it that’s kind of sweet because of minced shallots.

“It’s one of the best dishes in northern Thailand, and they grill the beef for hours, so it’s really dry, concentrated and beefy.”

Laap muu khua

Where To Eat It: Jin Sot, Phrae

While northeast Thailand’s Isaan version of laap, or larb, is popular in the USA today – herbal, sour, with smoky crunchiness from roasted rice powder – this northern iteration is an almost entirely different dish.

“It’s not quite as herbal, it’s meaty, it’s not sour, and gets most of its flavor from dried spices,” Bush explains.

“One spice that stands out is in the same family as Sichuan pepper and imparts a numbing sensation. This restaurant does northern-style laap really well, and in season they throw halved cherry tomatoes in there to give it a little bit of tart flavor, which I’ve never seen anywhere else and is so delicious.”

Muu phan pii

Where To Eat It: Sue Hai, Chiang Rai

Aka “thousand year pork,” this amalgamation of pork belly, pickled vegetables and oolong tea leaves stacked and steamed for four hours is attributed to northern Thailand’s Chinese immigrants.

“After the communists took over China in 1949, those fighting them fled to Myanmar, got involved in its drug trade, were kicked out, and camped in the hills of northern Thailand,” Bush says.

“The owner of this restaurant, Sue Hai, is second gen Chinese, born in Thailand but he speaks Thai with a strong Chinese accent, and they do all kinds of stuff. You eat muu phan pii with rice or steamed buns and it’s so good - the center is tart from the vegetables, but it’s really fatty pork, fragrant, a little bitter from the tea. Really time-consuming, but so delicious.”

“The Food Of Northern Thailand (Clarkson Potter) will be released on October 23.