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Chiang Mai on My Plate: An Expat’s Guide to Local Ingredients and Quality

The quality of the food you get obviously depends to a large extent on the quality of the ingredients. A good cook recognises that and pays proper attention to sourcing. I talked to the chefs / owners of San Sui, Hinlay Curry and Le Spice, and all of them are very knowledgable about food and sourcing.

In Thailand and in Chiang Mai, it’s not always easy to find the right quality ingredients.


Chiang Mai is far from the sea, so it’s harder to get fresh and good seafood. A lot of restaurants buy from mediocre suppliers, for example the cheaper Japanese usually rely on Thai suppliers for their seafood, which isn’t the best. The better Japanese carefully select their supplier, or even drive down to the sea to source it themselves (!).

Thai restaurants usually offer ‘Tab Tim’, which is a fresh water farmed fish without much great taste, but it’s what we can get here most. Some say that it’s genetically modified, but I’m not sure about that. For sure, we don’t know what the farmers feed the fish, no one really checks on it, so perhaps they use some growth hormones.

Deep Fried Snakehead Fish with Herb

Other fish that is common is ‘Pla Chon’ and ‘Pla Bu’, which are a bit more expensive and perhaps slightly more tasty.

A lot of restaurants buy their fish from Makro, which offers large quantities at lower prices, but the quality is not always top. For example, I tried the salmon, which is okay, but not the best quality.
Rimping offers about the same quality at higher prices.


When it comes to meat, mostly the following kinds are on offer: chicken, pork, beef, duck and goat, but again the quality varies.

I trust chicken most, as the taste is okay, and Thailand is one of the world’s largest chicken exporters.

Pork isn’t bad either, though I don’t eat too much of it.

Good beef is hard to get, especially when it comes to beef steak. You see signs everywhere in town selling steak, but I’ve yet to try a place that really offers an affordable steak at good quality (most good steak in restaurants is in the range of THB 600-1,200). Thailand doesn’t really have a steak culture, so almost all of the steak meat has to be imported.

Cooked beef, especially the muslim beef curries, are fine, though, because they’ve simmered for a long time.

There is a fair supply of duck meat that is both used in Thai dishes (red duck curry) and in western dishes, especially as the French canard. Quality is okay, though sometimes a bit dry if there isn’t enough turnover.

Goat meat is also supplied, especially to the muslim restaurants following halal rules, and the Indian restaurants use it to sell it as ‘mutton’, which it really isn’t. If the supply is good and the cook knows how to make it, the ‘mutton’ can be very good.

The better Korean restaurants offer some good quality meat, different from the Thai BBQ’s.


As I said elsewhere in this blog, there’s a whole lot of difference in the quality of vegetables you get in restaurants.
By far the majority of all the restaurants get their vegetables from the ‘Big Market’, and some of them buy at Makro. The quality differs, some can be good taste, some can be lack of taste, and there’s always the issue of pesticides. Makro sources both internationally and locally so that’s no guarantee either.
The Royal Project offers vegetables and fruits that are semi-organic and so far my experience with it is quite good.
Then, there are some places that get their vegetable supplies from (their own) farms, biological or organic or not.


Obviously, the best curries are made with a good (home-made) curry paste and most importantly: enough time to let all the ingredients simmer through for a few hours or so. That’s why you’ll find the best curries at places where they prepare it early in the morning in big pots and it has had time to brew before you taste it: muslim places, small local places, and for example Hinlay Curry.

In most places, however, you get what I call ‘instant curry’ or ‘curry-on-demand’, which usually is just curry paste with coconut milk topped on some meat or fish. If at least the curry paste has been carefully prepared, you can top it on chicken, like the fabulous ‘suchi gai’ of the Lemon Tree.
But in other cases, there simply isn’t a nice delicate blend.

The only pity with some small local places is that they already added the MSG in the curry and so you can’t ask to omit it anymore.


