5 cafes to check out in chiang mai

khagee banana bread
khagee sarnie

sitting at the foothills of what are among thailand’s highest mountains and boasting a milder climate than most of the country’s other prominent cities, chiang mai is fast becoming a popular destination for travellers to the land of smiles. love bangkok’s diversity but weary of its unavoidable congestion and frantic pace? been to hua hin, phuket and the outlying islands, and had enough of beach massages and motorcycle tours to last a lifetime?

chiang mai is the ideal middle ground; there is more than enough to satiate your wanderlust and taste for off-beat encounters, wrapped up and delivered on a zen platter of laidback surrender. you can do as much as you want or as little, and still have a finger on its pulse.

walking around the city, you will find plenty of reasons to sit down for a breather from the many wats and linger over coffee, cakes and local bites. here are five favourite cafes to do just that.

khagee facade
khagee interiors
khagee window
khagee counter

 khagee natural yeast bread cafe

you have to keep your eyes open to spot this gem of a cafe as it’s housed in the unlikeliest location: in a three-unit, double-storey building that’s over a century old, with its upper level wrapped in a wooden facade. the street front cafe is diagonally across nawarat bridge that connects to chiang mai’s old city, and looks out to the promenade of the river ping.

khagee cakes

the cafe’s name is printed in small white letterings on the glass windows, its existence as inconspicuous as its interiors are minimalist, with a decidedly japanese vibe that would place it well within the pages of monocle or kinfolk. white-washed walls make a clean backdrop for a mixed bag of furniture pieces in soft tones with vintage edges, while slender steel fittings complement the sleek wooden counter that smacks of scandinavian flair.

its aesthetics reflect khagee’s owners, the strapping khame who is of thai origin, and his japanese girlfriend gee (khagee is a portmanteau of their names). gee was a hairstylist in tokyo before she took up a short course in bread-making, not knowing then that it would lead to her current vocation. she single-handedly bakes everything that’s served at khagee, which explains its small menu of sandwiches and cakes.

khagee gee

the pork pastrami baguette sandwich is close to porcine perfection, with tender slices of the cured meat nestled between layers of crisp vegetables, gouda cheese, a slap of mayonnaise and mustard. holding them together is gee’s claim to fame: a baguette that’s so airy on the inside that the sandwich is practically as light as a feather, while its crust is satisfyingly crunchy.

for a sweet finish, the berry banana bread is a short stack built from two pieces of toasted bread sandwiching a generous layer of cream cheese, with more piled on top, then drizzled with a berry compote and finished with a sprinkle of chopped pistachios. what you get is a winning combination of textures and flavours, ideal for washing down with a cup of local asama coffee.

             

29-30 chiang mai-lumphun road tel +66 82 975 7774 opens 10am-5.30pm, wednesday-sunday www.facebook.com/khageecafe

 


diff sweet
diff interiors
khagee teas

 

diff home bakery and kitchen

wannalah suwannapoo, or mei, and her husband was running diff as a coffee takeaway kiosk at a mall before expanding to this full-fledged cafe opposite the gymkhana golf course. decked out with leafy plants out front and rain boots converted into flower pots, diff stands out like a modern country home. inside, that quintessential english outlook is tempered with doses of eclecticism, like cushy armchairs upholstered in polka dotted pastel fabric while a light bulb sign spells out the word ‘sweet’ on one wall.

khagee coffee

it’s an appropriate description of diff’s specialties, a variety of cakes and cookies all baked by mei, and includes options that are friendly to those on gluten-free and vegan diets. start your day here with a cup of freshly brewed single-estate organic arabica beans supplied by doi chaang, an independent coffee company set in the hills of northern thailand and owned by hill tribe families.

diff also stocks an extensive range of regular and organic teas, displayed on their counter like badges of honour in between bags of coffee beans. for breakfast or tea, choose your cuppa and pair it with thick slabs of french toast, waffles and a selection of pastries. more substantial meals can be had for lunch and dinner, with pastas and grilled sandwiches among their more popular offerings.

