Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sour, sweet, salty, spicy

It takes me a while – and I must have walked by it at least twice – but I finally found Sailomyoy, a recommended hole-in-the-wall just inside the old city and the first of many food spots I frequented in Chiang Mai. On my first visit, I ordered the Chiang Mai noodles (how could I not?) and a spicy papaya salad, which was rumored to be the best in town.

The noodles came with a small tray of garnishes: pickled vegetables, chopped fresh shallots, a thick wedge of lime and a healthy pinch of crushed roasted red chilies – at last, I thought, the spice I've been looking for!

Indeed. Ramen-like, the noodles came swimming in a spicy rust-colored broth with hints of curry and coconut topped by a nest of crispy fried noodles. I sprinkled the garnishes over everything, got generous with the lime wedge and dug in. I devoured half the bowl, ignoring the pedestrian traffic less than five feet from my table, and my nose was beginning to run by the time my papaya salad – cool, crunchy, spicy and refreshing – arrived.

The salad was the perfect blend of not-to-sweet young papaya and fresh green hot peppers. Crushed peanuts, green beans and dried miniature shrimp rounded out the vinegar tang of the salad's dressing. And I couldn't help adding another sprinkle of the roasted chili flake, which may have proved to be a little over the top. As I stepped satiated into the street, my nose was in a full run and I was visibly sweating – all in all, one of my most successful lunches.

On my second and third returns to Sailomyoy, I again enjoyed the Chiang Mai noodles and also partook of the classic Pad Thai. The local version, which beats anything I've had back home, came with a handful of large shrimp and another tray of garnish: the ubiquitous roasted chilies, pickled hot peppers, spicy oil, brown sugar and the ever-present lime wedge. Sprinkled over the simple wok-fried noodles tossed with a bit of egg, the garnishes result in a blend of flavors that is intriguing and addictive (see title of this posting).

Among the other culinary delights I uncover in Chiang Mai?

At Aroon Rai – "The best curry in town" – a traditional northern Thai restaurant – "only one anywhere" – slow-cooked pork sautéed with tomatoes and chili paste served over simple sticky rice was perhaps my favorite meal in town. The dish was rich, tangy and slightly bitter, and reminded me more of a Moroccan stew than any concept I had of Thai food. Only composure and a regard for etiquette kept me from licking the bowl clean.

At Huang Luan Inn, a quiet two-story intimate spot with a slew of clocks hanging on the walls, a semi-spicy rich red Panaeng curry with shrimp, hearts of palm, sweet basil and wild lime leaves was well worth the scooter ride out of the old city. It was simple, but lived up to my every expectation of a thick Thai curry dish.

The Wok is a cooking school in the old city that doubles as a restaurant, its outside patio perfect for whiling away the afternoon. I started with a dish called Galloping Horses – minced prawns, pork and sausage cooked down with herb paste and smeared on slices of pineapple and orange – which was interesting but a bit too sweet for a starter (and too rich for desert). Then on to a spicy beef salad (more beef than salad), where strips of medium rare steak competed with thin slices of cucumber, strips of tomato, diced shallots, a salty vinegar dressing, a fistful of chopped mint and a chopped handful of these little green hot peppers I'm quickly falling in love with. It was easily the spiciest dish I've had in Thailand, and I leave with tears welling in my eyes.

At the Sunday night market, a sprawling affair that runs the length of the old city, I marveled at the food offerings on hand – tossed pan-fried noodles, fruit sorbets, more grilled somethings-on-a-stick, fresh fruits and vegetable – but full from dinner I finally settle on a slice of lemon cheese cake, which was more cake than cheese, more pudding than cake. Rich, light and lemony the cake – eaten on the patio of my guesthouse – disappeared in five grinning bites.

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