Afternoon Tea at Four Seasons Chiang Mai

While in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago with visiting guests, I made a stop at the Four Seasons resort for afternoon tea. The resort is located about a thirty-minute drive north of town, which only enhances its feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. The resort is gorgeous and the afternoon tea is a worthwhile splurge for an hour or two of pampering yourself.

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The resort is arranged around a pond designed to look like a Northern Thai village complete with rice paddies. The only buildings you see are those belonging to the resort and with the mountains in the distance, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you had been transported to some magical Thai Brigadoon. At 5:00, the “farmers” (resort employees dressed in traditional Northern Thai farmer’s clothes) paraded across the paddies to the rhythm of a gong, “returning” to the village, a touch that was a bit kitschy but also fun.

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Trish, Allen, and I pose for a picture at the Sala Mae Rim restaurant. We didn’t make reservations but fortunately were able to get a prime table, perhaps because it was the midst of rainy season and the slowest time for tourists. We ordered one tea set (designed for two) plus an extra pot of tea, which was more than enough food for the three of us. The total price was approximately US$50, more than I would usually spend but certainly a worthwhile treat while on holiday.

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The top plate in the tea set featured mango sticky rice with a palm sugar floss; crisp water chestnuts in sweet coconut milk; Parisian macaroons, and chocolate truffle cake.

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The middle plate in the set featured finger sandwiches (ham and cheese, cucumber, and smoked salmon); fried shrimps wrapped in egg noodles, miang kham (a Thai snack of betel leaves wrapped around savory fillings); and krathong tong (literally “golden baskets” – crispy shells filled with minced chicken and shrimp).

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The final plate in the set featured kaffir-lime and raisin scones, served with clotted cream and strawberry jam. All the food was fantastic and the portions were more than adequate for the three of us.

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After almost two hours of indulgence, we finally left paradise to return to the city. Without a doubt, the Four Seasons is on my list for future visits. While it may be too far away from the city to actually stay at (unless you specifically want to escape from the world), it is worth a visit for tea.

 

Views Around Chiang Mai

While up in Chiang Mai with visitors last week, I took several pictures that I want to share. It is the height of rainy season and the surrounding countryside was particularly verdant.

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On the way up Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain, we pulled over to snap this picture of rice paddies terraced in a small valley.

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Further up the mountain, we visited the Royal Agricultural Project, which over the last few decades has helped local hill tribes transition from growing poppies (which were used to make heroin) to growing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The higher elevation provides a climate suitable for select vegetables that could otherwise not be grown in Thailand. The pictures of flowers below are from the display gardens at the project.

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By visiting during the weekdays of the rainiest month of the year, we enjoyed not only the beautiful flora but also the smallest crowds of tourists I have ever seen. In fact, “crowds” is not the correct term. “Handfuls” would be more apt.

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We also visited Doi Suthep, the mountain immediately to the west of Chiang Mai, which houses a spectacular temple with a golden chedi, or stuppa. This is the second time I’ve visited the temple on an overcast and damp day. The effect is interesting because the gilding is not as bright as on a sunny day, but it contrasts beautifully with the grey skies. In the above picture, I focused on a row of bells the line the temple buildings. Bells are purchased with donations and the donors can write wishes or prayers on the metal leaf hanging from the clapper.

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On our final afternoon, we drove  north of Chiang Mai to the Four Seasons Resort to enjoy afternoon tea overlooking their property, which is designed to look like a rice farming village. I’ll share the pictures of the gorgeous tea service in another post but wanted to share this view of their pretty property.

 

Food in Chiang Mai: Burmese Restaurant

Along Niemenhamen Road, the artsy district of Chiang Mai located near Chiang Mai University, sits a nondescript restaurant with a utilitarian name: Burmese Restaurant. Recommended by a friend who moved to Chiang Mai recently, a recommendation confirmed by several Burmese staff members of the hotel at which we stayed, I went for dinner.

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The restaurant sits directly on the street at the corner of Soi 8, the cooking area and one dining area located outdoors, another dining area indoors. The crowd of diners was very light this Friday evening, maybe due to the impending rain. The friendly staff welcomed us and offered us a table indoors, turning on fans to ensure our comfort.

There are two menus, each a single page with about thirty items. One menu features Burmese dishes. The other menu features Thai/Chinese style dishes. We ordered from the Burmese menu with the exception of one vegetable dish. Unfortunately, several items we ordered were not available either because they were out already or the dish is not offered every day.

