September 16, 2011 10:26 pm

Hot on the trail

Thai food in the north is very different from that of the far south. It is even spicier

Chiang Mai, Thailand

When an invitation came to speak about the future of hotel restaurants, my first thought was not about the audience, which was to include Heston Blumenthal, Daniel Boulud and Pierre Gagnaire. Rather, it was the location of the conference, in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, that held the greatest attraction.

My enthusiasm was based on memories of family trips to Thailand where the colourful, hot and spicy food is so enticing, whether eaten in restaurants or on the street.

As I was to discover, Thai food in the north is very different from that of the far south. It is even spicier. Fish is much less common, as is the coconut milk that mitigates the heat of so many southern Thai dishes. But northern Thai cooks have myriad ways with pork, chicken and vegetables, while the local spicy sausage, served in salads, on skewers and in peppery soups, was a revelation. So too was the sweetness of the local pomelo, like grapefruit but much juicier and less bitter, and used extensively in salads.

At the first coffee break of the conference, organised by Mandarin Oriental, I joined Blumenthal at a table with Philip Knuepfer, a German hotelier, and Gianni Santin, a top Italian pastry chef, both of whom had worked in Thailand. Blumenthal promptly showed me a photo of his first encounter with “jungle caviar”. At a stall in the city’s night market he had eaten an omelette filled with bee and ant eggs. “Citrussy and with a hint of popcorn,” was his tasting note (the popping sound, I subsequently learnt, because of the inherent difficulty in separating the eggs from the ants).

Knuepfer, now working in Singapore, described his peripatetic career. “I learnt my skills in Europe, and management and marketing techniques in the US. But it is only in Asia, and Thailand in particular, where I really feel we can put into practice the best service principles. I am not sure what it is here, perhaps because 95 per cent of Thais are Buddhist, but they always want their customers to be happy.”

The experience of working in Thailand has left such a strong impression on Santin that he is planning to move back. “The cooks here are so enthusiastic. They don’t take anything for granted.”

I was to enjoy this hospitality in two very different settings. The first, a restaurant called Huen Phen in the city centre, I owe to the local knowledge of Phairoj Pinyosakul, a Chiang Mai businessman and food and wine lover.

During the day Huen Phen is operated as a café by Poomjal Burusapat’s mother. But at night he takes over, overseeing the extremely friendly restaurant behind the café space in one of the grid of narrow streets that make up Chiang Mai’s moated old town.

Although the menu is in English, Pinyosakul ordered for us: a salad of sausage with devilishly hot little green chillies and lime juice; another, less potent salad of green beans, Asian aubergine and chicken; pomelo salad with dried shrimp; a hot, pepper soup with assorted vegetables and shrimp; sticky rice; and a soothing dessert of bananas in condensed milk. There was more than enough food to emphasise one of Pinyosakul’s principles of Thai hospitality, to eat until you drop. My bill for four came to £20.

Two days afterwards in the late afternoon I set off with Norbert Kostner, born in Südtirol, Italy, but for the past 20 years executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, on a precipitous drive into the mountains an hour north of Chiang Mai, past waterfalls and lush tropical vegetation.

At the instigation of the King of Thailand and his cousin Prince Bhisadej Rajani, the hill farmers in this region, whose main cash crop used to be opium, have been induced to switch to producing temperate fruits, vegetables and dairy products. The demand for raw ingredients from the likes of Kostner has set high standards.

Rajani, a nonagenarian with a ramrod back and a youthful sparkle in his eyes, was making one of his monthly visits to the region. Over a simple meal and a glass of French red wine (which he drinks daily on his doctor’s orders), he recounted the transformation in the hill farmers’ lives and how supplying restaurants far and wide has stabilised this beautiful, but once highly dangerous, region. Food as a force for good, and Thailand as an outpost for good food.

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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Huen Phen

112 Rachamunka Road, Chiang Mai, 00 66 (0) 5327 7103

Thailand’s Royal Project

www.royalprojectthailand.com

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