Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chiang Mai: Gluttony Redefined

I don't even know where to begin explaining how I have taken to Chiang Mai. It's a far cry from the chaos and soupy humidity of Bangkok. I was settling in nicely to lazy travel mode while on my way here, but arrival in this ancient Thai capital to the north hastened the transition. I've really had a chance to assume the role of wanderer, while mingling with the gaggle of European backpackers staying in the same hostel who I affectionately refer to as the "youngins'." It's all well and good for hiking through the outskirts of Chiang Mai looking for elusive temples and sampling the night life, but for experiencing the local cuisine I've had to strike out on my own a bit. No worries though. I came for many reasons but let's be serious here; eating is a top priority and I can't have anyone holding me back. I never set out to make this a blog specifically about food, but I need to take a moment to recount a few dining experiences of the past week that have left my jaw dropped. I've eaten myself to the edge of sickness (the good kind, right?) a few times over and need to get this down in the public record before the details drift off into my next food coma.

I cannot for the life of me think of a better introduction to eating in Chiang Mai than the one I was privileged to have. Portland Thai food impresario Andy Ricker just so happened to be in the area when I arrived and was nice enough to let me tag along on that evening's trip out to drink and snack a little. His knowledge and passion for Thailand, the food and the people are peerless. I knew full well when he uttered, "there's a place I went last night I want you guys to try..." that I would not be disappointed. After a few cold Beer Lao and some sour pork ribs in the Old City, we headed towards the evening's focus. A small, outdoor set up on the side of the road not far from the city was where we ended up and Andy ordered for us in Thai. The business is a family affair with everyone chipping in. A small footnote here: hospitality in Thailand is a degree higher than I am used to seeing in the west, and I practice hospitality for a living. There is a sincerity to each beer poured and dish served that makes the whole thing seem so much more genuine. The speciality of our chosen drinking spot for the night is a slow cooked beef almost jerky like beef, probably skirt or flank, that is beaten with a club before serving to shred and tenderize. It's served with sticky rice, fresh herbs and vegetables, chili sauce, and a dried chili/galangal/shallot/garlic mix. We also had a plate of fatty roasted pork and sour pork and egg that had been steamed in a banana leaf to snack on. This was my first time really experiencing and understanding how and why the sticky is supposed to be used and why utensils are not really necessary when you have it. It's difficult as a tourist to get off the beaten path and really live like people do locally. We all say we want to do it, but how often does it really pan out. This experience not only hit the nail on the head, but was great motivation to seek out more just like it. Score!

A couple of days later, still buzzing from the roadside beers and beef, the director of the hostel I'm staying in said that it was all you can eat Thai BBQ night. I was skeptical to say the least. All you can eat BBQ is not really a term that inspires me while back home, but I decided to opt in. A bunch of other people were going and the price seemed right. Good choice! This is a local spectacle not to be missed. Endless piles of meats, seafood, vegetables and noodles are available to grab and bring back to your table where you will cook it over a blazing hot charcoal fire on a little aluminum grill that has a moat of broth around the bottom to simmer things in. If you're thinking that this sounds a lot like Korean BBQ joints found in suburban strip malls you're not wrong. The difference is the choice of ingredients. I had to take multiple stabs at the buffet line just to sample all the different offal available. I barely scratched the surface of fish and meat cake varieties. By the end of my meal the throngs of neighborhood folks eating and live music was getting hazy. I stumbled out, the term gluttony redefined.

An impromptu lunch yet a few days later became yet another milestone on this visit to Chiang Mai, and definitely what will be one of the most memorable experiences of this entire journey. The hostel director/owner Noom, invited me to join him for lunch. I had already made my love of eating known to him and also my willingness to try new things. There was a whole spread that the hostel staff was digging into. It consisted of the following: Sour pork with onions and chilis, a soup of beef offal simmered overnight, Northern Thai sausage, roasted pork, tuna with chili paste, cooked ground beef with herbs and chili, and my favorite dish; a tartare of sorts. One of raw ground pork, and the other of raw ground beef with an intense bitterness derived from boiling the bile gland of a cow and straining off the liquid. Not for the faint of heart, but balling up sticky rice was all that could slow me down from devouring as much of this as possible.

Earlier today, I had the chance to wander one of Chiang Mai's local food markets, presumably where most of the afore mentioned meal came from. It's a cross between a farmer's market and a food court. Fresh produce, fish, meat and prepared foods are all available in endless varieties. Slightly different than an American version of these entities, most people at the market were buying food to bring home. I actually felt a little funny eating things I had purchased straight away, even if they were prepared right in front of me. I was certainly the only one doing so. I did have the chance to sit down in a little restaurant adjacent to the market and sample food that I am told usually sells out quick! In America we pine for things to be produced locally, fresh, sustainably, by artisans and the like. Yet, we still shop at supermarkets. What I've witnessed here in Chiang Mai is people actually living the ideals we espouse. It's part of every day life and it's not inconvenient to anyone at all. You buy what you need for that day, and the next day you go back for more. I watched someone who is probably cooking catfish for dinner right now buy a live fish, which was killed, cleaned and gutted right in front of me. That's a type of fresh that even the Slowest of Foodies in America rarely experiences. I'm not going to go so far as saying that I could see myself living here. Isn't that what we all think to ourselves when on vacation in a wonderful place? I could however, transition easily into buying and eating food like this. No problems....

1 comment:

  1. Another great one! Me and Evan and a few others hit up a new Zak Pelaccio spot called Fatty Cue in wburg. It incorporates Southeast Asian spices and cuts of meat into BBQ, so it was really wild to read you discussing this in your blog today!

    We'll discuss my experience there over email, but I think I need to get back there to have a real taste of it. Needless to say I'd rather have been in Thailand with you chowing on the real thing!

    Peace buddy!