Our wandering chef discovers that some of the best food in Thailand is in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Krabi.
Korean-American chef Edward Kim is known for the bold Southeast Asian flavors at his Chicago restaurant Ruxbin and at its new sister restaurant, Mott St. He and his wife, Jen, just ate their way across Thailand doing extensive menu research. Here, he shares the most memorable dishes he had eating some of the best food in Thailand.
1. Som Tam from Kad Ton Payom Market, Chiang Mai
“From a roadside stand, I spot a small woman standing behind a wooden framed kiosk selling som tam, a style of green papaya salad. Everything on the menu is in Thai, so we decide to go for the middle option, pointing to the menu item scrawled against the stand and listed at 40 baht. The woman deftly goes about making the salad, combining the ingredients in her giant wooden mortar and pestle. In just a few minutes, I’m handed a plastic baggie, and it’s the best som tam I’ve ever had: sweet, salty, sour, and incredibly spicy. By lightly smashing the ingredients together, she was able to create a homogenous balance that danced and sang on our taste buds. Stand-out flavors include: the punch of citrus, crushed fresh garlic, earthy sweetness from the palm sugar, the satisfying stank of fish sauce, and fiery heat from the chilies.”
2. Roasted Chicken from SP Chicken, Chiang Mai
“These chickens are on the small side, so for two people, you should definitely order some side dishes or another main to complement your meal. The skin was crispy and chewy, smothered in garlic and shallots that had sweetened due to the long roasting time. There was also a faint hint of maybe fish sauce, maybe soy sauce, or perhaps a combination of both, as well as honey. Whatever it was braised and marinated in was done lightly, so you were able to actually taste the wonderfully cooked and succulent chicken. I’ve had my fair share of disappointingly dry chicken from other chicken shops, which made me appreciate what SP accomplished with their bird all the more: Simple, yet done right.”
3. Tom Kha Gai from the Whole Earth Restaurant, Chiang Mai
“The star of the show, the dish that blew my wife Jen and I away, was the tom kha gai, an aromatic coconut soup. My first reaction was a powerful one: This is the best tom kha gai I’ve ever had. Heck it’s one of the best things I’ve ever had, period! We chose a seafood version that contained pieces of shrimp, cuttlefish, squid, and chicken. There were also fresh pieces of snow-white bamboo that tasted wonderfully clean and crisp, as well as plump straw mushrooms that popped in your mouth. The soup was a delicious broth of galangal and lemongrass, with a light touch of coconut milk—not enough to make it thick, but giving it a slight heartiness and sweetness that blended with the requisite notes of sour and slow-burn heat that characterize tom kha gai. This soup was a wonderful, subtle symphony, rather than the rock concert that is most often associated with Thai food. I made a note in my iPhone about how brilliant it was, including how I thought it would be helpful for myself, and for my sous chefs. Ginger is to galangal as lime is to kaffir lime leaf. As the oft-quoted saying in Thailand goes: ‘Same, Same, but different.’”
4. Pad-Kee-Mao from Jay Fai, Bangkok
“As we watch, it is clear that the chef is a master of her craft, moving woks around gracefully in her makeshift kitchen, constantly maintaining the temperature of her burners, clear and concise in her movements. The only help she receives is from a few assistants setting up ingredients and pans in anticipation of her next move. Here in front of us is someone who has worked on their craft for nearly 40 years. I feel blessed and a little bit sad, knowing that this experience won’t last forever. Jen’s pad kee mao (drunken noodles) is smoky and vibrant, full of life from the wok. The noodles are pillowy soft with caramelized and crunchy edges, topped with giant river prawns, basil, a good kick of Thai chili and fish sauce, and clean and crunchy fresh water chestnuts. Jen declares confidently that these are the best noodles she has ever had, and I nod in silent agreement as we fork the noodles into our mouths.”
5. Yum Woon Sen from Ruen Mai, Krabi Town
“Yum woon sen is a spicy glass noodle salad with chopped chicken, shrimp, and squid seasoned with pickled shallot, Chinese celery, baby tomatoes and greens, cashews, fish sauce, and lime. Served warm, this was my favorite dish of the meal. The flavor was predominantly umami and sour—umami from the fish sauce and tangy from the citrus—followed by the faint and mellow sweetness of cane sugar. The fresh crunch of Chinese celery juxtaposed with the soft chew of glass noodles and the mealy chomp of cashews worked beautifully with the textural array and bounce of chicken, shrimp, and squid. The salty burst of ripe tomatoes combined with bitter greens and sweet vinegary shallots created a salad that was wonderfully comforting and refreshing.”
For more on the best food in Thailand and elsewhere, see A Foodie’s Guide to Asia.
Photo 1 by Maeve Nolan; 2 courtesy Kad Ton Payom Market; 3 courtesy Jay Fei