A Sunny Tour of Northern Thailand

What you get when you combine a top Portland restaurateur with a keen local cook.
Prem Cooking School

It’s obvious when Suntorn “Sunny” Chailert likes the way a curry is coming along in the kitchen. He lifts a big spoonful, closes his eyes, sniffs, and moans. “Mmmmmmmm.” But it’s equally apparent when he senses disaster—such as with an entire pan of khanom krok, little Thai coconut sweets, that come off the grill spongy like pancakes rather than creamy like pudding. Into the garbage they go, as he scrunches his face in offense.

Sunny is a man of opinions and taste buds—just the sort of sidekick Andy Ricker needs in his mission to conduct Northern Thai Culinary Tours in and around Chiang Mai. Andy owns the popular Asian street food restaurant Pok Pok, in Portland. But it’s Sunny who grew up with papayas and passion fruit falling from the trees of his native village in Mae Rim, and was raised by women who cooked for the Royal Thai Family.

Sunny leads us to a whiskey barn where his neighbor makes magic with sticky rice, boiling it and fermenting it in plastic buckets until it reaches a sweet, smooth, 30-percent alcohol level (sometimes higher). “This is the conventional way of making whiskey,” Sunny says. “Each family has their own recipe—secret.”

He guides us through a little noodle factory up the road, where an industrial mixer (powered by a car engine) squeaks and wheezes as it churns a thick, gooey rice-flour dough until it becomes silky, while a woman squirts dough through a giant nozzle on an enormous hose into a vat of boiling water, fueled by wood chips from a local lumber yard. Smoke-blackened cobwebs hang from the rafters. Three generations of women have worked here, Sunny says.

We spend the night at the Nature Lodge, a pretty little retreat on a river in the hills. Dinner entails five dishes—slow-cooked chicken curry (gaeng awm gai), Burmese-style pork curry (gaeng hung leh), minced fish salad (laap pla), steamed vegetable salad (yam pak), and stir-fried eggplant (phat makhua yao)—all made from scratch. “We don’t have any of the recipes written down for this,” Andy says, which means the group must eye Sunny carefully as he pounds cilantro root, fresh turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, and chile into the beginnings of a curry.

Sunny finishes the yam pak—sliced steamed vegetables bathed in galangal, chile, garlic, and shrimp paste—with toppings of fresh herbs, crispy fried garlic, and crushed pork rinds. Simple, superb. “You will never, ever find this in a restaurant in Chiang Mai,” he says.

That’s what makes this tour different. With Andy, you get the restaurant expertise. With Sunny, you get the local eyes and nose.

Subscribe to Gourmet