Here is a look at the dishes we ate – all of which were tasty. The entire bill for five diners was less than US$20. Needless to say, I’ll be back next time I am in Chiang Mai.

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We had ordered a curried fish soup that is the national dish of Burma. Sadly, it was not on the menu so we instead ordered this bean soup, which was tasty although not very distinctive.

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The goat curry, which our local friend enthused about, was also not available that day so we chose the chicken and potato curry instead. While it may not look particularly attractive, especially because of the oil slick on top, the curry was very flavorful and we ordered a second serving.

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The stand-out dish was this tamarind leaf salad, one of several salads on the menu made with what I would consider “unusual” ingredients. This salad was refreshing and it is difficult to describe the flavor of the leaves. The flavor is entirely pleasant and entirely unlike the taste of the tamarind fruit. One blogger described it as “eating al dente ferns”, which is about right. The salad is sweet and sour and salty with chopped peanuts and tomatoes.

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We also ordered a tomato salad, which was a pleasant surprise. With the exception of cherry tomatoes, which are generally very red and sweet, tomatoes in Thailand are usually pale pink and crunchy. These were anything but, and with onions and cilantro, they made for a refreshing dish.

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The menu contained many items translated into English as “curries” that are different from what you might expect, especially if you consider a curry as something with coconut milk in it. Instead, these curries feature a variety of spices but lighter sauces. The above picture is of an eggplant curry dish that was very nice.

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There was also a boiled duck egg curry dish that was tasty. While you see a lot of chilies in this (and other) dishes, they were not particularly spicy at least by the standards of Thai cuisine. As one Burmese friend described it, the food is more similar to Northern Thai cuisine than the super-spicy Northeastern or Southern Thai cuisines.

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The only item we ordered off the secondary menu was this simple stir-fry of greens and pork. While the salads we ordered had lots of greens, it felt like another dish of vegetables would help balance things out.

This is probably only the third or fourth time I have eaten Burmese food, and the first time in more than a dozen years. Without a doubt, I need to seek it out more often!

 

 

 

Swastikas Popping Up in the Oddest Places

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After our lunch of southern style dishes, Tawn and I did some shopping at Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak Weekend Market.  With thousands of stalls and vendors, you can find most anything for sale and the people-watching is entertaining, too.  Along the way, I stumbled across some disturbing signs: swastikas.

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First off, some of the interesting sights.  We encountered this cute Jack Russell terrier who was dressed in full kit including shoes.  He was nearly as stylish as his owner!

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We also encountered a fortune teller (in the bandana) who was giving a reading to the young man in the (potentially offensive – sorry) black shirt.  Based on the shirt’s message, I can only imagine what questions he is trying to have answered about his future.

Actually, as an aside, his shirt is an example of something I see often here in Thailand: Thais wearing shirts with English language messages that would broadly be seen as offensive or not particularly appropriate for wearing in public in an English-speaking country.  I always wonder to what extent the wearers understand the message and its meaning.  Would they wear the equivalent message if it was in Thai?

Which brings me to the swastikas.

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In a number of shops, I encountered buttons, t-shirts, and other items that featured swastikas.  Now, the swastika has a history that extends back a few thousand years before the Nazis came along and appropriated it.  Even in contemporary Buddhism, you see the swastika as a sacred symbol.  I feel comfortable, though, concluding that the use of the swastikas in this commercial context was not religious, but was meant to evoke the perceived “revolutionary” feel of the Nazis.  Witness the Mao Zhe Dong buttons as a similar “statement”.

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This sighting of swastikas brought to mind an incident from September, when a private Roman Catholic school in Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand), had a sports day in which a group of students dressed in a Nazi theme and marched carrying swastika banners and wearing swastika arm bands.

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There was widespread outrage and several foreign consulates as well as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles denounced the event, citing it as insensitive and inappropriate.  The school authorities, no surprise, claimed they had not been aware of the students’ plans, even though their protestations seemed a bit thin.

What followed (before the floods) was a lot of discourse about how poor the Thai education system is and how the teachers and administrators had failed to educate their students.  There were others who pointed out that students in western countries are often just as unaware of similarly significant events in Asia’s history and are sometimes even equally unaware of the details of the Holocaust.

I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon and denounce the students or the teachers.  There has been enough said to that effect already.  Suffice it to say that I was disturbed that in a short period of time, I saw several signs that the history of the Nazis and the Holocaust is not very well appreciated by some people in Thailand and the symbols of that history are seen as benign fashion statements.

