Thai food is famous globally, but most menus around the world revolve around dishes such as Pad Thai or Chicken Cashew Nut, channeling flavours more ubiquitous to the South. Northern Thai food – also known as Lanna – is a separate cuisine in itself, developing over generations of influence from neighbouring countries including Burma, Laos, and China.
Find the most authentic versions of these Lanna favourites among Chiang Mai’s long-established food stall culture.
A curry noodle dish, Khao Soi is one of Chiang Mai’s adoptive specialities originally hailing from Myanmar and Laos. Khao Soi’s wet curry paste is derived from locally sourced roots, rhizomes, seeds, spices, and herbs, then slow-cooked with chicken and hand-cut egg noodles – at least in the traditional versions – and topped with a healthy dose of crunchy noodles.
This long-established Chiang Mai staple, often referred to by its English name ‘Grandma’s Khao Soi’, serves its tasty version of the famous soup from a simple cart operation. Sat between two temples, Wat Rajmontean and Wat Khuan Khama, for the past 15 years, it’s best to arrive early as portions frequently sell out before 1pm.
The canteen-style restaurant is located in a heavily Muslim neighbourhood near the famous Night Bazaar, and adds this local cultural flair to its Burmese-styled, thick-broth soup. While their khao soi is a main attraction, locals swear by this stall’s Thai-Muslim fare like its goat biryani, or khao mok.
This classic Chiang Mai street snack is a Thai sausage infused with local spices and herbs lincluding lemongrass, kaffir lime, and galangal, paired with Thailand’s trademark red chili paste. Widely available throughout the city, the taste and texture of one stall’s sai ua can vary greatly to the next.
Located in the popular Ton Payom Market across the road from Chiang Mai University, this famous vendor sells the decadent snack by weight and is known to make sai ua that is less fatty and heavier on herbs.
This long-established restaurant has been serving northern Thai cuisine for over 40 years, basing its dishes on secret recipes passed down through the family. Arranged as an open-style canteen kitchen, it’s got the range of Lanna bucket list items like sai ua, khao soi, and tons of traditional curries.
Suki is a Thai variation of hot pot, a communal dish common in Chinese and Japanese cuisine of meat, seafood, noodles, and vegetables dipped into a shared pot of broth cooking tableside. Chinese restaurants have served Thailand’s sizable Chinese population for years, and the Northern region introduced Thai-style variations over time. The resultant suki is uniquely Thai in taste, waving in features such as chili, lime, coriander, and spicy dipping sauce.
This popular stall sets up each evening near the Old City’s North Gate, with freshly sourced and ingredients like chicken, pork, or seafood available in either dry or wet versions – suki haeng, or suki nam, respectively. The dipping sauce recipe is unique to this stall as well, made from a tomato base with sesame oil and a bit of spice.
Translated directly kai yang means ‘grilled chicken’, but the variations of this classic, savory Isaan staple are often unique to an individual vendor based on the specific marinade and trimmings. The dish originated in Laos and in its most traditional form is cooked in fish sauce, garlic, turmeric, coriander, and white pepper, but some chefs prepare it according to more regional recipes, including lemongrass, ginger, black soy sauce, or hoisin sauce.
A local favourite made famous by food bloggers worldwide, SP Chicken specialises in its eponymous namesake served up in any style imaginable. Most visitors keep it simple and go after the charcoal-cooked rotisserie chicken, or kai yang, available in a variety of portion sizes and with several options of dipping sauces to boot.
Pungent and smoky, this mincemeat salad – often made of duck, chicken, or even liver – originally hails from Laos before appearing on the streets of Northern Thailand. It’s thought the dish was originally brought during the migration of the Hmong people, a Laotian ethnic minority group that settled in Northeastern Thailand in the 19th century. Today it’s usually served as part of a set with papaya salad and sticky rice.
This shop’s humble menu indicates the attention that goes into crafting each dish, prepared from authentic yet evolved recipes handed down through generations. Its laab khua is a Lanna version of the Laotian speciality, peppery and punchy by the addition of offal, or pig organs.
