This is a Northern Food

It's early morning in Chiang Mai, and Ton Payom market is starting to get going at full speed.  A tapping rhythm can faintly be heard from the western entrance.  As we drift towards the southwest corner of the open air market, the tapping becomes a pounding. We finally got to the market early enough to watch a young man help prepare our favorite laap.  The dish laap is a salad of minced meat, in the same sense that steak tartare is a salad.  But it is more than that.  Laap is a dish of celebration.  It's a verb, a communal activity.  Laap is a rhythm passed down for centuries, pounded out with blades, flesh and blood.  Or, as Mr. Yoot, one of the proprietors of Ton Payom's laap stand, put it, "This is a northern food."  The modest presentation of laap belies its rich flavor and history.

Although laap is a classic northern Thai dish, it in and of itself is not unique to the region.  It's a staple dish of Laos and northeastern Thailand (known as Isaan, where many Thais claim Laotian heritage), and it may have originated in China's Yunnan Province.  The style of seasoning separates northern Thai laap from that of Isaan and Laos.  Like many dishes from Isaan and Laos, their laap relies on heady fish sauce, lime juice and chile for much of its flavor. This style of laap is very common throughout Thailand because of the availability of the ingredients, and the widespread emigration of Laotians and Isaan people.  Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, was an important trading post for Chinese merchants along the legendary "Silk Road", a trade route that connected the Far East with the Middle East, India and Asia Minor.  Among other things, many spices from those regions became a part of the Lanna Kingdom's cuisine (of which Chiang Mai was the most recent capital).  Access to this wide-range of spices can be credited for the creation of naam prik laap, the spice laden paste used to season northern style laap.  Naam prik laap can include over a dozen toasted spices, combined with roasted aromatic vegetables and pounded to a smooth paste, in a stone mortar and pestle.  The result is a profound, round flavor defined by a slow-burning heat, bitter undertones and a subtle floral sweetness.

The young man sits straight up in his chair, his entire body stock-still, except from his elbows down to his hands, which are each gripping a machete-like butcher's knife.  His wrists and elbows flex and release, creating a barrage of carbon steel against the evermore finely chopped pork that's spread on the butcher block before him.  He's in the rhythm of a drum soloist, and sweat is rolling down his forehead.  He stops periodically to wipe it off and to judiciously add a ladle full of raw pigs blood to the mix.  Laap, in northern Thai dialect, also describes the action of chopping.  His demonstration of the verb is impressive.  He stops once again to catch his breath.  From where I'm standing it looks like a job well done.  But no, it must be finer; the rhythm continues.

Advancements in the technology used for meat production (I hesitate to call it farming) have made meat accessible as an every day food in Thailand.  As a result, the local markets in Chiang Mai are amply supplied with various forms of animal protein.  That is a relatively recent development.  Agriculture specifically for commerce is an evolution of the later 1900s in northern Thailand.  Farming in this region was traditionally for self-sustenance.  Large animals were more useful as labor than as food. Hunting for meat and gathering wild herbs and vegetables was once a much more common way of putting food on the table than purchasing it.  Thus laap, a dish made almost entirely of fresh meat, was saved for only the most special occasions, such as weddings and receiving esteemed visitors.  Preparing laap for an entire wedding party was extremely laborious: the animal had to be butchered; the meat had to be chopped; the organs had to be cleaned and stewed (nothing goes to waste in Thai cooking); the blood had to be seasoned and the spice mix crushed by hand.  The work would be spread out among different community members with different skills.  That style of teamwork is on display today at Tom Payom: while our man chops the meat, the woman who operates the shop scrambles back and forth, straining chunks of lemongrass out of seasoned pig’s blood, stirring a sizzling wok with a spare hand and preparing orders for the guests that are starting to trickle in.

