Khon Muang Cuisine
Aharn Muang or the food of the Northern people, Khon Muang, is generally prepared from fresh seasonal ingredients available in nature. The basics remain the same but the ingredients and preparation can vary slightly from place to place. For example, Laab, the popular spicy minced pork salad, will be made differently in Phrae province than that prepared in Chiang Mai province. The taste will even vary from family to family as each one flavors it to their own preferences. Northern Thai cooks use sixteen main methods of preparing their food; various ways of steaming, boiling, and frying, the different methods shows the diversity of influences in Northern food.
The first method is called Kaeng in Thai. This spicy soup is made with various meats and vegetables but the defining factor that makes it Kaeng is the chili paste. Northerners will use a paste made from dried hot chili peppers or from green chili paste. Northern food often uses pickled fish as an ingredient, reflecting their need to preserve foods; something Northern people share in common with those of the Northeast.
Since Northern style chili paste is the key ingredient it’s important to know what goes in it! Traditionally made using a mortar and pestle, the key ingredients are garlic, salt, shallots, coriander seeds, shrimp paste, pickled fish and, of course, dried hot chili peppers. Northern cooks will add some lemongrass or galangal if the meat is added to the dish while fresh fish curry is usually made with the green chili paste. Green chili paste uses the same basic ingredients as the red one but has much more lemongrass and adds turmeric for a good aroma and nice color. For chicken soup, the basic curry paste can be used and lemongrass and turmeric can be added as desired.
Cooking Kaeng is easy, simply boil the meat or ribs until it is tender with crushed red onions with low heat, increase the heat so that soup is on a rolling boil and add the chili paste, don’t stir it! Wait for it to dissolve on its own otherwise, the pickled fish will add a really fishy smell and taste.
The next key dish is called Tom, we all know the famous Thai dish Tom Yam Kung, well Tom is the easiest to prepare since it is a simple soup with galangal, lemongrass, crushed turmeric, pounded shallots and chicken or fish as you prefer. After the Tom is finished cooking and the meat or vegetables are cooked add some cherry tomatoes cut in half, spring onions, and fresh coriander (cilantro). If you want a spicy Tom then add some crushed chilies when the water is boiling. If you like it sour, add some squeezed lime or lemon juice. Thais traditionally use limes but lemons will work too.
Yum in the North is different from Yum in Central Thailand which generally uses lime, mint, and fresh chili and is more like a salad. Yum in Northern Thailand is mainly made with dried chili and dried spices and is a soup. Yum is cooked like Kaeng or Tom but after boiling the meat until it is tender, take the meat out of the broth, cool it then shred it or cut it into pieces. The broth is then seasoned to taste and the meat added back to the soup before adding fresh local herbs.
Chio is the next style of cooking in the Northern repertoire and only uses some water to cook the vegetables; the water is brought to a boil and salt, shrimp paste, fermented fish, garlic, and shallots are added to the water. Vegetables such as the Ivy gourd or spinach are added and cooked. Grilled green chilies can be added for a spicier taste.
Cho is similar to Chio but takes far less time to cook. It involves boiling vegetables in water, adding salt, fermented fish, shrimp paste and tamarind juice is added to the soup to give it its unique sour taste. In some dishes, lime and kaffir lime juice is also added to make it even sourer. Cho generally uses only one vegetable in the dish; popular ingredients include cabbage and morning glory. Pork ribs or fresh fish are generally used when the dish is made with morning glory.
Hum is the Northern version of stew and involves cooking big chunks of meat mixed with curry paste over a low, slow fire until the liquid is nearly gone. This is often made from pork or beef and is a great use for tough meat. Hum differs from other kinds of soup because it is the only dish that adds ginger into the paste.
Nam Prik: น้ำพริก
Nam Prik made in the North is one of the most famous and popular condiments, the main ingredients are always chilies, salt, shallots, and garlic with the addition of shrimp paste, fermented fish, fresh tomatoes and others. The ingredients are pounded in a mortar until they make a sauce like paste. Famous Nam Prik dishes include Nam Prik Num and Nam Prik Aong.
We’ve already mentioned the popular dish of Laab, typically considered an Isaan or North Eastern dish; in the North, it is a bit different. It is made from chopped meats such as pork, fish, chicken or beef and mixed with a spicy curry paste made from roasted chilies and spices. Northern Laab is also less spicy than the fiery Isaan version. There are many different kinds of Laab; cooked and uncooked, minced and chopped, and made with more than one kind of meat. For Fish Laab the fish is cooked beforehand and can be made with roasted rice powder or topped with crispy fried fish scales. A meaty fish such as tilapia is best for this kind of Fish Laab.
Sa looks more like a traditional Western salad as its made from fresh greens but there is the added delicious touch of using roasted chilies, shallots, garlic and even fish in the sauce. These ingredients are pounded together with a mortar and pestle and used as a sauce for the fresh greens, eggplant is a popular Sa dish.
Everyone knows Som Tam, the famous green papaya salad, but most people don’t realize that Tam is actually the name of the dish! Tam is made by mixing all the ingredients together in a mortar and lightly pounding with the pestle. Tam kanoon is made by boiled and pounded young jackfruit, stir-fried with chili paste while Tam Makheua is made with grilled long eggplant, grilled chilis, garlic, red onions, and shrimp paste.
Next up is So which literally means “mixed all together. This mixed dish is usually made from fresh fruits with a seasoning sauce; the popular dishes are So Mamuang (Mango salad) and So Maoh (Pomelo Salad).
Aep is very similar to Ngob in Central Thai food but like all things Northern, it has its own special twist making it uniquely Northern. Aep takes shrimp, fish, pork or even ant eggs and mixes them together with spices and chili paste before wrapping in banana leaves and grilling it over a low fire.
Northern Thais love boiled, steamed and grilled food but stir-frying is, of course, a key method of preparing food. Khua is a method of stir-frying food with very little cooking oil. The cooking oil is heated and garlic sautéed before adding other ingredients. Another method uses only water to stir fry the ingredients and no oil is added at all.
Soh or Som is very close to the Khua method and involves heating a small amount of oil on a high fire and then adding the vegetables or meat and stir-frying quickly. Soh or Som is the sound the ingredients make when they hit the extremely hot wok.
Steaming was mentioned and is a popular way to cook food in a more healthy way. The most famous steamed dish in Thailand is the Central dish called Hor Mok, which is meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Southern Thailand uses fish only cooked in a thick coconut curry before steaming the whole thing. In the North, steaming is called Nueng and can involve banana leaf wrappings or not, Nueng is used with rice, fish, dried beef and other ingredients.