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.
At popular eatery Nam Ngiew Pa Suk in Chiang Rai, where “Northern noodles” reign supreme, bowls of the garnet-colored dish, in pork or beef versions and with a gravy so unctuous it’s almost solid, go for 35 baht ($1) apiece.
But northern Thai food is not only about keeping warm.
Like all Thai cuisine, it centers around rice, but the glutinous kind, served in wicker baskets to preserve its stickiness and accompanied by nam prik (pepper dip), gaeng (curry) and some sort of meat, deep-fried or in sausage form.
Northern Thailand is also known for a fearless attitude toward herbs and flowers: check out the spiny, broomstick-like ngiew blossom that lends “Northern noodles” their Thai name.
A shortage of coconut milk and seafood, common to the cuisines of other parts of the country, means an emphasis on richer flavors and much less fiery spices.
Unlike Thais, who flavor their curries and soups with fish sauce and kapi, or shrimp paste, the Chinese immigrants who came to the north in the 18th century brought with them a penchant for soy sauce and ginger, and a fondness for rotten beans.
“In traditional Thai cuisine, we use lots of shrimp paste, but traditional northern cuisine does not use very much,” said McDang. “They rely on fermented bean cakes -- very Chinese.”
Northern food could also at times be called very Burmese.
A popular dish is khao gan jin, or rice wrapped in banana leaves cooked in pork blood, and imported from Myanmar, which ruled over parts of northern Thailand for 200 years.
But the heritage of what may be considered northern Thailand’s most famous dish remains shrouded in doubt.
The former Burma may or may not have contributed to khao soy -- fresh egg noodles adrift in a thick coconut milk curry and garnished with deep-fried noodles, fresh shallots and pickled cabbage to cut the dish’s greasiness.
But most people agree the dish reflects the “melting pot” that is the north’s Chinese, Indian and Malay Muslim populations.
Editing by Miral Fahmy