For a lot of fans of Thai food, it’s hard to imagine a world without coconut milk. But there are whole regions within Thailand that barely ever touch the stuff. Places, like in Northern Thailand, where some of the key flavors are numbing, Sichuan peppercorn-like spices, and curry pastes might be as simple as just garlic, shallots, and chilies pounded together.
Writer/photographer Austin Bush lived in Thailand for more than 20 years. For his new book, The Food of Northern Thailand – edited by Francis Lam – Austin visited restaurants, roadside stands, libraries, and people’s homes to collect recipes and stories. Austin also visited The Splendid Table, where he and Francis talked about what makes the food of Northern Thailand so unique. You must try his recipe for Khao Sen (Shan-Style Noodle Soup with Pork & Tomato).
Francis Lam: We worked on this book together, but I've realized I don't actually know how you got into Thai food in the first place.
Austin Bush: It was coincidence. Initially, I was more interested in language. I was studying Thai at the University of Oregon, and got a scholarship to study Thai at Chiang Mai University in Northern Thailand. To be honest, I found Thai food kind of weird. I hadn't really eaten it before, everything was new to me, and so, I was intrigued by that. It was exciting, but at the same time, it was a really good way for me to use my Thai, to order food, to ask people about things. Thai people are crazy about food, they’re very happy to talk about it, so it was the easiest way for me to improve my language skills.
FL: No kidding. So, you've lived in Thailand for 20 years now. You've traveled through many parts of the country, but especially in Northern Thailand. You've been to big cities, you've been to really small communities. What are some of the reactions that you get from people who presumably don't see a lot of tourists when this white dude starts showing up and asking them how to cook their food in Thai?
AB: Thai people are very proud of their food, and when someone who's taken the interest, taken the opportunity to learn about the food and especially the language, they're very impressed – people love it. Food is such an elemental, basic, fun, easy, accessible thing to talk about, so people are always very excited. Nowadays in Bangkok, I feel like there's a lot of foreigners who speak Thai, so I don't really stand out so much. But when I go to these villages in Northern Thailand, people are very excited and impressed.
FL: And when they share with you, what is it typically that they first share?
AB: About the food?
AB: It depends on what I'm looking for, but in the course of doing this book, I was astonished at how welcoming people were. It didn't take very much work from me to be allowed into people's homes, into their professional kitchens, into hawker stalls. I often didn't even have to ask twice.
FL: Let's talk about Northern Thai food. I think when most people think of Thai food – here in the United States, anyway – we think of certain flavors. We often will think of chilies, lime, fish sauce, coconut milk and different kinds of curries. But in the north, these are not necessarily the key flavors, right?
AB: I think one of the most outstanding characteristics of Northern Thai food is it's not that spicy. Northern Thai food doesn't have a whole lot of chilies. What it does have is a lot of umami. People love savory flavors, and so there’s MSG in everything. They like bitter flavors that can come from herbs, or from more challenging ingredients like gall bladder and bile, things like that. There are even meat dishes that are seasoned with undigested grass and bile. There's a bit more use of dried spice. In particular, there's one dried spice called makhwaen, and it's related to Sichuan pepper. I think it's called prickly ash in English; it has a numbing, almost evergreen sort of flavor, a little bit spicy, it gives you that pleasantly numbing sensation, and it's added to meat dishes.
FL: There are a lot of dishes in Northern Thai food. Certainly I'm not a student of it. I've never been there, but I've eaten it here in restaurants like Andy Ricker's restaurant Pok Pok; he serves a lot of Northern Thai dishes that are clearly delicious to someone who's not familiar with that palate, who also isn’t a student of it. So, tell me about some of the aspects of the cuisine that someone who's new to it might immediately be drawn to.
AB: There's one Northern Thai dish that I feel like every foreign visitor to Thailand falls in love with immediately, and it's a curry noodle soup khao soi. You have this mild coconut milk curry broth with chicken or beef and noodles. Oddly enough, they're not elements you don't see in too many other Northern Thai dishes, they're just in this one dish. But, it's so accessible, delicious, and easy that everybody loves it. Because the cuisine isn't super spicy, a lot of the dishes are accessible. There are a lot of soups that are savory and a little bit salty. The dishes aren't sweet at all. There's a lot of meat dishes and a lot of grilled dishes, which I think Americans would really enjoy.
FL: You had a whole thing in the book about the Northern Thai grill and the importance of the grill.
