Day 2 in Chiang Mai. We were going on a food tour at 5.00 p.m. We left the apartment before 4.30 in case rush hour traffic was bad. We reached Wat Lok Moli, the meeting place, about 15 minutes early.
We didn’t know who to look for. We walked around but saw no one holding out a food tour sign. A few minutes before 5.00, I sent a message to our host and attached a photo of where we were exactly. I was worried, you see. In Kyoto, an Airbnb Experiences host stood us up and I did not want a repeat of such a terrible experience.
We found our tour guide near the entrance. She showed us to a seating area where the other members of the group were waiting. It wasn’t going to be a private food walking tour like the one we had in Saigon. I knew that when I booked. We were going to be with a small group, no more than eight, and I kept wishing that the others in the group would be people truly interested in food than in taking selfies.
I’ve read nightmarish reviews of tours, you see. Not this one but others. How schedules got screwed because some people in the group took too much time taking 50 selfies in every spot. In circumstances like that, I don’t know how well I can command my tongue not to spew acid and venom. Fortunately, there were no such people in our food tour group. Selfie-obsessed people probably don’t book food tours anyway. They go on sightseeing tours so they can take endless selfies in the most exotic locations.
There were seven of us in the Chiang Mai food tour. Eight, including the tour guide. A young Englishwoman, a young Austrian guy, a young American woman living in Saigon — all three around the same age as Alex — and the American’s parents who were visiting from Oregon. They were all as adventurous with food as they were funny with their remarks. There was so much ribbing and laughter over the four hours that we spent eating our way through Chiang Mai.
Cowgirl’s khao kha moo (stewed pork leg) is overrated
Cowgirl is famous, no doubt. Google “Chiang Mai food” and her khao kha moo almost always lands on the list of must-eats. Not a mean feat for a girl who fled her native country, war-torn Myanmar (Burma), to try and make a new and better life in Thailand. In her adopted country, she married and became a successful businesswoman. That was what our tour guide told us. How much of it is fact and how much is legend, I don’t know.
Success stories have a tendency to spawn legends and Cowgirl is reputedly one of the best-known success stories in Chiang Mai. She’s quite a celebrity, in fact. Anthony Bourdain sought out her stall for the Chiang Mai episode of No Reservations years ago. Although she was already known among locals and tourists before that, the exposure on international television must have catapulted her to unprecedented fame.
She’s quite the marketer, this Cowgirl, and she knows the power of branding. She’s pretty, to start with, and if you see her photos on the web — bejewelled, face made-up and often wearing a form-fitting top with a Stetson hat on her head while chopping pork and piling meat over rice — she does make a striking image. And that image, she perpetuates. She even has bottled water especially marked with her logo — her face, of course, with a hat on her head.
The story about how she fled to Thailand and became a success would inspire anyone. But that success, I’d attribute to business savvy more than the food she sells. She was there on the afternoon we had khao kha moo and rice, chatting with guests several tables away from ours. Our tour guide asked if we wanted to have our photo taken with her, and we all demurred.
Personally, I was there for the food; not to ogle a local celebrity. And I wasn’t exactly awed by the food. Her stewed pork is good, I’ll hand her that, but not exceptionally memorable. After leaving her place, I felt no sense of urgency to return soon and enjoy the food again. The truth is, over the next several days, Alex and I would get to eat khao kha moo with more succulent meat, and richer and tastier sauce than hers.
At the end of the food tour, our guide asked all of us which dish we liked best. No one — NOT ONE — mentioned Cowgirl. And her place was the tour’s first stop when we were all hungry and at our most excited. Imagine that.
Earthen Jar Roast Pork, the second stop, was the best of all
The food tour page on Airbnb says there are 15 dishes (18 if you inclide the drinks) that participants will sample over four hours. Naturally, Alex and I ate an early lunch and refrained from having any snacks after that. We came with very empty stomachs. And there was so much space left in them after the stop at Cowgirl’s where we merely sampled the pork but hardly ate any of the rice that came with the meat. A good choice, really, because at Earthen Jar Roast Pork, I ate so much pork and chicken that I wondered how much of the remaining 12 dishes I’d be able to consume.
