Well, my pretties, I’ve finally escaped from farang food! After I met Naomi Duguid in London, we kept in touch and arranged to meet up at the Haw morning vegetable market in Chiang Mai. We had had a lovely time in East London talking about everything from Naomi’s travels in Burma to film, philosophy and Iranian gender politics and so I was super pleased to have the chance to meet up again. This time, though, we’d have a proper food market to visit and we’d be on Naomi’s home turf, as it were. She didn’t have much time to spare as she was actually catching a plane later in the morning – I know, right, how generous to meet up and show us the market when she was on such a tight schedule – but she packed in an intensive education in a brief space of time. In between catching up with all of our lives this autumn, Naomi explained many of the market’s treasures and introduced me to what may be my new favourite breakfast dish.
But first, a reminder of how far Haw market is from the tourist map. Nobody in my hotel had heard of it and nor had our tour guide. When I went to look for the location yesterday, even the man in a nearby shop insisted there was no morning market here! Did he just assume no farang could want to go there? Probably, since he works next door and there’s really no way he could not have noticed the giant market that appears every Friday. It’s a decent sized market and not exactly obscure but there is a huge gap between tourist Chiang Mai and local Chiang Mai and it seems everyone works hard to keep them apart. That’s why it was so incredible to get the benefit of Naomi’s in-depth local knowledge – we went from tourists to insiders overnight.
The market caters largely to the Shan community, which means food that crosses from Thai to Burmese in flavours as the Shan people do. Many people are Muslim here: there are several mosques in the neighbourhood and you can see the influence of foodways from Islamic countries in the samosas and flatbreads here. The lady in the photo above sells fresh corn fritters. We didn’t try one but now we kind of wish we had as they looked amazing.
We saw some parcels wrapped in banana leaves and asked what was inside. Naomi opened one up to reveal fermented soybeans, a staple of Shan cuisine. These are processed into discs called tua nao, which take the place of shrimp paste in creating a foundation of deep umami flavours. They’re also good in cooking for vegetarians, so Thrifty Gal has some Southeast Asian food treats coming when we return! The highlights of the market, though, were the two breakfast soups Naomi introduced us to: Burmese mohinga and Shan chickpea soup.
Mohinga is an important dish in Burma, with every region doing it differently. Since she’s just been there, Naomi had lots to teach us on the subject, which sounds didactic but is absolutely not. Like all the best teachers, she has an enthusiasm that’s infectious and conversation fires off rapidly from food to politics, culture and back. I probably don’t have half of what she told me noted down but even semi-recalled, I learned heaps.
So mohinga has as its base a fish broth that’s richly layered with flavours. To this is added kanom jeen rice noodles and then a range of toppings. We had cilantro, lemongrass, shallots, a boiled egg (for Mr Lemur) and, the best part, a crispy deep fried disc of rice batter with soybeans which you crumble on top of the soup for crunch. I liked this dish a lot but Mr Lemur ended up eating most of it as, in one of those serendipitous sharing outcomes, he liked it better and I fell completely in love with the next dish.
The other dish we ate had no name but is a common Shan soup. It, too, is poured over kanom jeen noodles but the soup part is quite unique. It’s made from chickpea flour and, like Italian polenta or Ethiopian shiro, it becomes solid if you let it stand for any length of time. What’s different, though, is the texture, which was amazingly silky and custardy. I found it completely beguiling and could cheerfully eat it every day. This soup also comes with toppings including cilantro, soy sauce, garlic oil, chili paste, palm sugar and, for that all important crunch, pork cracklings. Oh yes. I added some extra chili and sugar from the condiment tray and the mixed it all up into a soft and warming bowl of happiness.
After the soups, we wandered around the market trying out various snacks and stopping for more lovely sweet condensed milk coffees. This is the kind of experience I came to Thailand for – I feel like I gained an insight, however basic, into a completely new culture. Chiang Mai is full of English language shops offering Thai massage, hiking tours, fruit shakes and it can be a bit dispiriting. Haw market isn’t ethnic groups packaged up for tourism; it’s a working market, but one that is completely friendly and open to any tourists who are lucky enough to find their way there.