January 31, 2012

Eating My Way Through Thailand

Hello again and Happy New Year!

I apologize for being MIA through most of January. I've been so excited to write about my recent trip to Thailand! But then there was the jet lag, the laundry, an awful cold...you get the idea.

Anyway, Thailand was amazing! We travelled to three very different parts of the country: the beautiful island of Koh Samui, the peaceful city of Chiang Mai in the northern part of the country, and then the bustling metropolis of Bangkok.

Koh Samui
We started our trip on beautiful Koh Samui, where my brother-in-law got married in a lovely sunset ceremony framed by palm trees, overlooking a sandy beach and deep blue water.

Our very first night on the island we were treated to a feast at a clifftop restaurant. It featured an intensely fragrant tom kha gai (chicken coconut soup), fried shrimp patties served with a sweet chili sauce, fried fish topped with toasted chilies and garlic, and a fiery green curry with chicken.

Thai fish curry
We made sure to take advantage of the fresh seafood while we were on the island. My son ate fried rice topped with sweet, fresh crabmeat for almost every meal. And I enjoyed the fat tiger prawns served on top of pad thai, succulent river prawns served straight off the grill, and tender fish fried in a coconut crust. We tried a fish curry that had a lot in common with the Indian fish curry I'm used to, loaded with coconut milk and turmeric and served on top of fresh rice noodles. My husband fell in love with larb moo, a dish of minced pork sprinkled with lime juice, shallots, mint leaves, and lots of fiery chilies. 

Our next destination was Chiang Mai, nestled in the mountains of northern Thailand. We visited a beautiful temple high above the city. And we took an elephant ride at Maesa Elephant Park, one of the highlights of the trip for all of us. We also got to feed the elephants (they like bananas and sugar cane).

The Mandarin Oriental's khao soi
Khao soi prepared for us by a home cook
The culinary highlight of Chiang Mai was khao soi, a regional specialty. It's a dish that's influenced by Burmese cuisine (Burma is Thailand's western neighbor). The dish is a coconut milk-based yellow curry served over soft egg noodles and topped with crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, lime juice, ground chilies and chopped shallots. If I had to describe it in one word it would have to be "addictive". Khao soi gets a lot of hype in the guidebooks and it is definitely justified! 

A selection of Chiang Mai specialties

We also tried other Chiang Mai specialties including naem, a spicy pork sausage made with red curry and lots of herbs; kaeb moo, or fried pork rinds; and a spicy sour beef and noodle stew. 

One of our most memorable meals was at the Mandarin Oriental in Chiang Mai. Not only were all the dishes delicious, the presentation was outstanding. We went in a large group, so we got to sample lots of different dishes, from tiger prawns in red curry, to penang shrimp curry served in a pineapple, to a spicy beef noodle soup, and a particularly rich version of khao soi.

Tiger prawns in red curry

Penang shrimp curry served in a pineapple
Spicy and sour beef noodle soup
Dessert soup of fruit, coconut milk, and pearl tapioca

Mango with sticky rice

But it was the mango with sticky rice dessert that I still can't get out of my mind. Not only was there a beautiful red sticky rice stewed in coconut milk and topped with roasted mung beans served alongside fresh sweet mango, but they went and gilded the lily with a small pot of coconut cream to sprinkle over the entire thing. Heaven!

Bangkok was a different experience altogether. Parts of it were a cross between Vegas and New York City, complete with luxurious hotels, enormous, high-end shopping malls and the incredibly efficient Skytrain. 

Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Then there were the more traditional areas of the city, where we experienced the traditional markets and Chao Phraya river taxis. We visited the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the reclining Buddha.

Reclining Buddha

Fish and chips!

By this point we had our favorite Thai 
dishes and were ordering a lot of what we'd already tasted. Of course, we still had a few surprises in store for us. My son ordered fish and chips one day and found this toothy fish staring back at him!

The one thing I never worked up the nerve to eat was the fried insects. Yes, there were plenty of them available, particularly at the street markets. Oh well, maybe next time. 

Insect buffet

And there definitely will be a next time!