Food in Chiang Mai: Huen Phen

When four independent sources, sources who are friends, colleagues, and other trustworthy sorts, recommend a restaurant, it’s a fair bet that the restaurant is worth visiting.  For our first dinner in Chiang Mai, we wanted to eat somewhere in town that was well-known for its Northern Thai cuisine.  We ended up at Huen Phen, located on Rachamankha Road in the southwestern quadrant of the old city.


There’s sort of a funny story about how we ended up here.  Our first afternoon in the city, we met an American retiree friend, Vic, who has just recently moved to Chiang Mai from Bangkok.  Vic is the sort of person who, shall we say, likes to stay in his comfort zone.  When we met in the late afternoon, Vic suggested several restaurants we could eat at, all of which were branches of Bangkok chains, all of which were located in the city’s largest mall, and none of which featured Northern Thai cuisine.

Somewhat surprisingly, we persuaded Vic to join us at Huen Phen.  We almost lost him along the way, though.  We didn’t have a precise address so parked in front of a nearby temple and asked some locals.  They said the restaurant was several blocks away and recommended we drive there.  Once back in the car, following their directions we headed down a small, dark side street.  By this point, Vic was getting a bit skeptical.  Tawn saw a sign for parking, though, so we pulled to the curb, parked the car, and then walked up to the main street.


The exterior of the restaurant looked closed for business.  Chairs were upturned on tables, the lights were out, and the gates were closed.  Only this illuminated sign (can you guess which cola company sponsors it?) and a single gate were open.


As it turns out, there are actually two restaurants of the same name.  The exterior restaurant, the one that was closed, is the lunchtime restaurant.  It serves basically the same food but all prepared in large pots.  The dinner restaurant is located down this narrow path that passes through a garden.  Only a chalkboard sign posted on an easel pointed out the way.  It was enough to make you think they didn’t want to be found all that easily.


The interior of the restaurant is packed with antiques and bric-a-brack, mostly Thai in nature.  In appearance it is like a Lanna version of TGI Fridays.  We had to wait only a few minutes before we were shown to our tables.  As busy as the restaurant was, I’d imagine reservations are a good idea.

The crowd was mixed, although there were a lot of tourists.  This is a worrying sign as restaurants that have too many tourists and not enough locals usually aren’t very good.  Thankfully, though Huen Phen was every bit as good as all our friends, colleagues, and the employees of our hotel had promised.


We ordered quite a few dishes, considering there were just three of us eating.  This first dish, a Northern Thai classic, is nam prik ong.  It is minced pork with tomatoes and is only mildly spicy.  It is served with blanched vegetables and is eaten as a dip.


The second dish was another type of dip called nam prik noom.  “Nam prik” means chilli sauce.  This is made from fire-roasted green chilies and the spiciness varies depending on how many of the seeds and how much of the seed membrane are left in.  In this case, it was pretty darn hot.  The use of nam prik is one way Northern Thais consume a lot of vegetables and it sure beats ranch dip any day of the week.


The third dish, also served with some vegetables on the side was sai oua, the ubiquitous Northern Thai pork sausage flavored with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal root, red curry paste, and turmeric.  It is usually only moderately spicy.  This is a favorite dish of mine because I think the very herbal flavor of the sausage is distinct and enjoyable.


We also had gai tod, or fried chicken, seasoned with their special blend of herbs and spices.  Very juicy and even finger lickin’ better than some other friend chicken recipes.  It is served with the sweet chilli dipping sauce that is common with fried chicken in Thailand.


This is a version of larb muu, a minced pork salad that is actually more commonly associated with Issan, or Northeastern Thai cuisine.  It is made with shallots, lemongrass, lime juice, and ground toasted rice.  Very tasty.  You may be noticing a theme here in the fact that meat is usually served as an accompaniment to vegetables, not as the main attraction.


A dish that I’ve never tried before and we thought would be interesting: gaeng khanoon sii khrong muu.  It is a soup made with young jack fruit and pork ribs in a tamarind-flavored broth.  I thought this was very tasty and something I would seek out again. 


Of course, everything was eaten with this northern staple, khao niaw, or sticky rice.  The traditional way is to eat with your hands, pinching off a small amount of rice, rolling it into a ball, and then dipping it into sauces, curries, etc.  We used our fork and spoon as is the more contemporary Thai custom.


A final dish (although we ate a few more, I did not get photographs of them) was this Northern Thai/Burmese classic, gaeng hong lay.  This is a stewed pork dish that has a broth made of tomato and curry.  On one level, it bears some resemblance to massaman curry, but that is a much thicker and less tomatoey dish.  This dish, which I ate a lot of while in Chiang Mai, is one of my all-time favorite dishes.