 

17 rat uthit road, t wat kate, muang district tel +66 89 850 3845 opens 8am-5pm daily www.facebook.com/cafebydoichaangcoffee

 


somnuek main
khagee stall
somnuek sewing machine
somnuek tins

somnuek kopi

a short walk from diff and facing an old tree with heavy branches, this cafe is practically hidden in plain sight. like khagee, it’s a 100-year-old wooden house with the main road running right by it.

khagee toast

a small signage announces its presence, in thai, which will undoubtedly be lost on foreign travellers but if you find your way here, you will be rewarded with owner somnuek tanapornpirom’s signature kopi (that’s coffee in thai) brewed the old-fashioned way using a cloth filter. he is often invited to ‘pop up’ at hotels and serve his aromatic beverages. dressed in a khaki ensemble that’s reminiscent of planters’ uniforms, complete with a domed hat, somnuek will turn up with his trusty vintage bicycle that’s specially outfitted to function as a mobile coffee bar – just like the good old days.

somnuek window

befittingly, his eponymous joint is like a time capsule of thailand past, reeking of nostalgia with every nook and cranny crammed with antiques and retro collectibles. the layout recalls a coffee shop in parts and a cosy home in others, while a semi alfresco seating area towards the back is a picture of serenity, perched over the river and decked out in overhanging greens.

besides kopi, the other thing to try here is the very simple but satisfying toast with condensed milk, browned pieces of thick hainanese-style bread cut into triangles and drizzled over with the sticky syrup.

 

176-178, chiang mai-lamphun road, mueang tel +66 81 575 4338 opens 10am-6pm daily www.facebook.com/somnuekkopi

 


beet stories mural
beet stories wall

 

beetroot stories

beet stories yogurt

fat turmeric-spiced sausages, spicy-savoury pad kra pao moo (basil pork) with rice, mangoes with purple sticky rice, zesty papaya salads...there is no end to the variety of lip-smacking good food to be had in chiang mai. but on days when you know you’ve really overdone it and your body is calling out for some clean eating, head to this vegetarian eatery that’s just around the corner from the landmark wat chedi luang.

part of a semi-outdoor complex of retail and food outlets, beetroot stories beckons health-conscious diners with colourful cushions and a vibrant spiral wall mural that reflects its bohemian leanings. fully supportive of local and organic farms, they take the freshest seasonal produce and turn them into wholesome all-day breakfasts, sandwiches, salads, smoothies, juices and a smattering of thai dishes.

 

kad krang wieng, 71 rachadumnern road, t. phrasing a. muang tel +097 949 5561 opens 10am-9pm daily

 


lhong pa outdoors
lhong pa sign
lhong pa cafe

 lhong-pa coffee bar and home cooking

an hour outside of chiang mai city and home to high-end resorts such as the four seasons, the district of mae rim is where nature and wildlife lovers will feel right at home, with attractions that range from elephant camps to insect zoos and a tiger kingdom.

lhong pa rice

this is also where you’ll find this restful jungle cafe that has its roots as an art gallery. as popular among locals as it is tourists, lhong-pa serves thai coffees, milk tea and fruit-infused sodas alongside a menu of local and fusion grub. chill out within the air-conditioned comfort of its indoor dining area or sit tatami-style at the outdoor pavilion adjacent to its ‘zoo’, a small enclosure inhabited by gibbons.

bring a good appetite and tuck into dishes like kao pad nam prik num, which is fried rice with a spicy chutney, grilled pork, kep moo (pork scratching), a soft-boiled egg and vegetables. it’s a complete meal on its own that bursts with the authentic flavours of northern thailand.

 

soi nam tok mae sa 1 (mae sa waterfall), mae rim district, samoeng road tel +88 80 501 3028 opens 9am-6pm daily www.facebook.com/lhongpacoffeebarandhomecooking


this article first appeared in the malay mail online and crave, sunday mail

best of the fresh

markets adelaide
green tomatoes zucchini flowers
la mkt spices

one of the best ways to absorb the essence of any city is to walk through its markets, where farm-fresh produce and hot food prepared a la minute complement conversations and encounters with locals. here are six food bazaars that beg to be bookmarked as must-visits.

adel cm
adel cm candies

central provider

adel cm croc meat

known as the ‘20-minute city’ for its easy accessibility, adelaide’s list of landmarks is led by central market, the epicentre of the south australian capital since market gardeners first plied their harvests in a spot between gouger and grote street in 1869. except for hay, you can buy the same produce offered by those early vendors – vegetables, fruits, seafood, game meats – and of course the variety has grown tremendously over the years to include specialty providores with arrays of cheeses, nuts and gourmet cooking ingredients. on fridays, the market takes on a festive mood with cooking demonstrations and live music performances.

