For better or worse Chiang Mai is changing with the times. There are hipster coffee shops around every corner. The shadows of malls cast over rice fields that were once their foundations. As the years roll on, the East is slowly starting to head west. However, Muang Mai Market seems be staying true, regardless of the incoming winds of western influence.
About the Market
Muang Mai Market, Kad Muang Mai in Northern Thai, is one of the last places in the old Lana Kingdom that has remained the way it always was – for the most part. This is Chiang Mai’s center of industry for all things Thai food. If you can’t find it here, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to find it anywhere.
There is a certain “we do it this way” aura in the air here. It might just be the cocktail of smells: motorbike fumes, sewage, durian, cut herbs, day old fish, ect. It might be the chronic interaction of buyers and sellers silently setting the status quo. Possibly the backlash from being on edge due to the vehicles driving through the walking space. Or as the drivers might think, the damn people walking in the road. Whatever it is, I like it – and don’t want it to change.
Walking through the narrow corridors and down the side sois, you are ensconced in The Good Stuff. The Real Good Stuff. Pig heads proudly displayed kitty corner on meat wagons for optimal viewing capacity. Jungle Chickens being cleaned and broken down, so that their sought-after dark flesh is prominently presented. Intestines intermingling with liver on the same table – a nice homage to their place of origin.
During the cool hours of the morning and the hot hours of the day is when the real business takes place. It is true with any market that the mornings will be the busiest. I mean, that’s when the product is the freshest. Likewise, you can’t much serve food for lunch if you haven’t bought it till dinner.
However, at Muang Mai Market the afternoons seem to be just as busy as the AM hours. This is due to a number of reasons. The chief of which is tuk tuks. More accurately evening tuk tuk tours and the horde of farang they bring with them. I mean it can be hard to haggle over the sound of the tour guide’s microphone explaining that “This is where the locals go”. The irony is as palpable as that smell of durian emanating out of his followers plastic bags – like I said, it’s stayed the same for the most part.
Kad Muang Mai is mostly a wholesale market. The people who consistently shop here buy in bulk and bring a truck, or at least a motorcycle with a side car. That’s not to say that smaller quantities are not sold. Those are just kept out front and away from the real industry. As there aren’t many Thai business owners reading my stuff, this is the portion of the market I’ll be discussing.
The “front” of the market is found along the road by the Ping River. While there is a gradient to where it actually “begins”, for the purpose of this piece, the starting point will be the last entrance along that one way road – just before the Krung Thai Bank.
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Buying for Home Use
Before taking the turn into the actual market you will find a variety of fruit stands. These should be avoided. They are generally overpriced for the market and aimed at tourists. However the mango venders here shouldn’t be overlooked. They sell a number of different priced mangoes who’s only real difference is their age. That’s to say those 70 baht per kilo mangos were the 80 baht ones yesterday and will be the 60 baht ones tomorrow. You can think of it as a time bomb of sorts, who’s “explosion” will be the reluctance to eat whole. A count down to the blender or garbage if you will.
Thai Pantry StaplesAfter heading down the first soi of Muang Mai Market is where the “home” shopping begins. This ally, as well the ones perpendicular near the pork vendors, is where I go when looking to find high quality and cheap ingredients.
Immediately to your left are a number of “dry seasonings” and hardy aromatic vendors. Garlic and shallots, the Thai trinity (lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal), sacks of dried chilies, the essential building blocks of most Thai food. This is where you buy items that you will find in most any Thai home kitchen at any given time.
They also sell tua noa. This is an ingredient that is quintessential in the food of Mae Hong Son, as well as the surrounding areas. The name roughy translates to “spoiled beans”. This is not an unfair description, as it is essentially fermented soy. Unlike your other variants of fermented soy (soy sauce, miso, natto), tua noa packs a smell so pungent it is only matched in potency by stir fried garlic or nearby durian.
The process for making tua noa starts out like natto, turns ing the direction of tortilla, and finishes like a s’more. After the soy has finished “spoiling” it is ground into a paste and pressed it into a thin disk, using what is basically a Thai tortilladora. This paddy is then toasted over coals until browned and blistered, unlocking its perfume.
The smell of roasting tua noa is unlike any other; pungent is an understatement. It’s so strong that if you drive most anywhere along the 108 at dinnertime you can’t escape it – that, or if the lady in the apartment below you ends here sentences in “jaow” instead of “ka”. The smell is like if you set fire to an old garbage can. It’s taste is also a sensory overload. Tua noa being tied with water buffalo bile as the most bitter substance I’ve found in this country.