Our entire meal, which was a ton of food for three people, totaled 900 baht or 30 US dollars.  From a Thai perspective, that’s a pricey meal, but by the standards of the quality and quantity of food, it was still quite inexpensive. 

Now, to clear something up, while the restaurant spells its name “Huen Phen”, the pronunciation is more like huu-in pain with the “huu” pronounced through a wide smile.  Because if you pronounce it as the restaurant chose to write it, you will likely not be understood.  Especially if you pronounce the “ph” as “f”.  The “f” sound is always transliterated with an “f” in Thailand, never with a “ph”.  (Phuket is pronounced “puu get”, for example.)


Teaching Monks to “Cook Sandwiches”

In the third floor classroom of Chiang Mai’s Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University, the eyes of thirteen students registered varying degrees of confusion as I taught the first part of the English lesson: we do not “cook” sandwiches in English, we “make” them.  Clad in the saffron robes of Theravada Buddhist monks, the students wrestled with this anomaly of English.  “Will we make sandwiches today?” asked one of them, trying the new verb on for size.


One of the highlights of my recent trip to Chiang Mai was a morning spent helping my friends Ron and Kari teach English classes at the Chiang Mai campus of one of Thailand’s two monastic universities.  Ron and Kari are a Texan couple about my age, whom I first met nearly six years ago at Union Language School in Bangkok.  Most of the students at ULS are missionaries although other students are welcome.  My answer to the common question I received from fellow students – “What brought you to Thailand?” – was usually met by bewildered silence.

Ron and Kari were the exception.  They asked questions and were interested in meeting Tawn and over the years we have stayed in touch as their missionary work has taken them from Thailand to Kenya and back again.  Now they are in Chiang Mai and one of their duties is to teach English classes to monks and novices attending Buddhist university.  When they heard I was coming up, they invited me to be a guest teacher.

“The monks asked if we could cook sandwiches,” Kari explained.  “You would be good at teaching them that.”

On Thursday morning, after spending an hour practicing the intricacies of telling time, Kari pulled out two loaves of bread, a half-dozen tomatoes, a jar of mayonnaise, a container of lettuce, and a container of bologna.  First, we cleared up the confusion over which verb was appropriate.  Since we don’t use any heat, we “make” sandwiches, not “cook” them.  Next, we practiced the names of the ingredients.  “Bologna” seemed too difficult, so I called it “ham.” 

Finally, the fun began.  Working in groups of three, the monks, who range in age from 18-44, came to the front of the room, sliced tomatoes, and assembled sandwiches.  There were a few mishaps, such as the sandwiches which ended up with mayonnaise on the outside of the bread.  But all in all, everyone seemed to have a good time.


An advantage of having me teach this segment was that I could work more closely with the monks than Kari can.  One of the restrictions for Buddhist monks is that they may not touch, or even accept things handed directly to them from, a woman.  Sometimes, like when a monk who has perhaps never sliced a tomato in his life is having problems, it is easier to get in there, grab the knife, and demonstrate.  This would be complicated if a certain physical distance had to be maintained.

At the end of the class, everyone ate their sandwiches along with a banana for dessert.  Who knows if they liked their food; monks are required to eat the food they are given without complaining or expressing like or dislike.  But several students asked when I would come back and teach again, so maybe they enjoyed the sandwiches well enough.  There were requests that we cook massaman curry next time, though. 

While the class lasted only two hours, and I didn’t have much time to talk individually with the students and learn more about them, it was a fun experience.  Several years ago, I volunteered as an English teacher in a small provincial primary school and teaching is something I enjoy.  Maybe I need to make another trip up to Chiang Mai as a guest lecturer.  At least I have the right hair style to relate to the students.


Strolling Around Chiang Mai

We decided to do some exploring in the old city area of Chiang Mai and found several interesting sights.


A rather sophisticated bit of graffiti, a robot image that I saw repeated on another wall a few days later.  While I know that graffiti is vandalism, I do find that it is also interesting art.


Outside a building about a block from the touristy pub area, Tawn pointed out this sign to me: tii maa yieaw, or “place where dogs piss.”  I take this to mean that the owner has had problems with people urinating there so he is hoping to shame them.  I suppose this is only going to work for Thais.


We passed this vacant building for sale.  Its style is completely uncharacteristic of Thailand and would look more at home among Brooklyn brownstones than here in Chiang Mai.  Tawn likes it and thinks he should buy it for his fashion design company’s headquarters.  Maybe a bit premature for that!