44-60 gouger street, adelaide, south australia opens 7am-5.30pm, tuesday; 9am-5.30pm, wednesday & thursday; 7am-9pm, friday; 7am-3pm, saturday; closed sunday & monday http://www.adelaidecentralmarket.com.au/


boquiera eggs
boquiera legs of ham

world’s best

boquiera sardines

what started as a travelling open-air market by the gates of the old city in the 13th century is now one of barcelona’s biggest attractions: mercat st josep de la boquiera, named the best market in the world at the world markets congress 2005. walk through the steel arch marking the entrance and into the shade provided by the metal roof, built in 1914, where more than 100 stalls display a myriad fresh ingredients popularly used in spanish or catalan cuisine. there are pork of all cuts and cures; chillies and bold spices; anchovies and various fresh catches; emu, ostrich and poultry eggs; mushrooms for every dish conceivable. the market also hosts food-related events and activities at its culinary classroom.

rambla, 91, barcelona, spain opens 8am-3pm, tuesday-thursday; 8am-5pm, friday & saturday; closed monday http://www.boqueria.info/


albert cuyp mkt
albert cuyp mkt 2

busy bazaar

albert cuyp berries

amsterdam’s many gorgeous canals are the perfect settings for a waterside picnic on a crisp spring afternoon but before you pick your spot, fill your baskets with nibbles from the city’s biggest and busiest open-air market, on albert cuyp street. it was officially established as a market in 1905 but vendors had found their way here much earlier. today, close to 300 stalls present a smorgasbord of fresh and cooked food along with arts and crafts, clothes and fashion accessories. the perfect picnic snack to load up on is stroopwafel, a local favourite that sandwiches a layer of caramel between two pieces of thin, crispy waffles. at this market, they are baked on the spot upon order so when you bite through the lattice biscuit, the piping hot syrup practically oozes out.

albert cuypstraat, amsterdam, the netherlands opens 9am-5pm, monday-saturday www.albertcuypmarkt.nl


la downtown mkt
la downtown chillies
la mkt hot food
la downtown food
la mkt cactus

 downtown delights

la mkt lady

in its heyday, broadway in los angeles was the hub of all things glitzy and glamorous. the stars have since shifted their focus to hollywood but downtown’s grand central market has remained in the spotlight as a hub for fresh and cooked food that’s as diverse as the population. opened in 1917, it supports over 90 vendors within its 2,790 square metres arcade. many of the traditional stalls have stayed on and are now joined by a slew of up and coming chefs. you can practically eat your way around the world here, from asian noodles to mexican mole.

317 south broadway, los angeles, california, usa opens 8am-6pm, sunday-wednesday; 8am-9pm, thursday-saturday www.grandcentralmarket.com


sydney fish mkt
sydney fish mkt 2

fishing for the future

tokyo’s tsukiji is not the only market where you can witness a raucous tuna auction; at the sydney fish market, wholesale auctions take place every week day morning, and visitors need to register for their behind the scenes tour to experience the lively event. this largest seafood market in the southern hemisphere – and the third largest in the world in terms of variety, after tsukiji and mexico’s la nueva viga – sells over 14,500 tonnes of seafood each year. besides retailers, there are cafes and restaurants that will dish up your seafood picks for you to enjoy on the outdoor terrace, looking out to blackwhattle bay.

bank street pyrmont, sydney, australia opens 7am-4pm, monday-thursday; 7am-5pm, friday-sunday behind the scenes tour 6.40am every monday, wednesday, thursday & fridaywww.sydneyfishmarket.com.au


hk central mkt
hk mkt 2
hk mkt 3

street sensations

hk mkt 4

a heady cocktail of chatter, aromas and colours wafts through the gage, graham and peel streets in hong kong’s central area, where the city’s oldest wet market has been holding fort for over 170 years. flanking the narrow, uphill walkway and shaded by tarpaulin canopies are stalls peddling seafood in live tanks, slabs of meats, baskets of vegetables and flowers, tables laden with fruits and boxes of dried or pickled goods. the food stalls are mostly concentrated along graham street, whereas peel street sells a motley selection of other goods at quaint kiosks enclosed by the recognisable dark green metal sheets. it’s always crowded so you can expect to be jostled by harried shoppers – all part of hong kong’s charm, really.