AB: I found that interesting in particular because, going around Northern Thailand, talking to older people in particular, especially in remote places, I learned that meat was scarce for these people when they were growing up. If you talk to someone who's 60 years old, several people told me they would only get meat once a year for some sort of Buddhist ceremony for which a buffalo or a pig would be slaughtered. But nowadays, some of the dishes we associate most with Northern Thai cooking are meaty: grilled pork, sour fermented pork, and a lot of larb, this salad of minced meat. They somehow have become emblematic of the cuisine. Northern-style larb has some dried spice in it, like the makhwaen that I was talking about earlier. It’s often savory, there's a little bit of chili but not much, and often, it's eaten raw. So, this is the dish where you get things like blood added to it, or bile – liquid from the gall bladder – to give it a bitter taste which Northern Thais really love.
FL: So, it's like a mineral-y and intense tartare kind of vibe?
AB: Exactly. And again, no sugar in this dish at all. Northern Thais will claim that raw buffalo or raw beef has an inherently sweet taste. I've had raw buffalo larb a couple of times, and it does have a pleasant, subtle sweetness that's very unique.
FL: There's one more seasoning that I was struck by. I love this image that you have in the book of driving through the region called Mae Hong Son Province, everywhere you go you said you would smell this aroma of toasted soybean cakes. It’s both a food and a seasoning, and has this unique role there. Tell me about those cakes.
AB: In Mae Hong Son, which is in the northwestern corner of Thailand, the people are predominantly Shan, which is an ethnic group related to the Thais, and they really love this ingredient called thua nao, which literally means ‘rotten beans.’ What they do is they take soybeans, boil them, mash it up into a really thick paste, and let it ferment. Then they're pressed into these discs that are dried in the sun. They can be kept for months and months. In the old days, people would grill those and crumble them over rice, and I think that's what a meal was 80 or 90 years ago. These days, you still find it a lot, but it's more of a seasoning. You'd grind it up with chili and make it into a dip, or it's used similar to the way that shrimp paste is used in central Thai cooking; you'd pound it up with different herbs and spices into a paste. There's some that are seasoned, so they'll add a bit of lemongrass and chili and probably salt, and those are the kind that are meant to be grilled and then crumbled over rice. I don’t think the standard one is salted; it's just plain. People toast them before they use them, and it's such a distinctive smell. It makes me think of that province every time I smell it. If you drive around in Mae Hong Son in the evening or in the morning, you'll definitely smell it. It's still a very fundamental part of people's cuisine there.
FL: You brought up the Shan people. They are an ethnic group that you said are related to the Thai. I’m here thinking that Thailand is full of Thai people. And yes, they are all Thai in that they are all in Thailand, but there are many people who ethnically do not identify as Thai. They are of these different ethnicities, different tribes, different groups, and you write a lot about these different groups through the regions of Northern Thailand. Tell me a little bit about them and how that's created this unique cuisine of all these different influences.
AB: Northern Thailand is multicultural. Most people think of the hill tribes, which are different groups that came to Northern Thailand about 100 years ago and settled in these mountainous areas. Not much has been written about their food. But, I have a hill tribe buddy and he took me to his village. He's Akha. His family grows coffee in Chiang Mai province. I stayed with him and his mom for a couple of days, and his mom makes amazing food. Paradoxically, they're some of the simplest recipes in the book. Traditionally, these people didn't have a lot of access to fancy ingredients. So, there's a dish of small cherry tomatoes grilled over coals and then mashed up with garlic and garlic chive. It's like a salsa or a dip for sticky rice. His mom made this other dish that's so good. It's kind of like meatloaf, I guess, or like larb in that it’s fatty pork minced up with a bunch of herbs including garlic chives. Then you wrap it in banana leaves and grill it, and it comes out like this spicy herbal meatloaf. It's really amazing.
There are other groups that are more closely related to the Thai people and speak Thai-related languages – like the Shan. Or there's a group called the Tai Lü, and I was able to spend a little bit of time in some Tai Lü villages and get their recipes as well. There's also a relatively big Chinese population in Northern Thailand, some of whom are Muslims who used to run these trading routes across mainland Southeast Asia – from Myanmar and China to the coast – where they would bring things from China, get salt and then bring that salt back to China. So, you find these little enclaves of Chinese people, Chinese Muslims. More recently, after China was taken over by the Communists in 1949, a lot of people fled across the borders. They were resistance fighters, the KMT fighters who held out in these little villages in Northern Thailand; they still speak Yunnanese dialects and still eat very Chinese dishes. I thought that was fascinating, so I included some of those recipes as well.
FL: We so often think of the world as being nations, countries, these political boundaries, but the ethnic groups ebb and flow from one country to the other with so much fluidity. When you start to travel and talk to people and find their stories and their heritages, you realize everywhere you go in the world is way more complicated and complex than it might seem just by looking at a map. It’s been a pleasure talking with you again, Austin.
AB: Thanks so much, Francis.
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