Stopping by one wat, or temple, I found a good example of the Lanna, or northern Thai, script.  Lanna (which means “a million rice fields”) was the kingdom centered around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai from the 13th – 18th centuries.  A derivative of the language is still spoken by some northern Thais, although the reading and writing is much less common.  This sign has Lanna on the top, with Thai and English on the bottom.  The Thai script is slightly stylized and is not written quite as you would see it in a textbook. 


A friendly, shaggy dog hanging around the temple.  Generally speaking, stray animals in Thailand (especially dogs) aren’t very friendly.  We encountered several in Chiang Mai, though, who came up to us, tails wagging.


Wat Sri Suphan, a temple located on the south side of the old city, is in the silvermaking district.  Chiang Mai is known for its silver and at this particular temple they are constructing an ubosot, or ordination hall, that is decorated entirely in silver.  This process seems to be going slowly, though.


A view of the entrance steps shows how the concrete base is being embellished with silver sheets, pounded into intricate designs.  All in all, I don’t find this very attractive.  The overall look is very heavy and dull.


Contrast the silver decoration with this other building (a wihan, or Buddha image building) on the same temple grounds, which has elaborately detailed and very colorful dragons guarding the entrance.


Finally, as the sun sank in the west, the rain clouds let up a bit, although the lower ones still shrouded Doi Suthep, the low mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai and has a beautiful temple on its slopes.  (Pictures from a visit there in January 2010.)


Food in Chiang Mai – Grandmother’s Khao Soi

Sometimes you have bits and pieces of information in your head but they have yet to coalesce into a linked arrangement that qualifies as knowledge.  Prior to this trip to Chiang Mai, that described the state of affairs in my mind when it came to the subject of Northern Thai cuisine.  On this trip, though, the bits of knowledge started to come together and my understanding of Northern Thai cuisine began to solidify.  The process began, appropriately enough, over a bowl of khao soi.


Khao soi means snipped or trimmed rice and it refers to the way the noodles used to be made in this classic curried noodle soup.  Originally, sheets of rice noodles colored and flavored with turmeric were rolled up and then snipped into strands.  These days, though, the dish is generally made with egg noodles.

The dish is believed to have roots with the Hui, Chinese muslims from Yunnan province.  Similar dishes with similar names are found in Burma, northern Thailand, and Laos, the result of the trade routes crisscrossing the area where the three countries not far away from China.

While khao soi has a curry base, it is usually not as thick as a traditional curry.  It also does not have a lot of spicy heat, although it certainly has a lot of flavor.  The dish also relies on two types of noodles: fresh ones in the soup and deep fried ones on top to add some crunch.  All in all, it qualifies as comfort food and is certainly a defining dish in Northern Thai cuisine.


We ate khao soi a trio of times during our trip.  The first stop was at Ran Aahan Khao Soi Khun Yai, which translates as “Grandmother’s Khao Soi Restaurant.”  Located on Sriphum Road, which runs along the inside of the north moat, Grandmother’s Khao Soi is in a private residence nestled between two wat, or temples: Wat Kuan Kama to the east and Wat Montien to the west.  It is only this small orange sign, all in Thai, that indicates the entrance.


Parking is limited to a few places on the grass and most customers walk from nearby businesses and houses.  As you can see, Wat Montien is literally right next door.


The restaurant is an open air pavilion just inside the gates.  Grandmother’s house is further back on the property.  The restaurant is open from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm daily except Sunday and quantities are limited.


In a wonderfully old-fashioned touch, the menu is painted on the property wall as well as being posted on a sign over the kitchen.  I didn’t see any English menus, but imagine that you would be able to make yourself understood (through pointing, if nothing else).  The menu is basically three items: khao soi, bami (thin egg noodles), and guaytiaw (rice noodles), available with chicken, beef, or pork.  (I know, strange that a Muslim-origin dish would have a pork option.)


I opted for the khao soi nua (beef), which is always a good test for a khao soi restaurant.  The key is whether they have stewed the beef long enough so that it is very tender.  Grandmother’s beef met the tenderness test and the noodles were cooked to the perfect, not too mushy consistency.  The curry broth is fully flavored, a little thinner than some versions I’ve had but not lacking in flavor.  A small splash of boiled coconut cream added richness.   