gage street/graham street/peel street, central, hong kong opens most stalls open by 7am each day

 

 

 

 

central to your culinary pleasure

in hong kong’s central, time-tested culinary gems abound at centennial street stalls, traditional ‘ice chamber’ coffee houses and michelin guide-ranked casual diners.

central mrt
central steps

the skin, paper-thin and glistening with oil, sheaths a thin layer of well-rendered fat coating juicy, suitably gamey meat. the most popular cut, the drumstick, sells out quickly; most diners simply order half or a whole bird to share and no one ever complains it’s too much. seating is a squeeze, as most eateries in land-scarce hong kong are, so dap toi (sharing tables) is an everyday culture. it’s certainly not the kind of place to catch up over a meal or linger but one where you order, eat, pay and clear out as fast and efficiently as the service and just as quickly, those waiting in line step in and take your place.

on the surface, there is nothing about yat lok that suggests it should have a spot in the well-respected michelin guide, which introduced its hong kong-macau edition five years ago, yet it has been ranked a bib gourmand since 2011. recognised for the quality and good value of its food – in hong kong, that translates to a three-course meal that can be had for under hkd300 – yat lok is what locals call a siu mei (chinese barbecue) restaurant. an assortment of unctuous proteins are available but it’s their roast goose that is worth queuing up for, best paired with steamed white rice and elevated with lashings of chopped ginger and spring onions in oil, a genius of a condiment that belies its simplicity.

goose gourmets had given yat lok their thumbs up even before michelin’s inspectors began their rounds, preferring its authenticity over the other central institution that’s just a few minutes away, yung kee. from a tiny stall that sold its first roast goose in 1942 to the mammoth of a restaurant it is now (it occupies five shoplots), yung kee has come to be considered a touristy joint although it draws its fair share of regulars. yet, it has only managed to hold on to its one michelin star for two years.

central yat lok skin
central brinjal pot
central graffiti
central yat lok spring onions

the annual restaurant guide may not be the definitive reference – although it comes pretty close – but it’s certainly a helpful tool to navigate hong kong’s varied culinary scene, with the bib gourmand nominees particularly loved for their affordable price points and more than decent offerings. kau kee restaurant is a respected name on this list, with a history that goes back nine decades and never wavering from its singular niche: beef noodles.

what looks like a fairly long menu is really a detailed list of what is essentially three cooking styles – in a rich herb broth, starchy curry or tossed in oyster sauce – with your choice of noodles and cut. the brisket in broth is their top seller, the sinewy bovine simply divine and melts in the mouth while the soup is a beautiful balance of bone stock and herbs.

kau kee opens at 12.30pm on the dot and not a second sooner, but the line of eager diners starts forming around noon and stretches along the pedestrian walkway. if you’re a party of more than one, consider sending your companion across the road for a takeaway snack while waiting, from sing heung yuen. this most famous dai pai tong (street food stall) in central is mobbed by the office crowd and construction site workers at lunch, vying for a place at the foldable tables and stools shaded under large umbrellas and tarpaulin sheets.

sing’s macaroni in tomato soup is famous; the tangy, watery broth really doesn’t do anything for the palate but the dish is a traditional staple that makes for easy comfort food. you can add some pizzazz to it by asking for a pork chop or fried egg on top.

central kau kee
central kau kee noodles
central lfy facade
central yuk yip
central lfy macaroni
central tai cheong

wash it down with a serving of creamy milk tea, a beverage that is synonymous with bing sutt (‘ice chamber’, which are old-school coffee shops) such as lan fong yuen. the entrance to lan fong yuen is hidden behind the dai pai tong that marked its beginnings circa 50 years ago, when customers would park themselves on low stools fronting the stall and tuck into pineapple or pork chop buns, sandwiches and macaroni in soup.

