American photographer and travel writer, Austin Bush, has been based in Bangkok for years, so you might assume that his first cookbook would delve into the curries and pad thais of the capital and central Thailand. Instead, Bush hit the road for research, traveling through the mountainous northern provinces and learning to make local specialties from the chefs, street food vendors, and home cooks he met along the way. The result: a highly regional study of The Food of Northern Thailand that we can’t wait to cook from.
Northern Thailand is largely sandwiched between Laos and Myanmar, and the influence of these neighboring countries is evident in the food. Bush describes the local cuisine as “rustic and earthy, meaty and fragrant; one with roots in the Thai repertoire, but with branches that extend beyond the country’s border.”
20 years ago, it would have been next to impossible to execute most of the recipes in this book in the average Western kitchen. Fortunately, the migration of Southeast Asian communities throughout the U.S. has led to the increased availability of Thai produce. Galangal and lemongrass can be found at many Whole Foods these days, and yu choy and tiny Thai eggplants are popping up at more American farmers’ markets every year. Folks who still don’t have a nearby source for fresh Thai produce can shop online at ImportFoods Thai Supermarket, which ships everything from betel leaves to kaffir limes nationally.
The Food of Northern Thailand will undoubtedly open up a rich and interesting cuisine to home cooks. Invest in a few of the pantry items and kitchen tools below, and you’ll be well on your way to recreating Bush’s inspired recipes in your own kitchen.
We are featuring The Food of Northern Thailand this month in the SAVEUR Cookbook Club; if you’re interested in joining the group and cooking along at home, please join the club’s Facebook Group.
Northern Thai Starter Kit
Bush acknowledges that northern Thai cooks rarely use measuring cups or written recipes, instead relying on their senses and memories to replicate traditional dishes. But for those of us still learning to work with Thai ingredients, the book helpfully provides gram and ounce measurements. If you haven’t already, pick up a digital kitchen scale. OXO
While fish sauce features more prominently in central and southern Thai cooking, it is also used in the north, most often as an umami-rich finishing sauce for dishes already seasoned with salt, shrimp paste, or plaa raa, a much funkier fermented fish sauce made from salted freshwater fish. Look for versions made in Thailand and choose the most expensive brand you can find, which, Bush says, “typically will still be a bargain.’ Thomas Payne
This potent shrimp paste is widely used in soups, meats, and salads, such as the popular tam khanun, a delicious savory dish that calls for pounding young jackfruit with aromatics and pork. A little of this heavily salted condiment goes a long way, and a jar will last pretty much indefinitely in the fridge. Trachang Brand
While many southern and central Thai dishes start with complex curry pastes, most northern Thai recipes begin with a simple mixture of chiles, shrimp paste, shallots, and garlic. The ingredients—either fresh or grilled—are traditionally pounded to a fine paste in a heavy granite mortar and pestle. For the smoothest, most emulsified pastes, Bush advises that you start with dry ingredients like salt and dried chiles before progressively incorporating wetter ingredients that have more moisture (fresh chiles, shallots, and garlic). Shrimp paste is pounded in last, to taste. Matt Taylor-Gross
Wok and Wok Spatula
For stir-fried northern Thai dishes, a nimble, lightweight Mandarin-style steel wok is a handy tool, while for saucier or deep-fried dishes like khaang pawng or khao muun khuay, a heavier, Cantonese-style version with two shorter handles is preferred. Jessica Humphrey, Brooks PR
Sticky rice (also known as glutinous rice) is the preferred starch in northern Thailand. When soaked and cooked in a Thai-style rice steamer, the short, opaque grains take on a dense, chewy—and true to its name—very sticky texture. The rice is then rolled into bite-sized balls at the table and dipped into saucy dishes or nam phriks before eating. Three Ring
Thai rice steamers are a bit of a space commitment for most kitchens; however, they are lightweight and affordable, and they make consistently excellent sticky rice. Most types of rice are cooked by boiling, whereas sticky rice is soaked for several hours, then steamed in a conical bamboo basket (huat), which is nestled into a potbellied aluminum kettle (maw nueng) of simmering water. The simple method and addictive result will inspire you to make room in your kitchen cabinets immediately. Thailand
This regional spice has gentle heat, a bright floral-citrus fragrance, and a Szechuan pepper-like numbing quality. It can be tricky to find it in the U.S., even online. It is occasionally available though Amazon, where it is referred to as ‘Thai Sichuan pepper,’ though it is currently out of stock. The niche peppercorns are used in a number of northern Thai meat dishes, including the region’s laap, which is made from minced beef, offal, herbs, and spices. ‘It’s a world away from the spicy, tart ‘larb’ found in Thai restaurants abroad,’ Bush explains, ‘or even in Bangkok.’ Fortunately, U.S. customs allows dried spices to be brought back from overseas; makhwhaen should be at the top of your souvenir wish list for your next vacation to northern Thailand. SamlorSpiceCo