There are probably countless examples in other countries where locals appropriate words and symbols from other languages, cultures, and countries, without fully understanding what the meanings are, sometimes causing offense.  I guess that more than anything, this is a reminder that we need to be aware when we adopt things, whether they are words or symbols, that are not originally our own.  Meanings are not universal and it is easy to be insensitive to others’ feelings.

 

Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi – Chiang Mai

This is the final entry on our trip to Chiang Mai.  Since I entered a cropped version of one of these pictures to a contest at the MyWinningPhoto site (I came in second, thank you for your votes), I had to hold off on posting this entry until after voting ended.

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After enjoying a Lamphun style lunch at Huen Jai Yong on the eastern outskirts of Chiang Mai, Tawn and I decided to drive to the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi resort.  With only 123 rooms on its 60-acre grounds, this Rachen Intawong-designed property is quite the vision of overblown opulence, although the company more modestly describes it as “a place where traditional Lanna culture and Asian colonial splendour have been carefully brought together in masterful harmony.”

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We arrived just as an afternoon thunderstorm was dissipating.  Our initial objective was to have tea but we discovered that the Oriental Tea Shoppe is located in a complex next to the public parking lot on the outer edge of the resort, which effectively insulates the guests within from the bus loads of tourists who visit.  The shopping area looks like some sort of movie set from a Chinese western, but with plenty of bamboo.

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Props to the Oriental Tea Shoppe which, just like its branches in Bangkok, serves beautiful cakes and other pastries to go with their Mariage Freres teas and coffees.

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Afterwards, we decided to enter the resort.  This is the imposing gate the separates the flagstone-paved public parking lot with the rest of the resort.  Follow the Mercedes limousine!

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From there, a long tree-shaded driveway leads to the main lobby.  The name “Dhara Dhevi” is a poor anglicization of the name of Queen Chama Thevi (alternately, Jamadevi), founder around 750 CE of the Hariphunchai kingdom, the capital of which was in nearby Lamphun.   

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Looking back towards the entrance gate, these buildings on the left contain function rooms for events, conferences, meetings, etc.  Way down near the gate is a horse-drawn carriage that ferries guests.  Bored, the driver offered to give Tawn a lift into the resort and subsequently gave us a 20-minute tour of the grounds.

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Near the main lobby, walls obscure shops and parts of the grounds, looking more like a Mon fortress than a resort.

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The sweeping main lobby building.  Driveways just to out of the frame of the picture lead to the reception area.  The lower floor is a shopping arcade.  The overall design of the complex is a mish-mash of Lao, Burmese, Lanna, Mon, and Thai architecture, with some Thais criticizing the resort as looking too much like a temple.

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From the back side of the reception area, you can see two of the larger buildings that contain guest units.  Many of the units, though, are stand-alone villas that are spread throughout the grounds.  The swimming pool has some gorgeous tile work.

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Another two buildings with guest rooms.  Granted, this was about twenty minutes after a heavy storm had passed, but the place looked deserted.  We saw two couples (presumably guests) in the lobby area and passed one family of four while touring the grounds.  Other than that, the place was empty.  The impression I got from talking with employees was that occupancy was in the low twenty percent range.  Rates, though, were still about $400 a night.

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Looking down the steps from the entrance to the spa, which was also deserted – no guests but no employees, either.  The statues on either side of the walkway are supposed to shoot arcs of water over the path, landing on the other side.  The resort has been open a bit more than five years and there were many areas where significant maintenance was being performed. 

Unfortunately, the video that I shot while on our horse-drawn tour is on the Mac, which is in for repairs at the authorized Apple retailer.  If I get a chance I will post it later as it shows the exteriors of some of the villas, which look like village houses in the midst of rice paddies.

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Our horse and buggy driver at the end of the tour.  My overall impression of the resort was that somewhere along the way it had crossed the line from “elegant” to “ostentatious,” reminding me more of a pan-Southeast Asian amusement park than anything else.  But maybe this is the type of fantasy in which wealthy tourists, Asian and non-Asian alike, wish to indulge in.

 

Food in Chiang Mai: Huen Jai Yong

On our final day in Chiang Mai, Tawn and I drove east of the city to search for Huen Jai Yong, a restaurant highly recommended by our hotel’s staff.  Four or five people around the front desk agreed that this was the restaurant locals went to when they wanted to eat good Northern Thai food.  In fact, the restaurant is known particularly for its Lamphun style cuisine.  Lamphun is the province directly to the southeast of Chiang Mai.