Earthen Jar Roast Pork is a pop-up food stall that operates between 4.00 to 8.00 p.m. across the street from a local market. The marinated chicken and pork belly are pierced with an S-shaped metal hook and hung from the mouth of oversized earthen jars. The jars are covered and the meats cook for two hours. When they come out, the pork skins are puffed to a crisp and the meat is a reddish gold.
I grew up in a country where pork belly with crispy skin is worshipped and I consider myself a connoiseur of both fried and roasted versions. But the pork belly at Earthen Jar Roast Pork made me forget every pork belly with crispy skin I had eaten in the past.
The pork and chicken were served with dipping sauces and a small plate of the freshest Thai basil. We were advised that, for the best experience, we should pop a piece of pork or chicken into our mouth, add a basil leaf and chew. I did and the flavors that burst inside my mouth wanted me to finish everything on the plates.
The pork skin was so crisp and light — the mouthfeel was almost comparable with eating prawn crackers. You’d think that with such a long cooking time, the meat would be dry and leathery but, no. The meat was tantalizingly succulent and tasty. So was the chicken. The seasoning that suffused the meat went all the way to the bone.
It was, hands-down, everyone’s favorite stop. I think we all felt sorry that we couldn’t eat everything to our hearts’ content. But with 12 or so more dishes to sample, it wasn’t the best strategy to fill our stomachs at that point. It was simply much too early. The American father in our group (Hawaii-born of Filipino descent) volunteered to take the leftovers to munch on at their apartment after the food tour.
Inside a local market
Chiang Mai is a city of markets. Night markets, food markets, a flower market… When I say “local market” I mean the kind where locals go to shop and not the kind that tourists are often lured into to get them shopping like there’s no tomorrow.
We were introduced to vegetables, spices and condiments. We saw a lot of cooked food including the famous salad with raw pork blood (above photo: left, bottom).
I did try a fried cricket. So crispy with a delightful flavor that I can only describe as “umami”.
You’ll find Thai sausage just about everywhere in Chiang Mai but, at one stall in the local market, we were treated to pandan-flavored Thai sausage. Oh, delightful!
We had sweets at the last stop in the market. Crispy crepes, Chiang Mai style, topped with whipped coconut cream and the lovely egg strips that caught my fancy on the flight to Thailand a day earlier.
All the walking and talking in the market was to allow us to digest the meat we had eaten so far. We had to because the next stop was a full restaurant meal.
A riverside restaurant
When I was going over Google maps making a list of interesting places to eat that were within walking distance from our apartment in Chiang Mai, I marked a restaurant by the Ping River that I especially wanted to visit. Imagine my surprise when, after the trip to the market, we found ourselves in a restaurant overlooking the river with a view of the street lights on the opposte bank.
I think I gasped.
And gasped over and over as the food was served one after the other.
There were at least three salads (the glass noodle salad set our mouths on fire), two curries (jungle curry and Burmese curry; both delicious), crispy morning glory (everyone’s favorite), fried fish, rice…
I seriously thought that the restaurant was the last stop and the tour would end early. But there were several more dishes to taste.
Into another local market
From the riverside restaurant, we drove to another local market. The way business was going on in there, you wouldn’t think it was after 7.00 p.m.
Our tour guide explained that the market is open 24 hours a day. And businesses operate on shifts. The stall selling noodle soups, for instance, is open until midnight. Another business takes over after that until the noodle soup owner comes back to do business again. No one goes hungry because you don’t need to wait for the market to open in the morning and you don’t need to beat the closing hour either because there are no opening and closing hours.
