After the sprawling randomness of Phuket, Chiang Mai was a welcome return to a proper city.
We arrived late at night, and took a taxi to our couchsurfing host’s house. Winding through narrow streets, one of the first details I noticed was a sign pointing to an organic vegan raw food café, and I knew this was a city that would look after me. If I’d done much reading beforehand, I might have read that Chiang Mai is a centre of vegan things and thought to be the most vegetarian-friendly city in Thailand. Instead, I explored and came to the same conclusions independently.
Here’s what I recommend in Chiang Mai, food-wise:
Get a Nancy Chandler map
Nancy Chandler is a San Franciscan who first visited Thailand in the 70s, and now splits her time between the States and Bangkok. Her maps of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, designed for ex-pats and visitors, are perfect for urban explorers. Both include a great level of detail and personal notes about interesting and useful places in both cities. They do show the main tourist attractions, but focus more on the little stalls you’ll find in the back streets, the standout details of temples (Wat Pa Pao: cat sanctuary) and other hidden treasures. Crucially for us, vegetarian-friendly eateries were marked with a V.
On the Chiang Mai map, there were Vs all over the city. Most of the things we ate were found by consulting Nancy Chandler to find our nearest vegetarian option. A few of these were:
Vegetarian Thai Orchid – we went here for breakfast on the first morning, after waking with the monks. The meal was a spicy mixture of peas & mushrooms on rice. It felt balanced and just right for the morning: a bit like a Thai version of beans on toast.
Free Bird Café – a charity vegetarian café that supports the work of Thai Freedom House, a language and arts community learning centre for indigenous people and Burmese refugees. Downstairs from the café is an opshop that sells clothes and (mostly English-language) second-hand books. The food at Free Bird is a mixture of Western, Thai and Shan/Burmese. Everything we had was amazing.
For me: Shan-style papaya salad/ Maak Sam Pau Saa. This was similar to Thai papaya salad, but with different flavours, and potatoes.
For Erin: Burmese Tea Leaf Salad/ Lappet Thok. This is one of her favourite foods, and isn’t something we’ve been able to find in Auckland. Free Bird’s version was deliciously bittersweet and fresh.
And also for me: a cocomocha – an espresso-based mocha made with coconut milk.
Blue Diamond – after our lunch at Free Bird, we consulted Nancy to think of where we’d go next, and saw that she noted another place just a couple of blocks had vegan icecream. That sounded perfect for lunch dessert, so we set off to find it.
What we found was a health food café, bakery and grocery which was mostly vegetarian. There was vegan icecream, indeed: a freezer full of little tubs in at least 20 flavours. I had banana cashew caramel toffee icecream, and Erin had red seedless grape sorbet.
But vegan icecream was just the beginning of this café’s offerings. There were breakfast options, baked treats, soy yoghurt, kombucha, fresh produce, dry ingredients and various kinds of snacks. I bought a slice of vegan mango strudel (Vegan. Mango. Strudel.) to take away and ate it as we walked away. It was delicious: flaky, soft and full of sweet fresh fruit.
We enjoyed it so much that we came back the next day for breakfast: more mango strudel, a cinnamon bun and espresso made with hill tribes coffee.
Mungsavirat Kangruenjam – this was the eatery’s name according to Nancy, but it wasn’t transliterated for English readers on the signage, just labelled as Thai Vegetarian Food Restaurant. The selection was laid out in a cabinet and we pointed to things that looked good. Later we noticed that people had better-looking meals cooked freshly for them, but we didn’t share any common language to ask for this.
Taste From Heaven – this place was recommended not only by Nancy, but by a fellow couchsurfer, who swore by the papaya salad. The front window proclaimed recommendations from Lonely Planet and ‘Happy Cows’. With all the hype, we were expecting great things. Sadly, we found the service weirdly impatient, the food not particularly good and the prices disproportionately high compared with everywhere else in the neighbourhood. The free internet time after our meal was appreciated, but in every other way, eating here made me feel like a dumb tourist who had followed a guidebook recommendation against her better judgement.
