In northern Thailand, food gives a history lesson

Tue May 26, 2009 8:27am EDT
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By Chawadee Nualkhair

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters Life!) - If Thais are chili aficionados in the south, gourmands in the center, and food daredevils in the northeast, then those in the north, an area ruled for centuries by warring empires, are culinary mixologists.

One of the area's signature dishes -- a heady mix of meat, noodles and aromatic herbs, topped with cilantro, bean sprouts and deep-fried slivers of garlic -- encompasses everything distinctive about northern Thai cuisine.

Called "kanow jeen nam ngiew," and lazily referred to by non-northerners as "Northern noodles," the dish, like many others, is a complex fusion that tells a history of northern Thailand, ingredient by ingredient.

The fermented beans betray a hint of Chinese culinary influence, while the rice noodles come courtesy of the Mon, among the earliest tribes to settle in Thailand and Myanmar.

Sirichalerm Svasti, better known as Chef McDang, says the cuisine of the north was free to filch elements from neighboring China, Myanmar and India thanks to the distinct identity of the region once known as the Lanna, or a Million Rice Fields, Kingdom, which at its height included parts of Myanmar and Laos.

"Northern Thai cuisine developed on its own since the Lanna Kingdom did not become part of Siam (Thailand) until much later," said McDang, a well-known Thai television personality and author of scores of books on Thai cookery.

"The weather also plays an important role. Northern Thailand is cooler and mountainous," he said. "There has always been an abundant supply of food and raw materials to cook with. And because it is cooler than the southern part of the country, the diet has more fat. You need more fat to keep you warm."

That fat comes in the form of hunks of meat, rich with gelatinous flavor and stewed to the point of falling apart.   Continued...

<p>An Akha hill-tribesman arranges the meat of slaughtered cow during the celebration of a traditional ceremony in a remote Thai village north of Bangkok December 23, 2007. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang</p>