I really didn’t know how in the world we could manage five different noodle soups at that point. Fortunately, we weren’t expected to finish five bowls each. The tour guide ordered five different noodle soups, spoons and forks were supplied, and we could take from each bowl just enough to taste. I wanted to try them all because they were all iconic dishes of northern Thailand. But when you’re nearing your bursting point, it’s not easy. I managed a forkful of khao soi — chicken curry noodles soup topped with crispy noodles (yes, noodles on noodles) — and a forkful of the noodle soup with cubes of pork blood. The rest I had to skip because there was nother dish lined up before leaving the market.
Ooooohhh, the grilled bun with pandan custard — kanom pang sang ka ya — really deserves a trophy. It was pre-dessert, the tour guide said. The bun was light as cloud and the filling was just sweet enough to tickle the taste buds. Nothing over-the-top and nothing too rich. I surprised myself by finishing a whole bun despite being unable to try three noodle soups.
If there was pre-dessert, surely, there’s a main dessert, right?
Bua loy: sticky rice balls and taro in coconut milk
For the main dessert, we found ourselves on the sidewalk next to a cart selling sticky rice balls with coconut milk.
If you’re a Filipino, it is very similar to guinataang halo-halo except that there are no fruits. The sticky rice calls are smaller too and come in different colors. Diced taro and, occasionally, a whole boiled egg go with the rice balls into a bowl and sweetened coconut milk is poured in. It’s called bua loy in Thailand and it’s a rather common sweet snack. I wasn’t particularly enamored with the presence of the egg in the bowl.
Fresh fruits market and the finale
If the photos appear to be getting less and less attractive as this post nears its end, there are two reasons. First, night had fallen sometime during the first local market tour and, once outside, it was difficult to get good shots. Second, I was so full. Lethargy was starting to set in. I wanted a shower, coffee and a couch to lounge in. But I’m almost at the end of the story and I do intent to finish it.
So, the fresh fruit market which is behind the famous Warorot Market. We were introduced to local fruits most of which were similar to what we have back home so I was only half attentive. I do remember that Alex tried mangosteen which she always refused to eat whenever her father bought some in the market. I ate nothing. But the strawberries were beautiful so I let Alex choose a pack to bring back to the aparment. For breakfast, we said.
From the fresh fruits market, we passed through the flower market to seek a hawker selling another popular sweet snack. Kanom krok — Thai coconut pudding pancake. It was too dark to take photos. I wanted a series of videos to show how the pancakes are made but the hawkers moved too fast switching from stove to stove. And, with customers milling around waiting for their orders, it was just impossible.
The pancakes are cooked in pans that look like oversized takoyaki pans but with holes smaller than those in the the pans used for making banh khot in Saigon. The pancake batter are poured into the holes, allowed to set a little, then topped with coconut pudding. When the pudding is firm, either sweet corn kernels or sliced scallions are sprinkled in.
Scallions? I know that sounds weird but, as strange as it may sound, the ones with scallions tasted and smelled better than the ones with corn. The pancakes with corn were sweet on sweet, and not too exciting. But the ones with scallions were savory and sweet at the same time, and they were unbelievably good. So, yes, I did eat pancakes with corn and with scallions, more of the latter than the former.
Finally, time for some feedback. That was when our tour guide conducted a little poll asking which dishes that we ate during the tour we liked best. Like I mentioned earlier, no one mentioned Cowgirl. Earthen Jar Roast Pork was the runaway winner, and the runners-up were the crispy morning glory (and the riverside restaurant) and the crispy crepes (in the first of two markets that we visited).
It was time to say good night to our fellow food adventurers and lovely tour guide. Alex booked a Grab ride, we bade everyone farewell and off we went. We showered and watched three episodes of Vagabond on Netflix. We had to stay up for while to digest the food — at least partially. It’s simply never a good idea to go to bed with a very full stomach.
Details of Chiang Mai Northern Food Tour by Truck on Airbnb.