yuen’s most famous offering is their proprietary ‘pantyhose’ milk tea, so named as the fabric sieve used to filter the creamy concoction takes on the appearance of nude silk stockings after countless pours. never mind the analogy, the drink goes down like a dream whether you enjoy it hot or iced.

for old times’ sake, enjoy your cuppa while seated at the stall and observe the going-ons at the open-air street market that lan fong yuen blends so seamlessly into. walk through the lively bazaar for a crash course in the fresh produce favoured by local chefs and housewives, and to burn off calories to make room for sweets.

yuen’s most famous offering is their proprietary ‘pantyhose’ milk tea

at the corner of elgin street and hollywood road, yuk yip dessert is parked on the sloped kerbside, the menu crudely hand-painted on wooden boards that hang in front of and by the side of the stall’s dark green fixtures. yuk yip serves a mixed selection of rice dishes, noodles and light bites but it’s their tong sui (sweet dessert soups) that has upheld their reputation for nearly a century now, faithfully made using the same recipes perfected through four generations. the red bean and sesame variants are among the fastest selling items, known for their pure flavours and smooth texture.

contrastingly, crumbly and custardy are the key characteristics one looks for in another popular sweet treat: the ubiquitous egg tart, and the vote is unanimous for tai cheong bakery’s version. the last british governor of hong kong, chris patten, was their most prolific customer, a fact that helped boost the 60-year-old patisserie’s worth although that didn’t stop it from closing down for a year due to rising rent. in 2006, it reopened as part of the tao heung group and expanded very quickly into a chain that’s now more than 20-outlet strong but the original central outlet is the one most make a beeline for.

their egg tarts are cheerful looking sunshine-yellow confections that encase luscious custard in aromatic, buttery shells and fly off the shelves by the boxes, along with sa yung, sugar-coated dough puffs that are crispy on the outside and spongey within. also known as hong kong-style doughnuts, it’s a well-loved traditional snack that’s not commonly available these days, making it a specialty that’s sought after.

just as its streets teem with vehicular and pedestrian traffic all day and night while its skyline perennially inches upwards, central’s culinary landscape is a flavoursome hot pot of myriad gratifying eats prepared by chefs who are constantly reaching for the stars.

 

> yat lok g/f, 34-38 stanley street opens 7am-7pm, mon-sat; 9am-3.30pm, sunday & public holidays

yung kee 32-40 wellington street opens 11am-11.30pm daily except first three days of chinese new year

kau kee 21 gough street opens 12.30pm-10.30pm, mon-sat

sing heung yuen 2 mei lun street opens 8am-5.30pm, mon-sat

lan fong yuen 2 gage street opens 7am-6pm daily

yuk yip 2 elgin street, near hollywood street opens 12pm-12.30am

tai cheong 35 lyndhurst terrace opens 7.30am-9pm, mon-sat; 8.30am-9pm, sun & public holidays


central robuchon ouef
central robu 2

this story first appeared in the edge review

 

 

 

 

 

wantanamera: penang wantan mee

wantan mee is not just wantan mee when it's penang wantan mee. pardon our rambling, but the northern version of this kopitiam staple has really got our foodie radar up, in a very good way. petite portions of springy, curly egg noodles tossed in an aromatic blend of thick soy sauce and sesame oil with crunchy (or boiled in soup) meat-filled parcels, a few strands of choy sum (usually negligible) and slices of char siew. what's not to like? here's our pick of some of george town's most satisfying plates.

note: for this review, we only tried the konlou (dry) versions

 

IMG_4244.PNG

34 lebuh acheh 

to quote the intimidating but very wise pierre marco white, 'keep it simple' and 'perfection is lots of little things done well'. this sidewalk breakfast stall hits the nail on the spot on both counts. you get a plate of al dente noodles with bits of crunchy lardons and char siew that is a good balance of fat and lean - a simple thing, but is so hard to find where wantan mee is concerned, they usually come in cardboard-like texture - swimming in a pool of aromatic, unctuous sauce. the unspoken rule for any konlou noodle is the blacker the sauce, the better it tastes - check. 

