Thursday, October 22, 2009
Destination Thailand #2: Aroon Rai in Chiang Mai
Eastern Gate to the Old City of Chiang Mai
My favorite Thai food I had in Thailand was a popular restaurant outside the imposing old city gates of Chiang Mai. Following the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, my co-adventurers and I ventured from our lodging to the highly recommended Aroon Rai restaurant.
My buddies scoping out the place
Besides Quán Ăn Ngon in Saigon, Aroon Rai was my second favorite restaurant meal of the entire trip to Southeast Asia. Billed as the "best curry in town," the restaurant probably gets its fair share of foreign press. In fact, it sells packets of its secret curry mix for visitors to bring the flavors of Northern Thailand back home. Upon arrival, first thing I noticed was abundance of foreigners in the open air location. It looked like the restaurant had been vastly expanded, as the dining room opened into another building. Generally, I am a bit skeptical of local restaurants that have too many non-native faces, but so much of Thailand is tourist-centric, I'd gotten over my foreign-phobia.
Actually, this was the first time we ventured outside the old city gates during our time in Chiang Mai, not withstanding our jungle excursion. The central portion of the city is guarded by high walls and a moat that had since been converted into fountains and lagoons. Our hostel, T.K. Hostel, was located within the old city. I'll pause to give a shout-out for the air-conditioning discount we received and hospitality by the friendly Australian-educated caretaker, T. In fourteenth century, Chiang Mai was actually the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, separate from the Siamese Thai of the South. The culture, and hence the food, remained relatively distinct for many years.
Some of the regional specialties include the above-pictured pork curry and Chiang Mai sausage. Looking at some recipes for Chiang Mai sausage, I can't see what makes them distinct. The ingredients are typical of Thai cuisine in general: galangal, lemon grass, chilies, coriander, fish sauce. They had a tough outer crust, but gave way to flavorful fillings. The accompaniment of coconut cream in the pork curry made the sauce lip-smacking and luxuriant to the tongue.
Speaking of coconut, the rice commonly used in Northern Thailand is short grain sticky rice. Often it is flavored with coconut milk. Aroon Rai served rice individually in little steamers, but I suspect that one steamer held less than one bowl. Additionally, since my friends were in an adventurous mood, we ordered deep-fried frog. As always, frog was somewhat of a letdown since there was hardly any meat on those bones and the flavor is as indistinct as chicken. In fact, on Chinese menus, frog is called "field chicken."
Each dish was cheap enough ($1-2) that you can easily pig out on everything on the menu. The portions were small enough that you could order a sufficient variety. Writing this entry now makes me regret not bringing home one of those curry packets.