Top 10 must-try northern Thai dishes

CHIANGMAI, THAILAND- APRIL 25 : Poy-Sang-Long ordination, Traditional annual ceremony of unidentified boys to become novice monk in Piang Luang Temple on April 24, 2013 in Chiangmai, Thailand.
Novice monks eat the local cuisine at the Piang Luang Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand © Sathitanont N / Shutterstock

Think you know Thai food? Think again. Thailand's cuisine takes a different form every time it crosses a provincial border, and the dishes of Thailand's northern provinces are no exception.

Northern Thai food is a world away from the dishes you’ve probably encountered at your local Thai restaurant at home – or even in Bangkok. The food of the north is indicative of the region's seasonal and relatively cool climate, not to mention a love for pork, veggies and all things deep-fried.

Best of Northern Thai cuisine
Traditionally, the residents of Thailand's north ate almost exclusively kôw nĕe•o, sticky rice, known in the local dialect as kôw nêung. Unlike in Bangkok and southern Thailand, coconut milk rarely makes its way into the northern kitchen, and northern Thai cuisine is probably the most seasonal and least spicy of Thailand's regional schools of cooking, often relying on bitter or other dried spice flavors.
 

Paradoxically (and unfortunately), it can be quite difficult to find authentic local food in northern Thailand. Outside of Chiang Mai and the other large cities in the region, there are relatively few restaurants serving northern-style dishes, and the vast majority of authentic local food is sold from stalls in “to go” bags. 

However, if you manage to come across a restaurant serving northern-style food, these are the 10 top dishes worth trying.

Gaang hang•lair as served at a restaurant in Mae Hong Son. Image by Austin Bush
Gaang hang-lair as served at a restaurant in Mae Hong Son, Thailand © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Gaang hang-lair is a mild pork belly curry

Burmese in origin (hang is a corruption of the Burmese hin, meaning curry), this curry, which unites fatty pork belly, a mild spice mixture, and ginger and garlic, is a regular at festivals and ceremonies – and restaurants – in northern Thailand. Try a bowl at Tong Tem Toh, in Chiang Mai.

Gŏo•ay đĕe•o sù•kǒh•tai as served in Sukhothai, Thailand. Image by Austin Bush
Gŏo-ay đĕe-o sù-kǒh-tai as served in Sukhothai © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Gŏo-ay đĕe-o sù-kǒh-tai is a sweet pork and noodle broth

Sukhothai’s signature dish combines noodles, a slightly sweet broth, pork, par-boiled long beans and bean sprouts, and garnishes of ground peanuts and thinly sliced fresh herbs. Compare and contrast bowls at neighbouring noodle shacks Jayhae and Ta Pui, in Sukhothai.

Jîn đúp as served at Muu Thup, a northern Thai restaurant in Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, Thailand. Image by Austin Bush
Jîn đúp as served at Muu Thup, a northern Thai restaurant in Mae Sariang © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Jîn đúp is tender, marinated beef

Take a tough, grainy cut of beef, marinate it, grill it, then thwack it with a sledgehammer until tender and you have jîn đúp, one of the more distinct – and delicious – dishes in the northern Thai culinary repertoire. Sample this hard-to-find specialty at Muu Thup, in Mae Sariang.

Kôw gân jîn as served at a restaurant in northern Thailand. Image by Austin Bush
Kôw gân jîn as served at a restaurant in northern Thailand © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Kôw gân jîn is minced pork and rice steamed in a banana leaf 

An intimidating, yet popular (and delicious) snack in Mae Hong Son, this traditional dish consists of rice mixed with blood and minced pork, steamed in a banana leaf package and served with a generous drizzle of garlic oil. Try it at Mae Hong Son’s vibrant morning market.

Beef kôw soy at Suthatsinee Kitchen, Chiang Mai. Image by Austin Bush
Beef kôw soy at Suthatsinee Kitchen in Chiang Mai © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Kôw soy is a fragrant noodle curry broth

Kôw soy, arguably the most famous northern Thai dish, combines wheat-and-egg noodles and a rich, fragrant curry broth. The dish is closely linked to Chiang Mai, and was probably introduced to northern Thailand by traveling Chinese merchants. Supplement your noodles with chunks of pickled vegetables and slices of shallot, and season the dish with a squeeze of lime and ground chilies fried in oil. Chiang Mai legend Khao Soi Lam Duan Fah Ham does one of the city’s most lauded bowls.

Kà•nŏm jeen nám ngée•o as served at a stall in northern Thailand. Image by Austin Bush
Kà-nŏm jeen nám ngée-o as served at a stall in northern Thailand © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Kà-nŏm jeen nám ngée-o is pork and tomato, rice noodle broth

Available across northern Thailand is this dish of fresh rice noodles topped with a tart, savory pork-and tomato-based broth – northern Thai bolognese, if you will. Grab a bowl from the street stalls just outside Chiang Mai’s busy Talat Tom Lam Yai.

Lâhp kôo•a as served at a restaurant in northern Thailand. Image by Austin Bush
Lâhp kôo-a as served at a restaurant in northern Thailand © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Lâhp kôo-a is a minced meat salad

This traditional northern Thai dish takes the famous Thai minced meat “salad” sometimes known as larb (or larp or laap) and fries it with a  mixture of dried spices. Try the dish at charmingly rustic Larp Khom Huay Poo, in Pai.

Nám prík nùm as served at a restaurant in northern Thailand. Image by Austin Bush
Nám prík nùm as served at a restaurant in northern Thailand © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Nám prík nùm is a spicy sticky rice dish with pork crackling

This dish revolves around long green chilies, shallots and garlic that are grilled until tender and fragrant, then mashed into a stringy and spicy paste. Served with sticky rice, parboiled veggies and deep-fried pork crackling, it’s one of the most beloved dishes in northern Thailand. Try the version at the semi open-air Huean Jai Yong, in Chiang Mai.

A dish of nám prík òrng as served at an open-air restaurant in Lampang. Image by Austin Bush
A dish of nám prík òrng as served at an open-air restaurant in Lampang © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Nám prík òrng is a chili dip

Another legendary northern Thai nám prík, or chili dip, this dish revolves around tomatoes and minced pork, simmered until savory, rich and spicy. Like other northern Thai-style dips, it’s eaten with sticky rice, vegetables and herbs, and, of course, deep-fried pork crackling. Try the dish at Chiang Mai staple Huen Phen.

Sâi òo•a as served at a restaurant in Chiang Rai. Image by Austin Bush
Sâi òo•a as served at a restaurant in Chiang Rai © Austin Bush / Lonely Planet

Sâi òo•a is grilled sausage

This grilled pork sausage, seasoned with copious fresh herbs, may have you reconsidering your beloved Bratwurst or your cherished Cumberland. A unique version is available at Mae Hae, a longstanding restaurant in Lampang.

This article was first published on June 25, 2015 and updated on January 3, 2022

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