Although Thailand is one of the world’s major rice exporters, not all of the rice that appears on your plate is of good quality. There are many grades of rice and some places dare to serve rather inferior rice, even though the price difference between high grade and low grade rice in a meal isn’t that huge.
Lucky for us, in Chiang Mai, generally the rice is okay, but in Bangkok I’ve had very poor rice many times even in so-called decent restaurants.

Thai Jasmin rice a high grade rice and one of the best kinds in the world, together with Basmati rice from India and Japanese rice, for example. In Hong Kong, nearly all the rice served is a high grade Thai Jasmin rice and there they call it ‘fragrant rice’. Interestingly, though China is closer, Hong Kong’ers won’t import the inferior Chinese rice.

Some very good rice you can find at Jin Mi Korean restaurant, surprisingly in the restaurant in the lobby of Hillside IV condo, and some very good sushi rice you can find in Sun Tori (more due to good preparation skills than due to the quality of the rice). Some good Basmati rice you can find in Le Spice.

One good thing about Chiang Mai is that there are lots of place where you can get brown, or even purple/red rice. Unfortunately, it’s not always being served fresh, and in some places they dilute it with white rice.


Most local restaurants use some kind of cheap and natural oil, such as corn oil or palm oil. Despite the possible negative environmental aspects of palm oil, I believe these kind of oils are more suitable to use in Thai cooking than for example olive oil, even though in general I prefer olive oil.

I didn’t have much problems with these local oils, but it’s better when the cooks don’t over-burn it.

Some restaurants use (saturated) animal fat for all or for certain dishes.
In some cases, the animal fat taste goes quite well together with the dish, for example chicken fat in Hainan Chicken Rice, but in other cases I don’t think it’s necessary and it makes the food too hard to digest. For example, some Thai restaurants use pig fat for all dishes. To me it smells bad but some people like it. I can’t finish the dish, even if it’s just vegetables, because pig fat is so hard to digest. And the same for duck fat in French dishes, even in fried potatoes.


With the abundance of natural herbs, vegetables and all other ingredients that Thailand has to offer, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why a good cook should need to resort to using artificial flavouring enhancers, such as MSG, also known as monosodium glutamate.

That’s why I give any cook using MSG as a main ingredient a Certificate of Incompetence.

– Me

MSG is widely used all over Asia: in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, China and so on, but much less so in Indian cooking, that already has so much taste from an (over-) abundance of spices.

In Thailand, it’s being used a lot in many places, however, you can ask to omit it: ‘mai sai chuurot’.
However, a problem can still arise when the cook normally uses MSG to create the taste, and you ask to omit it, because he may then add more oyster sauce, soya sauce or salt, making the food inedible in another way. Or, the other way around, the food may taste very plain.

So in my opinion, anyone using MSG clearly deserves this Certificate of Incompetence, it’s a clear proof of inability to create good taste.

Nowadays however, it’s quite hard to skip MSG all-together from your food intake: it may already exist in your food as the officially recognized additive E621, in canned soups, pizza’s and so on.

The effects of MSG on your health are still being studied, and to my knowledge so far no hard proof has been found that it is really detrimental to your health. However, I do taste it clearly in the food as something unpure and too rich even while I’m eating, and it feels as if I’m polluting my body at the same time as I’m feeding it. Normally, if there’s too much of it in the food, after a few bites I simply stop, even though I’m still hungry.

MSG in Thailand comes in many forms, for example it’s already processed in all kinds of sauces, and it’s probably the main component of flavouring powders such as KNORR and MAGGI.
To me, MAGGI has a very bad smell and I even had the experience that someone stored it in a plastic container and I couldn’t get the smell out.

Apparently, at some schools they teach the children how to distinguish real MSG from fake, chemically inferior MSG. The fake MSG is probably (more) damaging to health but small restaurants may add it because it’s cheaper. Children learn how to chemically analyse the real from the fake by burning it on a spoon, I don’t really see the point of all that but then there isn’t much point in Thai education in itself, which is another discussion.

With these plastic table cloths, it’s not hard to guess where the taste comes from. In Tein Sieng vegetarian.

More on Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai Locator

Posted 8th November 2013 by Chiang Mai Eater

Labels: general info

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