Going on a culinary journey to Chiang Mai

When Filipinos who’ve visited the Thai city of Chiang Mai try to describe the place, they tend to say it’s like our own Baguio. That’s because both cities are located up north, thus the cooler climate. There are also cultural similarities, as showcased at last week’s preview launch of Mango Tree chain of Thai restaurants’ newest dishes called A Culinary Journey to Chiang Mai.

Guests at the event held at the Bonifacio Global City outlet were greeted by the wait staff dressed in traditional clothes of the early inhabitants in Chiang Mai and the rest of the northern region in Thailand. They got to learn more about the indigenous communities of Lisu, Lanna and Akha through an exhibit that’s been set up in one corner of the restaurant. Some of them tried on the headdresses for their posterity photos.

Then came the event’s highlight: the food!

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To kick off the gastronomic journey, there was Miang Kham. This traditional one-bite snack is prepared by the diners themselves by putting in a little bit of ingredients — including coconut flakes, peanuts, dried shrimp, onion, lemon, chili, galangal root — on an aromatic sesame leaf, topping the melange off with the sweet-savory Miang Kham sauce, wrapping all in and eating it.

Another appetizer came in the form of the familiar pork cracklings (or what Pinoys call chicharon), but the star here is the dip called Nam Prik Noom. It consists of roasted green chilies that have been pounded with flavorful herbs.

The main dishes turned out to be a delight for pork lovers. Chiang Mai Laarb Khua is a spicy minced pork salad dressed with a mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, herbs and makwan pepper, which has been specially flown in from Chiang Mai.

Next, there were Sai Oua, a grilled sausage made with minced pork, herbs and spices, and Kaeng Hang Le, a savory and sweet curry made with pork belly, fermented bamboo shoots with a selection of herbs and spices.

Pescatarians, on the other hand, enjoyed the Hill Tribe Aeb Pla. The fish used (in this case, maya-maya) has been marinated in a unique blend of northern herbs, then wrapped and grilled in banana leaf. Meanwhile, those who liked noodles had their fill of Khao Soi, a traditional curry dish using crispy egg noodles with toppings of chicken, lime wedges and picked vegetables.

For dessert, banana fritters became even more palatable when dipped in its sweet-salty pandan sauce. The flavor wasn’t overpowering, so there was still room to enjoy the Thai-inspired bonbons specially created for Mango Tree. The chocolate confection came in three flavors: coconut pandan, Thai milk tea and passion fruit mango.

The representative dishes from Chiang Mai and the rest of the northern region will be available at all Mango Tree restaurants in the Philippines starting 15 October. After a month, according to Mango Tree Restaurants Worldwide managing director Trevor MacKenzie, they will determine, based on the customers’ response the dishes they would retain and include in the menu “on a fulltime basis.”

Why Chiang Mai?

MacKenzie, a Canadian citizen who’s been a longtime resident in the Thai capital city of Bangkok, came to Manila specifically for the event at the BGC in Taguig City. He spoke to DAILY TRIBUNE about the northern Thai cuisine and why the global restaurant group chose to highlight it now.

In all Mango Tree outlets around the world, he said, the chefs had to be trained in Bangkok before opening a restaurant. The first outlet in the Philippines opened in 2010 at the Trinoma mall in Quezon City. As the franchise grew to a total of 10 outlets today, the chefs’ training continued through trips to other regions, such as the south and northeastern.

This year, the chefs of Mango Tree Philippines met up in July with their counterparts from Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Dubai for a three-day trip to Chiang Mai. They learned about the Northern Region’s rich history, culture and cuisine.

“Chiang Mai food is more herbaceous,” MacKenzie noted. “So you taste the herbs, and you taste the ingredients because it’s a mountainous region. That’s where a lot of our fruits come from, different plants, different ingredients.”

As for curating the special menu, he said, “It’s quite easy, actually.” He explained, “When we went on the chefs’ trip, we knew what dishes we wanted to introduce already. So that’s what we trained our chefs on. As I mentioned in my opening speech, I travelled probably 59 provinces in Thailand out of the 77. So it was quite easy for us to research it, have the locals teach us about some new things and implement it. That’s what we do at Mango Tree.”