It is customary to doctor your khao soi with a plate of garnishes.  These always include some dark chilli paste, red shallots, lime, and pickled cabbage.  I make it a point to taste the broth before adding condiments so that I can get a sense of the original flavor.  The lime and cabbage add acidic notes that keep the curry broth from being too heavy.


A wonderful drink with which to accompany the khao soi is naam lamyai, or longan juice.  Don’t you love the high-end table covering?  Winnie the Pooh and Tigger love khao soi!


To get a taste of what else Grandmother’s Khao Soi has to offer, Tawn and I split a dish of bami moo, egg noodles with ground pork and pork balls.  This dish is always comforting, a little sweet, a little savory (thanks to the fried shallots on top), and very easy to eat.


The look of a satisfied diner.  All told, Grandmother’s Khao Soi met and exceeded expectations, setting a very high bar against which other khao soi we tried during our trip had to compete.


Not to spoil your appetite, but I found this garden snail climbing up the midst of the menu painted on the wall, crossing the “o” in “soi”.  I thought it was an interesting shot.


Settling in to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, roughly one-tenth the size and population of Bangkok.  Located an hour’s flight north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is nestled in a valley surrounded by low mountains.  Temperatures this time of year are similar to Bangkok’s, but a little less humid and ever so slightly cooler at night.  We lucked out that our visit coincided with a bit of a cool spell, with temperatures about 28 degrees (82 F) during the day and 24 degrees (74 C) at night.  The weather was overcast most days with light drizzle, so we were spared the harsh sun.


At the heart of Chiang Mai is the old city, delineated by a moat and the ruins of city walls shaped in an approximately 1.5 km square.  The eastern portion of the old city, near Tha Phae gate, is more of the touristy area.  Our hotel, the Tamarind Village, was a few blocks west of that.  The hotel is named after the 200-year old tamarind tree, pictured above, that shades one of the courtyards.


Set back from the main street by a long, bamboo-shaded driveway, Tamarind Village fits the cliche of an “urban oasis” and is surprisingly quiet and calm.  The buildings are laid out in a series of courtyards, each of which is very lush.  The rooms are somewhat rustic, with simple interiors, and the staff are extremely friendly and helpful.


There are only 43 rooms and, despite it being low season, the hotel was fully booked.  Many of the tourists were European with a large number of French families visiting.  The restaurant next to the pool serves a complimentary breakfast buffet each morning with both indoor and outdoor seating.  It was a nice place to relax but I can’t spend too long cooped up in one place so headed out to explore.


Outside our hotel and just down the block is a busy corner with a Wawee Coffee.  Wawee is a Chiang Mai based chain that offers very tasty coffee.  I made a few stops there over our vacation and enjoyed lingering and watching the people pass.  The customers were almost exclusively tourists, which left me feeling itchy, but they also provided several interesting people watching episodes.


Passionfruit meringue pie.  Oh, this was very good!

The intersection at which the Wawee Coffee sits is a microcosm of Chiang Mai or, at least, the touristy part of Chiang Mai.  Let’s talk about what you can see at this corner. 


This corner seemed to be a magnet for the lost and disoriented travelers.  As I sat there, I saw group after group stop at the corner and struggle with their Lonely Planet guidebook or maps, puzzling over the directions, and then head off down the street.  Sure enough, a few minutes later they would come back, evaluate their books or maps again, and head off in another direction. 

At this corner, a Thai man (in camo shorts) was speaking with lost tourists.  He speaks proficient English and asks the tourists where they are going.  He gives them directions and then suggests they take a tuk-tuk (the three wheel vehicle in the background), which of course is conveniently waiting.  It is conveniently overpriced, too.

Another thing you can see in this picture is a pair of foreigners on a rented motorbike.  So many tourists rent bicycles and motorbikes in Chiang Mai.  I have to wonder how many accidents there are.  As I drove about town, I watched as tourists rode either dangerously fast or dangerously unaware of traffic around them.  Thai drivers are aggressive and the streets in the old city are narrow.  Not much room for foolish and inexperienced tourists.


Two other common sights in Chiang Mai are shown in this picture.  First, the yellow (actually, usually red) pickup truck with covered seating in the back, which are called “song taews”.  The name means “two rows” and refers to the two benches in the back of the truck.  These are used something like taxis in that they don’t usually operate a fixed route.  You flag one down (it may or may not have a sign indicating where it is heading) and name your destination.  If the song taew is heading that general direction, you can hop on, otherwise the driver will wave you off.  Fares are negotiated but are usually inexpensive.  It is initially a little complicated but ends up being a pretty effective way to get about. 

