We were lucky enough to visit Chiang Mai on a Sunday, and unaware of the market that fills the old city's streets on that evening, we were surprised to find it sprouting beneath our feet as we went out for a late afternoon walk. Streets closed and slowly filled with squat tables spread with goods, while rows of massage chairs and musicians appeared at every corner. Next came the people, a steady stream until, by the time it was dark, it was too crowded to move any faster than a shuffle. As a result, I hardly can say what Chiang Mai looked like aside from the back of other people's heads, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.
And with a market comes food. Every temple courtyard, and Chiang Mai has many temples, was lined with stalls selling noodles, curries and other dishes, and scattered on the streets were vendors with candy, ice cream, snacks, and even fried insects. A wide variety of insects in fact, from little worms and grubs to gigantic grasshoppers. Well, you can guess, I am sure... I had to try them.
The little bamboo worms were crisp nothings, flossy and ephemeral and tasting mainly of the salt they were seasoned with. The variety of little crickets and grasshoppers consisted entirely of crunch, and their taste varied from nutty to mushroomy, with some of the larger grasshoppers even tasting like fresh grass. Little grubs were on the mushy side, but surprisingly not in a gross way - sort of like soft, savory jelly beans. This big guy was the blandest of the bunch, mildly nutty, and a little too much chewing, actually - the crispness of insects isn't like that of a cracker or chip, because they never soften: they just keep breaking under your teeth until you chew them into bits too small to crunch. This sensation is enjoyable on a small scale, but once you have your entire mouth full of bug, it's a lot of work to get it all down to a swallowable consistency!
Bugs weren't the only thing on offer, though. We also enjoyed gummy candy in mild flavors of sesame, coconut, tamarind, strawberry and coffee, soda popsicles made in a giant vat of ice, little fruit-shape candies of bland paste coated in colored gell, unidentified deep fried bits, thai-tea-flavored ice cream, sticky rice with taro, and crisp tuille cookies.
From Chiang Mai we took a bus up into the hills to Pai, along a road winding and woozy enough to make me grateful for every time our driver veered into the opposite lane to straighten a curve. Backpackers are lured to Pai by the promise of trekking through the wilds to hill tribe villages, but they stay there because of the long, lazy afternoons in hammocks and the longer nights around bonfires at outdoor bars.
Naturally Pai has its share of cooking courses, along with classes in Thai massage and astral projection. Greg decided to join me this time, and we picked a class called Let's Wok with Tee. Tee turned out to be a very chill and approachable fellow, and the day was a lot more like hanging out and cooking with your friends than a class - although we both learned plenty! We each got to pick three dishes to make, but we talked about, and got recipes for, a lot more than that, so I feel like I really have a solid foundation in Thai curries and stir-fries now, even though it seemed like we spent most of our time chatting. In fact, we had so much fun with Tee and his dog, Ginger, that we made a circuit of all those laid-back bonfire bars together after finishing our delicious six-course dinner. The next morning we did eventually make it out to do some sightseeing, but we had to follow Tee's favorite piece of advice: "Easy! Easy! Take a break!"
Two of my favorite Thai dishes were everywhere in both Chiang Mai and Pai. One is an old favorite: khao soi, a rich and slightly sweet chicken curry over noodles, usually with crisp fried noodles and other toppings. (In the first version below, the chef had run out of the fried noodles to put on top.) Another is a new favorite: sour sausage. This is a pork sausage that is very literally sour, varying from a hint of acid to a full on puckers-worth. We saw it mostly in salads, with green and white onions, chilis, sometimes with eggs or peanuts, sometimes hot, sometimes cold. The sausage is soured by fermentation, but more than that I do not know... hopefully I can track down a recipe when I get home.