To keep pace with the ever-increasing number of accommodations, Chiang Mai has a very large quantity and variety of restaurants. Not only northern Thai restaurants and food shops can be found in abundance, but there are also a variety of restaurants serving central, northeastern, and southern Thai cuisine, as well as Chinese, Muslim and international food. Due to the great amount of eating places, prices are very competitive. Moreover, Chiang Mai is full of day and night markets packed with numerous cheap food vendors. Therefore, visitors will surely have no problem in finding an ideal place to eat.
Northern Thai Food
Northern people prefer eating sticky rice to the non-sticky variety, whatever meal it is. They eat it with kaeng (curry) or nam phrik (chilli paste) and vegetables -- fresh or soft boiled. Two most well-known kinds of local chilli paste are nam phrik ong (chilli paste with minced pork and tomatoes) and nam phrik num (green chilli paste).
Apart from vegetables, nam phrik is also eaten with khaep mu (crispy pork rinds), which has become a famous export processed food of Chiang Mai. For curry (kaeng), the main dishes are kaeng hang-le (northern-style pork curry), kaeng om (spicy curry of entrails) and kaeng khae (spicy curry of vegetables). Unlike the central people, the northerners don't like to put coconut cream in their curries.
Another two special dishes of the North are khanom chin nam ngiao (Thai rice vermicelli with spiced chicken curry) and khao soi (chicken/ pork /beef curry soup with noodles). The latter is so popular that there are many food shops selling only this noodle dish, which is normally eaten for lunch by local people. In contrast to the southern food, the taste of northern food is rather weak and oily partly because of the cool climate.
Traditionally, the northern people sit on the floor when eating. Food is laid on the floor or on a low table. They use their hands instead of spoons to pick up food. There is one way to experience northern food, that is to try a khantok dinner.
One thing a foreign tourist should experience in Chiang Mai is the khantok dinner, which has become a standard component of Chiang Mai tour programmes. It is a pleasant way to learn about traditional northern cuisine, music and dance.
Khantok in the Northern dialect means a wooden tray used for carrying dishes. Round in shape, it is made of wood, varnished or lacquered with 5 or 6 short legs to support it. At a khantok dinner, the host and the invited guests sit on the floor around the khantok, which serves 5 or 6 persons. The tradition of wearing northern mohom costume for a khantok dinner is no longer observed today.
The main dishes on the khantok usually comprise sticky rice, kaeng hang-le (northern-style pork curry), kaeng ho (spicy curry of bean vermicelli), kaeng om (spicy curry of entrails), sai ua (Chiang Mai sausage), lap (minced meat, half cooked and highly seasoned), nam phrik ong (chilli paste with minced pork and tomatoes), which usually goes with khaep mu (crispy pork rinds) and khao soi (chicken/ pork /beef curry soup with noodles). Eating with (the right) hand, they scoop up a handful of sticky rice from the bamboo basket and dip it into the curry or chilli paste and eat it.
After the meal, a dessert called khao taen, which is made of fried sticky rice covered with caramel, is served. Also served are khiyo cigars and fermented tea, which is chewed to help digestion. The khiyo cigar is made of shredded tobacco and ground tamarind bark (khiyo), which can reduce the strong odour of tobacco.
While dining, Northern music and classical dances are performed to entertain guests. One of the most popular is fon lep or fingernail dance, in which women dancers are dressed in Northern Thai style, wearing long pointed brass fingernails. The programme of dances and dishes may vary from place to place.
Visitors can have a khantok dinner at some hotels and restaurants which organize this activity.