Laap khua, sticky rice, herbs

In the past, we always ate laap khua, the cooked version of laap. The meat is mixed with the stewed organs, blood and seasoning, then stir fried.  It's then set aside and dished out at room temperature, with a sprinkle of crispy shallots and cilantro as garnish.  The pool of meaty, spiced broth, at the bottom of the plate is ideal for dipping the requisite sticky rice.  The plate of foraged herbs that always accompanies laap acts as a palate cleanser.  Everything works in this dish.  Tasting laap khua for the first time is like the first bite of escargots and garlic butter: classic, perfect the way it is.  Today we came to try another classic laap.  A week earlier, Mr. Yoot sat down with us while we ate to encourage us to taste some of their other dishes.  Perhaps a bowl of raw pig’s blood, seasoned and mixed with crispy bits and herbs.  That sounded like a large, gory step outside of my comfort zone.  Today, we came for his other suggestion: laap dip, the raw version of laap; a sticky beet-red lump of the chopped pork and blood, seasoned with naam prik, and mixed with stewed pig offal and raw pig skin.  The mixture is topped with crispy shallots and cilantro.  Am I nervous?  Yeah, a bit.

Mr. Yoot explaining herbs and whiskey

The soft, early morning light illuminates several glasses of whiskey, ice and water being shared at one of the three rickety wood tables at the market stall.  Mr. Yoot explained to us, at our last visit, that the whiskey and raw herbs aid with digestion.  The guys who hang out at this stall drink more than enough to ease their bowels; they get wasted.  The first time we ate here, a police officer leered at us, his bumpy red nose uncomfortably close to mine.  "I am police officer,” he kept repeating, expelling acrid whiskey-breath into my face, tapping the badge on his chest and flashing the gun on his hip.  When he was done boozing and harassing us, he hopped on his motorbike and rode off to enforce the law.  Luckily, he's not there today, and we haven't seen him since.  We greet the surly woman who runs the show, and she smiles at Paige and I.  A smile hard earned by regular visits, and a barrage of our own smiles fired against her stoney, poker face.  My order of laap dip and a glass of whiskey garners laughter, hoots and knee slapping from the drinking buddies.  Our woman looks at me skeptically and confirms the request with a wry grin, clearly an unusual one for a westerner.  Mr. Yoot isn't here today to pat me on the back and smile, glad that we were trying something new.  Quickly, the food arrives.

Laap dip (pronounced deep)

To eat laap, mold some sticky rice into a little ball.  Hold it between your thumb, pointer and middle fingers.  Use the lump of rice to scoop up a bit of laap, chew it up and swallow it.  Chase it with a bite of herbs and a sip of whiskey.  As I begin that process with laap dip for the first time, the men at the next table watch intently.  Admittedly scared, I chew my first bite. The meat is chopped so finely that it begins to melt immediately.  The blood follows suite.  As the laap starts to dissolve, it releases the smokey, sweet spice of the naam prik laap.  The sticky rice and fried shallots add much needed texture.  The herb plate is dominated by a large pile of red-brown tamarind leaves.  Their tart, tannic flavor provide a great palate cleansing.  The watered down, cheap whiskey takes on rich vanilla notes as it mingles with the naam prik laap.  Just a moment ago I was nervous, now I'm amazed at the delicate balance of flavors.  I'm wowed by the luxurious texture of the meat, which is chopped about 10 times finer than tartare typically would be.  I’m shocked that raw pork meat and blood can taste this good.  When I stop dreamily staring at the plate and look up, I notice that I'm still under observation.  A smile, some nodding, and a proclamation of "aroi" (Thai for delicious), get the point across.  The farang, or foreigner, likes it and they are pleased.  This is something I did not expect to be doing in Thailand at 8:30 in the morning: bonding with a group of semi-toothless men over whiskey and plates of raw pork.  Traveling is a blessed activity.

I ate the entire plate to be polite.  Though it was delicious, the portion is quite big, and it's tough choking down that amount of raw meat.  If any of our dear readers plan on trying laap dip, it's a good dish to share with a few people.  In Thailand, any dish can be eaten at any time of the day, but very often laap is eaten for breakfast.  Whiskey is often drank with it.  I highly recommend doing the same.  The combination of whiskey and naam prik laap is a natural match, begging for a cocktail interpretation.  There is a reason why laap is a classic dish, and as with all classics around the world, it should be enjoyed the way that locals do.  It would have been very easy to turn our noses at laap dip, and to frown on whiskey at breakfast time, but we would have shortchanged our experience in Chiang Mai.