As I learned from Wikipedia, Lamphun traces its roots to the 9th Century, when it was founded by Queen Chama Thevi as the capital of the most northern of the Mon kingdoms in the area that is now Thailand.

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Located on Route 1317 some 15 kilometers west of the city, Huen Jai Yong still feels like it is out in the countryside.  Its landmark is the large rain tree out by the driveway.  In reality, though, civilization is fast approaching.  Not a kilometer away, rice paddies have been transformed into housing developments.

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The gardens behind the restaurant were in the midst of lamyai or longan season, with the trees heavily loaded with fruit.  Chickens were strutting about the garden, scratching for bugs amidst the herbs and vegetables.

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The restaurant itself is a charming old teak wood house, with seating upstairs, downstairs, and in a few adjacent buildings.  A small gift shop is located out front where Tawn is standing.

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We opted for the open-air seating under the house.  This picture doesn’t show it very well, but several of the tables are made from old long boats with planks added to make the tabletops.  On the sign in pink chalk you can see the restaurant’s name in Lanna, the old Northern Thai language that traces its roots to a time when this region was a kingdom independent of Siam.

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We ordered a variety of foods, sampling several dishes we had eaten at Huen Phen as well as some specialties we had not tried on this trip.  Sticki rice is a staple.

First, let’s answer the question, what makes Northern Thai cuisine distinct?  Thailand has four major regions (North, Northeast/Issan, Central, and South) and each has its own style of cuisine although the have become increasingly merged as Thais move about the country.

Generally speaking, Northern Thai cuisine reflects the peoples who have historically lived in, passed through, and traded with the region.  These include the Mon, Shan, and other Burmese groups; the Hui and Taochew people from China; as well as Indian, Northern Lao, and Malay people.

Northern Thailand is more mountainous, has better rainfall, and somewhat cooler temperatures than other parts of Thailand.  The food tends to be heartier, a bit less spicy, makes more use of fresh herbs and vegetables, and makes less use of ingredients like coconut milk and fish than in other regions.  Whereas fermented fish and shrimp are used as a flavoring in other regions, you see fermented soybeans (trace the roots to China) used more commonly in Northern Thai cooking.

Let’s take a look at what was served:

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This dish of steamed squash and parboiled greens (similar to kale) and eggplant are served as a kind of side dish that you can go to for a break from whatever main dishes you are eating, kind of like the ban chan in Korean cuisine or pickles in many cultures.

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Once again we see the ubiquitous sai oua sausage, this time served with some muu tod or fried pork, known in the Northern Thai dialect at jiin muu.

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This dish, which is kind of hard to see thanks to the boiled eggs on top, looked at first to be nam prik noom, the roasted green chilli dip.  In fact, though, it was tam baakeua, a salad made of roasted eggplant.  Very tasty with the smoky meatiness of the eggplant enhanced with a variety of herbs and spices then served with the rich boiled eggs.

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One option for eating the roasted eggplant was this dish of kaep muu or chitlins (as they are called in the southern United States), deep fried pork skin.  Oh, so bad for you and yet so good, too!

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An unusual dish was larb kua plaa nin, of a salad of pan seared tilapia fish flavored with lemongrass, shallots, chilies, and other herbs.  Tasty and similar to, but less spicy than, other chopped meat salads that come from the Northeast.  Interestingly, I learned that tilapia was introduced to Thailand as a gift of Japanese Crown Prince Akihito in 1965 to H.M. King Bhumipol.  It has adapted very well and is found in rivers all across Thailand.

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Another version of gaeng hong lay, the Burmese style stewed pork with a tomato based sauce.  This particular version came very close to massman curry and was sweeter than the version we had at Huen Phen restaurant.  While it was tasty, it was almost too sweet for my taste.  Also interesting, it was made with fresh ginger instead of fried ginger.

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Northern Thai cuisine uses fresh herbs prodigiously and we were served this plate of various herbs and yard beans.  While I didn’t confirm it, I get the impression that these herbs are grown on the grounds of the restaurant.

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We ended our meal with gaeng pak waan, a soup of “sweet vegetable” which are the tips of a vegetable similar to spinach but much less earthy in flavor.  The broth is made from dried fish.

Our bill came out to about 400 baht for the two of us, about US $13.50.  The meal was a perfect conclusion to our trip to Chiang Mai.  The food is tasty, fresh, healthy, and the flavors are perhaps more accessible than any other style of Thai cuisine.  Now, the question is, when are you coming for a visit? 