The second common sight is the side-saddle female passengers on the motorbikes.  You see this throughout Thailand and I’m always startled by how effectively these ladies manage to balance themselves.


The final common sight are monks.  Chiang Mai is home to two monastic universities and scores of temples and you see a greater concentration of monks and novices here than anyplace else in Thailand.  A snapshot of Chiang Mai would be incomplete without some saffron robes in it!  More about monks in Chiang Mai in the next entry.


Chiang Mai Strawberries and Whipped Cream

To celebrate the completion of our bathroom re-tiling project, we celebrated with a special dessert: fresh strawberries from Chiang Mai (in the north of Thailand) and some hand-whipped cream.


Beautiful, aren’t they?  Unlike some of those mega-monster strawberries we get from California, which are all pale inside, these strawberries reminded me of the strawberries of my childhood – smaller and sweeter.  Of course, they still weren’t as nice as the strawberries we tried in Japan two Aprils ago.  (Video of that experience here.)

Trip to Chiang Mai – Final Part

The final full day in Chiang Mai we drove up to Doi Suthep, a mountain that is immediately to the west of Chiang Mai and offers, on a clear day, a nice view of the greater Chiang Mai area.  On the top of the mountain is a temple which ostensibly dates back to the late 14th century and is one of the most significant sites for Thais to visit.  It is also a very beautiful temple so is well worth the trip up the winding 13 km road from the city.

Stephanie and I picked up my friend Kari, who recently moved back to Thailand from Kenya with her husband Ron.  They are both missionaries whom Tawn and I first met when I was attending Union Language School after first moving here four years ago.

The day was drizzly but as we drove up the mountain, the drizzle subsided replaced by a thick fog.  On the way up we had to stop and help a family whose pickup truck had slipped into a small ditch at the side of the road.  Thankfully, only one tire was in the ditch and with the help of another driver, we were able to jimmy it free.


The base area of the temple has lots of tourist shops, stalls, stands and vendors.  It is a bit of a circus.  Thankfully there were not too many people there thanks to both the inclement weather as well as the depressed tourism situation in Thailand.  There are two ways to reach the temple: you can either take a short cable car ride or you can walk the 300 steps (decorated with beautiful nagas, or multi-headed serpents).  Here’s a photo of Stephanie posing before we began our ascent.


One of the vendor’s dogs sitting on the wall, imitating the nagas in the previous photo!


The temple is perched right on top of the mountain and is surrounded by lush tropical forest.  The fog was very thick and advanced quickly, swallowing up the mountainside.  This picture reminded me of something from the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.


Looking down to the area where the monks’ quarters are located.  Visibility was down to about 30 meters.  Note the lanterns.  These are a very typical Lanna / Northern Thai style lantern.  Beautiful, no?


While taking pictures the fog started to turn into a mist and, eventually, drizzle.  Thankfully we had our umbrellas with us.


The main chedi, or stupa, is covered in gold with four gold umbrellas standing on the corners.  On a sunny day it is beautiful and makes a striking contrast with the blue skies.  See this photo as an example.  Today, however, we just had to appreciate it at a different level.  In fact, the fog/mist/drizzle lent an interesting serenity to the place.


Rare to get a shot here with no visitors in it!


I like the drops of water on the statues.  After about an hour poking around we decided the dampness was getting to us and descended to the parking lot area.


From the main entrance we looked back up towards the temple and the summit, which was now entirely shrouded in the clouds.

Here’s a video of the few days up there:


While in Chiang Mai we had the opportunity to eat quite a bit of Northern Thai food, which offers some of the best dishes in all of Thailand.  Here is a spread we had one night.  In the upper left is a variety of vegetables and a Northern style sausage called sai oua.  It is served with a green chili dipping sauce (available in varying degrees of spiciness) called nam prik ong.  In the center is a red pork and chili dipping sauce called nam prik num.  It is more savory than spicy.  You eat it with the fried pork rinds in the upper right.  That’s right, Thais love cracklins!  The bamboo container in the lower left features khao niaw or sticky rice.  In the center is a plate of raw veggies and herbs served on ice, which are eaten to cool the spiciness.  Finally, the dish in the lower right is a salad made of sun dried pork, shallots, peanuts, cilantro and chilies.


Here’s another view of the sai oua and nap prik ong and khao niaw.  I bought some at the Chiang Mai Airport at a vendor who has been around for years and carried it onto the plane.  That’s right – you can bring super-spicy green chili sauce onto the plane here as a carry on.  Bottled water through security?  No.  But nam prik ong?  Absolutely fine.  Everyone knows that isn’t dangerous.