by default, the konlou version comes with fried wantans and such crispy delights they are. instead of pickled green chillies (it is available though, if you want) which are the wantan mee norm, here you get a spoonful of savoury, not-too-spicy sambal. this 14-year-old stall, run by a lovely elderly couple, also offers fried versions of the noodles. cooked and served the same way as the regular noodles, the fried variants provide a moreish texture that soaks up the thick, jet black soy sauce extremely well. you'd want to spoon up every last bit of the sauce. try their sui kow too, translucent parcels of well-flavoured minced pork, bouncy prawns and crunchy jicama.

altogether, it's a lovely start to the day and most importantly, mr ng is consistent in his delivery. we ate here practically every day for two weeks and every plate was flawless. wash it down with a hot cup of kopi or kopi c ping from the nearby kopitiam. the coffee is thick and fragrant and complements the wantan mee perfectly.

find it on the five foot walkway of the row of shops opposite ben's vintage toy museum opens 7.30am-1.30pm, mon-fri; 7.30am-1pm, sat-sun price starts from rm3.20 per plate 

 

IMG_4246.PNG

lebuh chulia (1)

a local favourite, this old-timer stall opens around 6pm each evening but by 5.30pm or so, faithful fans would have parked themselves at the tables, waiting patiently while the elderly lady and (presumably) her son who run the stall go about setting things up. once the water is hot enough and everything is ready, plates of dry or soup wantan mee (the noodles are handmade) fly out of the stall. besides the regular fine noodles, you can also order the thick mee pok-like variant. 

the soy sauce base is excellent - aromatic with strong hints of fried shallots, silky and just the right level of thickness - and the lardons are fresh tasting and crispy. the noodles, on the other hand, fell a bit flat in texture and the char siew is the typical bane of wantan mee as mentioned earlier: they tasted like cardboard shavings.

find it diagonally across from the mugshot cafe, in front of a mattress shop opens from around 6pm daily price RM3.30 per plate


lebuh chulia (2)

just steps away, another wantan mee stall makes a much more low-key presence, serving mostly regulars while tourists tend to flock to the other. at the start of business, their noodles pile cover up the entire glass cabinet that fronts the stall and moves slowly; towards the end of the night, you can still see more than half of the tiny yellow bundles stacked up. which is a start difference from the other stall, where the mountain of noodles shifts quickly, leaving the cabinet bare in no time.

but how do they compare, taste wise? we decided to check this out too and were pleasantly surprised to find that they should be giving the other stall a good run for their money. while the soya sauce mix is less fragrant, it is still a good concoction that coats the noodles evenly. more importantly, their noodles really stand out for their fine quality that are not unlike those served at popular wantan noodles restaurants in hong kong. less curly than the other wantan mee we taste tested in penang and narrower too, the texture is more akin to that of a thick vermicelli but with a silky smooth outer layer. 

between the two lebuh chulia wantan mee, our vote goes to this.

find it a few steps away from the popular wantan noodle stall, usually next to a burger stall. opens from around 5-6pm daily price RM3.30 per plate


IMG_4245.PNG

maria's wantan mee

at rm3 per plate, maria's is the most expensive of the stalls reviewed here and no, it doesn't come with any additional or specials. just good old wantan mee done the usual way. the noodles are the gem of this plate, ultra springy with a good bounce to every bite. unfortunately that is the only plus point we can give to maria's; everything else on the plate just didn't cut it. the sauce base was no standout, the wantans are run of the mill, and the char siew is simply negligible.  

find it golden city coffeeshop, jalan burma (next to new world park and near tune hotels) opens around 6pm daily price rm3 per plate

 

IMG_4243.PNG

rm2 wantan mee at cf food court

on the opposite end of the price extreme is this stall, near the clan jetties, which is also known as the rm2 wantan mee - because that is the price of each plate. and no, they don't appear to scrimp on any of the ingredients or portion. the uncle has supposedly been selling wantan mee for over four decades now (he started when he was 15) and is still strong on his feet, dishing them out as quickly as the orders come in. 

taste wise, there are no standouts on the plate but neither do we have any complaints. the presentation is a little messy compared to the rest but this hawker's food, so we're not expecting art on a plate either. all in all, a decent plate that we wouldn't mind eating again, especially at such an honest-to-goodness price. 

find it cf food court 48-58 lebuh armenian opens 5am-11am, mon-sat note the price has since been revised to rm2.20 per small plate