Directions: From Central Airport Plaza take Mahidol Road towards San Kamphaeng (Route 1317) . Pass the junction of the Outer Ring Road and Route 1317 intersection, the make a U-turn at km 9. The restaurant will be on your left at the large rain tree.

 

Food in Chiang Mai – Khao Soi Sameujai Faaham

Back to food in Chiang Mai, after a morning spent teaching monks how to cook, err… make sandwiches, I was hungry for some Thai food.  The previous day Tawn and I had tried one highly recommended place for khao soi, the northern style curried nodles that are among my favorite foods in the world.  We decided to head over to another well-recommended restaurant, Khao Soi Sameujai Faaham.

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On Faaham Road across the Ping River from the old city, there are two khao soi places just about 100 meters apart.  Khao Soi Sameujai Faaham (Thai: เสมอใจฟ้าฮ่าม) is on the west side of the road right next to Wat Faaham.  The other restaurant, Khao Soi Lamduon, is on the east side of the road just a bit south of the wat and reportedly serves a spicier version of the dish.  Sadly, we did not make it to Khao Soi Lamduon on this trip.

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Yet another Northern Thai restaurant sponsored by which cola company?  Regretfully, they do not have an English language sign but if you can find the wat (temple), the restaurant is immediately to the right of it.  The good news is, their interior signage is very English friendly with photos, names, and descriptions of each dish.

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The building is more of a food court, if you will, with different vendors offering different dishes, mostly Northern Thai but with some other common dishes (somtam or green papaya salad, with is really Issan or Northeastern Thai, for example) also available.  The khao soi vendor is front and center, literally, with huge pots of curried broth and coconut cream simmering away.

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Our khao soi arrived with the ubiquitous plate of condiments – picked cabbage, a slice of lime, and some shallots (the chilli paste is in a container on the table) – carefully balanced on top of the bowl of noodles and meat.  Artful presentation or just efficiency?  You decide.

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Once the condiments were moved out of the way, I got a view of the goldenrod color of the broth.  Like always, I tried a slurp of it before adding the condiments, the better to appreciate the unique attributes of this dish.  The broth was a little bit sweeter with a slightly more pronounced curry flavor than what we had at Grandmother’s Khao Soi.

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As a point of comparison, here was Grandmother’s Khao Soi.  The color correction is accurate: the broth is a little darker and has a slightly meatier flavor than at Khao Soi Sameujai Faaham.  Also, despite the big vat of coconut cream bubbling away at Sameujai Faaham, Grandmother’s was a bit more liberal with its application.

Which is better?  Oh, you aren’t going to lure me into the middle of an impossible dillema!  Both versions were very good and both had their own unique qualities.  Oh, and I’ll be going back to both on my next visit to Chiang Mai!

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The other vendor located out front is preparing satay gai, or grilled chicken skewers.  This treat is definitely an import from the Indonesia/Malaysia corner of the world.  It is more than just simply grilled chicken, though.  The key to Thai satay is that the meat is marinated in a coconut milk and curry dressing so it takes on a rich flavor and retains its moisture.

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Typical service for the satay: pickled cucumbers, chillies, and shallots and a dipping sauce made of ground peanuts, red curry paste, coconut milk, and lime juice.  I know a lot of recipes tell you to use peanut butter, but trust me, it isn’t the same.  Commercial peanut butters have many added ingredients, which change the taste of the sauce. 

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We ordered a dish of naam prik noom, the dip made of roasted green chillies.  Compared with the version we ate at Huen Phen restauarnt with its fancy blanched vegetables, this version is quite modest with just some cabbage and cucumbers.  This version of the naam prik, though, was spicy!

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We also ordered sai oua, the herb-filled pork sausage.  This is one of those foods that everyone does a little bit differently, so if someone is serving it, you should try just as a point of comparison. 

We had every intention of saving room so we could stop down the street at Khao Soi Lamduon and split a bowl of khao soi just to try, but we were really full by this point.  Alas, yet another reason we must get back to Chiang Mai soon.

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Walking back to the temple next door where we had parked our car, we spotting this helpful bit of wisdom.  Yaa puut nai sing tii mai ruu, leh yaa putt tuk yang tii ruu.  “Don’t speak about things which you don’t know, and don’t speak everything that you do know.”  Good advice with which to lead your life.

In my final entry about Chiang Mai food, we make a special drive out of town to try a Lamphun style restaurant, and I explain a bit about what makes Northern Thai food unique.