This humble-sounding dish of pork leg over rice is anything but simple. Street stalls countrywide have laid claim to perfecting the dish, promising complex flavours, perfectly tender meat, and fragrant rice. Whether you’re craving a smokier taste or juicier texture, this is one Thai street speciality that is not hard to find.
This stall near the Old City’s North Gate is run by one of the city’s most locally-loved chefs. Known as the ‘cowboy hat lady’, this stall’s chef has become a sort of regional celebrity through her succulent portions of stewed pork leg over rice – even Anthony Bourdain was drawn in during his visit to the Northern city.
Beloved by Thais nationwide, this fermented noodle dish is surprisingly hard to come by because of its difficult preparation. The fermentation of the noodles gives this curry-like dish a sweet and sour punch, and In Northern Thailand, the most popular version is nam ngiaw, or a thin gravy-like broth cooked in dok ngiaw flowers and a splash of pig’s blood.
A prized establishment is locally famous for its khao soi, but it’s also one of the few places that locals turn to for a bowl of the ever-evasive khanom jeen. Located just north of the Ratanakosin Bridge, the kitchen is hidden among a number of khao soi-devoted restaurants, but its 20 years of operation elevate its quality far above the rest of the bunch.
Just across the road from Chiang Mai’s Mahawan Temple sits this tiny storefront that has been cooking away for more than ten years. The menu is small, focused on its highly specialized dish crafted with care and consistency, kanom jeen nam ngiaw. The owner’s savory and spicy dish is uniquely crafted with powdered toasted chilis and bits of basil leaf, and smoky blood cakes popping with flavour.
Whereas Pad Thai may be responsible for popularizing Thai cuisine around the world, locally Thais swear by its cousin, the crispy pancake. Stuffed with oysters, other seafood, or choice of meat, khai jiao is then deep-fried and served over sticky rice.
This humble street stall is otherwise nondescript, but for the regular crowds its signature Lanna cuisine hails. Family-run for years, patrons eagerly line up to wolf down their pad see ew, tom yum soup, and its near-famous crispy khai jiao – fried oyster omelets.
This spicy and sour soup is a cousin to the popular Tom Yum, but with Laotian influence tossed into the recipe. Coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass, Thai chili, mushrooms, fish sauce, and lime juice are combined to cook with chicken or duck, creating a fragrant but light dish.
Run by a mother-daughter duo, this quaint restaurant has a homey atmosphere with the comfort food to match. Serving a wide menu of Thai classics such as chicken cashew nut and Massaman curry, the pair also whip up some excellent Northern specialties including khao soi and an intensely flavourful tom kha kai.
Chiang Mai’s longtime international community has greatly influenced Northern Thai cuisine for generations, combining flavours from many neighboring countries like China, Myanmar, and Laos. The best beef noodle soups in the region have done just that – taking the classic boat noodles traditional to canal-based regions and adding international flair.
Nowhere in Chiang Mai will you experience the savoury yet spicy flavours like RodYiam’s beef noodle speciality. Diners choose from different kinds of noodles and their preference of meat, these staples then buoyed by the shop’s signature broth.
This Thai-style rice porridge is a classic staple to many local diets. Commonly served for breakfast, it’s a savory blend of cooked rice with garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and meats like pork, chicken, or fish. Reportedly the dish is also an instant cure to stomach ailments including hangovers.
This 24-hour local haunt serves up its breakfast staple at all hours, packed with green onions, shredded ginger, and crispy rice noodles to complement a choice of chicken, pork balls, shrimp, or seafood. Also on the menu are comfort food favourites like dim sum and pork fried rice.
This traditional Thai dessert is made from coconut, egg, and rice flour batter fried on a hot skillet to create a chewy and sweet dumpling dessert. It can be eaten plain, or served with a variety of toppings like corn, sweet potato, or chives.
This humble dessert stall serves up all things sweet to passerbys scouting the food bazaar near the Old City’s Wat Phra Singh. Fill up on its pillowy and hard-to-find kanom kroke after touring the nearby stalls wafting in aromas of khao soi and other Northern Thai specialities of the area.