Northern Thai Food (Aharn Muang)
Before we start learning about the best and newest places to eat, the first thing we need is to learn about Northern Thai food that can be found in Chiang Mai. Aharn is the most important word in Thailand as it means food or meal. Thai people are a food loving people, and so this word should be one of the first words you learn in Thai!
Muang means city but the word Muang was first used to reference local people in Chiang Mai after King Kawila expelled the Burmese from the North during his reign from 1742 to 1815. Chiang Mai city at that point was deserted, so he brought in people from Sibsong Panna in Southern China, Tai Lue, and Tai Keun. Those people intermarried with remaining local people in the area, the Tai Yuan, and Tai Lua. These local people started calling themselves “Khon Muang” or people of the city to differentiate from the newcomers. Later Indian and Chinese people moved to live along the river during the logging periods of the 1800s and 1900s. Over the years all these different groups intermarried and blended and became “Khon Muang’. Aharn Muang shows that diverse ethnic mixture that now makes up Khon Muang.
This diverse background gives Aharn Muang many tasty characteristics with a varied use of spices reflecting the contributing groups. One example is the popular Northern Thai favorite Kaeng Hang Lay, a Northern twist on the Hinlay curry of Myanmar. Northern Thai people frequently add fermented soybean paste to their food; an influence passed on to Northern food by the Tai Yai people.
Like the people who cooked the meal, Aharn Muang followed the seasons; in the rainy season, the cuisine had more fish dishes, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and seasonal vegetables. Insects, an essential source of protein for Northern farmers and hill tribe people, were roasted and eaten as a snack.
During winter the temperatures can drop to below freezing on the mountain tops, is when the rice shoots come up and are full of local celebrations; a time to eat meat in such dishes as the spicy minced meat salad called Laab and jellied pork curry called Kaeng Kradang. The hot season brings seasonal vegetables, sprouts and the delicious although unusual dish (for the western palate) of giant red ant eggs. These are a Northern favorite and considered quite a delicacy!
Kaeng Kanoon or Jackfruit curry is a favorite Northern dish made from the fruits of the Jackfruit and is typically served on special occasions such as New Year and the Thai New Year of Songkran in April. The word for Jackfruit, Kanoon, sounds like the word for support in Thai or sanap sanoon which makes it a traditional dish for these special holidays. Laab, the spicy minced meat salad sounds like the word for fortune (Laap) which also makes it a typical recipe for celebrations. Northerners believe you should avoid serving ‘stringy” dishes at a funeral believing it can connect people to the dead, so noodle dishes, banana trunk curry, and other similar foods are avoided at funerals.
The original Aharn Muang is low-fat, highly nutritious and often has medicinal properties. The King of the Northern Herbs is Makhwaen or Zanthoxylum limonella Alston. Other Zanthoxylum species are the famed Sichuan Pepper and the Korean Lime. Makhwaen has properties to kill parasites and is vital since many Northern dishes involve raw meat and fresh animal blood.