We’ve finally recovered. Battling through self doubt, harsh acceptance and crippling restraint there emerges now light peeking through a dark cloud so full of trials, an uplifting wash of euphoria at the achievement that always seemed to distant. We’ve finally broken free of our eating disorder, the Lao food eating disorder that compelled us to eat continuously so far from control of our own actions. We’re on a bus again now heading to Chiang Mai with an odd vacancy left behind by the eating disorder that was so comforting but now lies the other side of a national border; this world seems so cruel and devoid of comfort without our trusted therapy. People say it’ll be good for us, we don’t need it but bah to that we say; why let our access to happiness just wilt away without a fight? Eating disorder Thailand we want to be your friend.
For anyone living in Sydney the crowded food market of affordable, tasty quick food has a few heavy hitters and most of them are from this part of the world. Be it a 3am Indian chicken tikka wrapped in a naan bread, lunchtime Vietnamese pho or sushi with those little soy fish that you always need one more of there’s a million options but for so many the one we live on, live by and couldn’t live without is Thai. When asked by other travellers ‘what’s Australian food?’ I’ve been tempted to reply that it’s Thai, such is it’s abundance and our reliance upon it. But that is at home, we’re not eating an exotic take-away that doesn’t seem exotic at all anymore; Thai has gone local. We’ve all noted when the wrong basil goes into a green curry or the satay is too light on for fish sauce and don’t get me started on button mushrooms in a pad see eew; but what if we’ve had it wrong all this time, what if we’re the inauthentic food equivalent of the crocodile hunter, culinary Steve Irwins?
On this note ladies and gentlemen let the great Thai eating disorder bring order to the eating, dispel myths and forge legends; it’s time to get to the bottom of it once and for all. Thai is a diverse cuisine but there’s a bunch of dishes we all know, no self respecting Sydney-sider needs a Thai menu when our staples are more familiar to us than chiko rolls and hamburgers. So lets allow the next two weeks to put a line through ten of our favourites or place them even more firmly onto their podiums of greatness. There’s five curries that we all know: green, red, yellow, massamun and penang, they’re a no brainer. The noodle family consists pad thai and pad see eew while the remaining three places in our ten must-try dishes goes to the ever faithful chicken satay, fish cakes and that little rocket of a gem, tom yum soup.
Never ones to shirk a challenge, our first venture out in Chiang Rai launched us into the hard road ahead, we feel like Maeve O’meara [the souless scarecrow on the TV show “Food Safari”: I want her job] without the blank expressions and monotone whine. Green and red curries are consumed but in the touristy western bar it’s hard to feel like the very sweet and un-spicy variations are the real deal; delicious but the list of lists remains blank of notes. The tom yum however; we have a winner ladies and gentlemen. Spicy, sour, sweet and salty are the four pillars of Thai food and the tom yum has it all injected with steroids like the Lance Armstrong of soups powering to victory down the Champs Elysees. Most encouragingly it wasn’t a huge leap from what we’d call a great tom yum at home; when I’m feeling a bit sad I know that I no longer need four litres of ice cream and a re-run of Steel Magnolias, there’s always tom yum.
Intrusively the bus pulls up at the Chiang Mai bus station rudely interrupting my shameful fantasy of bathing in a bathtub of tom yum with Benn Robinson and Cian Healy and just one big straw between us; totally normal right? Chiang Rai seemed on first impressions to be all western food, massage parlours and cheesy bars but Chiang Mai seems a different kettle of fish: historical, pulsing and while being a bit touristy it’s far from lost its first impression credits. Surrounded by a 13th century moat and remnants of what was once a great city wall Chiang Mai settles into a neat city square of temples, food stalls, cafes, bars and temples. There’s a temple on almost every corner and beautiful gardens pop up randomly in this very urban environment; usually with a temple. There’s heaps of temples to see too.
With elegant arching roofs adorned with audacious detail peeking above the cobbled together city skyline in every possible available space, Chiang Mai carries a long standing tourist story into bustling tight streets, buddhist serenity and wild nightlife without ever giving up what it is to be Thai. First impressions can be deceiving sometimes but I hope so much that this isn’t one of those times. On a market stroll with the two English guys we met in Laos, Nick and Ali, the sounds, bustle, smells and flavours of this city rage forward in all the clustered calamity we could hope for from a modern bustling Thai city. Just like the food it’s hot, spicy, inviting and not attempting to be anything but what it is.
Scoffing down a chicken soup, some strange flat noodle thing and a few little ridiculously fatty pork sausages on a stick; who doesn’t like meat on a stick, we’re back on the eating highway to emotional stability. This first day in Chiang Mai hasn’t ticked a huge number of the initial food boxes we had an eye on but it feels now like our list should be more like twenty dishes rather than ten. Regardless of the dishes though there’s one food question I must answer; how hot is hot in this land famous for spicy food. I order a papaya salad and ask for it to be Thai hot; whatever that means: I can unequivocally confirm that hot means hot. It’s hotter than I like, leaving me tasting chilli and little else but I’m relieved to find that I can eat it with just a good old fashioned sting on the lips and sweat on the brow. I wonder how Benn and Cian would look splashing around in an inflatable kiddie pool of papaya salad with dinosaur flotation tubes around their waists? Ahem, moving on.
I was unsure if we’ve enjoyed spicy Thai food at home all this time only to find out we are the ones bastardising a great cultural asset to pen it into our closed fearful world. I can’t say that we’re truly at Thai levels of heat but so far that great culinary security blanket for us all at home remains an answer to sadness and insecurity still; Sydney Thai seems to be pretty true. In Chiang Mai we’re looking hungrily forward to the deepest hole of self doubt we can find and eating our way out of it by the spicy bowlful. Being upset never tasted this good.