Sup nawmai was one of my favorite dishes in Chiang Mai, and no surprise: it’s got a winning combination of bamboo shoots and chili pepper.
This spicy salad of fermented bamboo can be found at places that serve Isaan, or northeastern, styles of food. It’s usually pounded with a mortar and pestle, which is a delight to watch.
(On a side note, I wonder if there is any distant relationship between sup nawmai and the sour fermented bamboo dishes favored by Yunnan Dai people.)
We tried several versions of sup nawmai, one at a night market food stall that we requested to make more spicy (phet mak mak), and another at Huen Phen, which almost seemed mild by comparison. But our favorite was definitely the one recommended by Eating Asia, their “somtam man” down in the alley behind the Warorot Market.
One bite, and we realized that we, too, were in love. The bamboo is crunchy and lightly sweet, with an added complexity from the fermentation. The spice burned in a pleasant, intoxicating way (I asked for more chilis again) – and actually, I have no idea what else was in it, but I could have happily continued eating this all day.
We might have drank up the dressing after finishing the bamboo. I was sad when the plate was empty. I wanted to come back day after day, and try every single thing.
We also ordered the grilled chicken (gai yang) from a few stalls down, which was about the most amazing grilled chicken I have ever eaten (full disclosure: I haven’t eaten chicken regularly for about 8 years). But in defense of my recommendation, this chicken was crisp in all the right places and moist and tender in all the other places. There was not a dry bit anywhere. Visually, it also looked far better than grilled or roasted chicken specimens I have seen in Beijing.
There were several pieces in a plastic bag, and it was so transcendent that I forgot to take a picture (and my hands were greasy). There was also a very good dipping sauce in a small plastic bag, and we had a hard time figuring out how to use this excellent sauce without it spilling everywhere. We managed, somehow. It was, as I said, transcendent.
Details of the somtam man’s location and other offerings, as well as more excellent Chiang Mai recommendations, can be found on Eating Asia.