Having said all of that, tua noa is delicious. This may look like a chip, but you should not treat it as such. I like to think of it as the shrimp paste of the north. It’s meant to be used as a seasoning, or the funky back note of a meal. It should not be eaten whole, although many in Mae Hong Son still do as such – maybe crushed over steamed rice for breakfast. A callback of sorts to days of Southern Chinese invasions, but that’s another story for another time.
Walk a little further down this first road and you see fish so fresh (well, fresh for a non-costal city) that they might be staring back at you. Across the way sits an array of squid from purple to beige, jumbo river prawns, and tentacles creeping through crushed ice. If you don’t want to venture into the smellier and more “foreign” parts of Muang Mai Market this is where you should be buying your seafood.
Just after the fish vendors is where the main herb exchange happens – unfortunately not the herb that a white dude named Kyle wearing a Dave Matthews Band t-shirt has… oh Washington, I miss you. But just like the dispensary he works at, nomenclature can be a confusing topic here.
Many times I have come to these stands and saw an herb I was unfamiliar with. After asking if I could try a leaf, the taste being unknown as well. As any curious person I want to know the name of this new, potentially game changing, ingredient. Unfortunately, the answer is usually correct – just not what I was looking for.
Instead of telling me the name of the som moon prie (herb in Thai), I get told how to use it: “tastes good with laab”, “stir fry with pork”, “boil in chicken soup”. I can’t blame them though. I don’t know the name of it either. Graeng jai tells me that pushing further won’t lead to any favorable result. I smile, buy 5 baht worth, and just come up with my own name for it until the real one presents itself. You should give “taste like battery acid” the next time you’re at a loclal laab spot.
At the first intersection is where I like to buy my meat. In an earlier post I said that Siri Wattana had any cut that you could want. And while that’s true, this crossroad has any you could want and all the other you don’t. Chicken feet, gizzards, offal, and face, less desirable to some but sought after by others – one man’s trash kinda thing.
Hard to Find Flavors
Hang a right at the cross and you’ll find a “bulk for home” flavorings stand. You can identify it by the mounds of curry paste sitting above hanging spices. This is maybe the most compact shop I’ve found for the deep cuts in that Pok Pok Cookbook I have sitting next to my N64 on the coffee table at home.
While you can get by cooking most Thai food using just what that lady down the road is selling, here is where you find those more “scarce” flavors. One of which is makhwean, a spice as necessary to northern laab as oregano is to marinara. It is the fruit of an evergreen tree that has no English name. The closest thing I could relate it to, that you’ve maybe tried before, is Szechuan pepper – although this isn’t doing it the justice it deserves. They both do have the same numbing effect on the lips and tongue though.
If you’re grabbing ingredients for homemade Lana laab, along with you’re makhwean you’ll be wanting to grab some Balinese. Unlike makhwean this does have an English name, and a fitting one at that. It’s called Long pepper, and it tastes a lot like… well, black pepper. However, it is a bit sweeter with a more fragrant aroma. Harvested from a flowering vine this spice can be used fresh, but is more commonly dried.
Sitting in the stand under the hanging laab spices, is another “love it or hate it” Thai ingredient. Fish sauce has lost its allure to me. This might be from overexposure from the research I’ve been doing on a “Must Eat Noodles in Chiang Mai” piece I’m working on now. Or maybe the fact that it’s becoming an item celebrity chefs are starting to let white people know about. But pla ra on the other hand, that still gets my food snob engine going.
Pla ra is very much like fish sauce. It’s actually labeled as fish sauce in most of the Asian markets I shop at when visiting the States. Fish sauce is the strained liquid from fermenting any salted small fish in a barrel for many months. Pla ra, is if you didn’t bother with that whole straining thing – while leaving some of the whole fish in there as well.
This is a common ingredient in som tam varieties and offers a slightly bitter and very funky flavor. The color is usually a murky brown and genuinely unappetizing on first glance. But just like fish sauce, the more you eat it (and move past what it actually is) the more you’ll crave it.
Kad Muang Mai is such a big an extensive place I could comfortably write a book about it. Seeing that this is a blog, and that most people who started this article haven’t even made it this far, I’ll wrap it up with a TL;DR for you.
Kad Muang Mai is the best place in Chiang Mai to buy Thai ingredients. If you can deal with the heat, the smell, and nearby motor vehicles in transit I couldn’t suggest a better fresh market in Northern Thailand. Stay in the section near the river if you’re looking for home sized quantities. If buying in bulk head to the warehouses in the back. This is what an outdoor Asian market should be. This is where the locals go.
The Good Stuff Chiang Mai