These were just a handful of the places on the map – we walked past a few others and looked at their menus: The Whole Earth Restaurant which looked a bit more upmarket than some of the other places, Giva – the raw vegan place that the sign I saw on the first night was pointing to, a Taiwanese vegetarian place I forget the name of, and others. If you’re visiting Chiang Mai, I recommend getting your own copy of Nancy Chandler’s latest edition and walking around.
Go to cooking school
One of the things tourists do in Chiang Mai is go to cooking school. We spotted at least 10 schools set up for visitors as we were walking around, including a couple of specifically vegetarian ones: May Kaidee’s and Taste from Heaven.
We’d already decided that we’d take a one-day class while we were in Chiang Mai, and the NY Times had recommended Gap’s House cooking school. The class we registered for wasn’t planned as vegetarian/ vegan, and the other students attending were cooking meat, but the tutors adapted all the recipes for us.
The day started with a visit to a local market, where we learned about Thai vegetables and herbs, watched as coconut cream was produced, and wandered around looking at things while the tutors picked up some of the ingredients we’d be using during the day.
Our classroom was in a big, open outdoor structure. We each had individual cooking stations with gas burners, woks and all the ingredients pre-prepared by school staff. In the morning, we cooked a huge lunch feast:
Our own green curry paste, which we used to make a tofu green curry.
Vegan hok mon plaa/ fish soufflé (steamed curried fish cooked in a banana leaf cup) made with tofu, coconut cream and red curry paste.
A cashew stirfry with tofu and water chestnuts.
Vegan Thai-style fish cakes, again with tofu instead of fish, and a mixture of coconut cream and flour in place of egg.
Tom yum soup – unfortunately this didn’t veganise well as the class was using pre-prepared chilli paste that included shrimp, which we didn’t have a substitute for, as well as fish sauce, which we replaced with soy sauce. Our version of the soup was a bit bland, but if we were making this at home, we’d seek out vegan versions of the main flavour ingredients.
Steamed rice. This was one of the most useful things we learned – we bought two little rice steaming dishes from a kitchen supply shop in Bangkok and have since used them often.
We also learned how to make sticky rice (one half of my new favourite dessert, mango sticky rice) and a pumpkin custard dessert thing that wasn’t vegan.
Then we sat down and ate everything we’d cooked. Lunch was enormous, but so good that I didn’t want to waste any of it. I was full for about 24 hours afterwards, and grateful that our afternoon’s cooking was packaged in a takeaway container for later eating.
After lunch, we learned a couple of sweet basic vegetable carving tricks: onion water lilies and tomato-peel roses. Then we cooked our dinner, which we ate the next day:
Pad thai! We learned how to put the classic noodle dish together, and a few ways to season it to our own taste (too salty, add some sugar).
Fried spring rolls. Mine didn’t hold together so well, as others were using egg ‘superglue’ as a binder, which was more effective than the toothpicks I used. But they were still delicious.
I’d definitely recommend cooking school – it was really interesting and useful to learn more about how Thai food is made, and to understand where animal ingredients are commonly used and how you can substitute for them. If you’d rather not cook around meat and want to learn specifically about Thai vegan cooking, one of the vegetarian schools might be a better option. But I found Gap’s accommodating and fun, and I found it useful to learn about how animal ingredients are used, so that I can better communicate with non-vegetarian Thai cooks about my eating needs as a vegan and what they can use instead of common animal ingredients (though my experience on this trip, based on visiting three common tourist destinations, was that the people I communicated with were pretty understanding about switching fish sauce for soy sauce when cooking for vegetarians).
Get someone to make you pad thai
Wandering around the big night market in Chiang Mai, we weren’t seeing any obvious vegetarian places for dinner. We approached a pad thai cart that looked good, but only mentioned meat options on its signage. The woman behind the cart insisted that we wanted pad thai. ‘Uh, jae? Vegetarian?’ we asked. ‘Yes. You want egg?’ ‘No.’ ‘Okay, two? Sit down then,’ and she turned away and started chopping up fresh ingredients.
The result was perfect pad thai, probably the best I’ve ever eaten: spicy, delicious and full of tofu. The woman who made this even gave us a discount for not eating meat.
The next day was cooking school, and I learned to cook my own pad thai. It was good, but nothing on this expert plate. The next amazing pad thai I ate was also made by a woman with a street cart, in Bangkok’s Chinatown. More about that soon, in Part 3 of this post series.