An introduction to homespun northern Thai

By law as decreed from the Thai Restaurants of America Council (nonexistent), every Thai restaurant stateside must include, on page 1 of its menu next to an elephant deity, the following: pad Thai, pad see ewe, green papaya salad, tom yum soup. Please do not forget the crab rangoon.

Personally, I enjoy the aforementioned dishes and am delighted for their crossover success. But as Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker wrote in his cookbook, Thai food, like Italian or Chinese, is more than a half-dozen crowd pleasers. It represents a country "that for most of its existence was a gaggle of peoples of many religions, languages and cultures," he wrote, "all loosely linked by landmass and nominally by government purview and political borders."

So let's talk about northern Thai cooking. I can only speak on the subject in broad strokes, so here's Chef McDang, Thailand's best-known food personality, in his book "The Principles of Thai Cookery": "Northern cuisine is also dominated by more fatty foods and milder, more unctuous flavors."

From Pok Pok's Ricker: "A comparatively cool climate and a historical abundance of food. … Marked by generous use of dried spices, frequent appearance of fresh turmeric, and prevalent bitterness. … Cooks tend to use tamarind instead of lime."

And from Chicago's Leela Punyaratabandhu, author of the forthcoming "Simple Thai Food" cookbook, who told me: "What set the north apart are the indigenous flora of its unique geography as well as the cooking traditions of the diverse ethnic groups living in and near it. Even though some sort of salty and fermented ingredient is used to impart salinity and umami to foods in all regions of Thailand, the landlocked north relies on fermented soybeans (thua nao) as opposed to fermented shrimp (kapi) commonly used in the south and the central plains, or fermented fresh-water fish (pla ra) commonly used in the northeast."

Which leads us to the staple of every northern Thai meal: sticky rice — warm, clumpy, appealingly gummy and eaten with the fingers. The starch is so emblematic of the region that Chicago's most successful northern Thai specialist is named Sticky Rice.

For nearly a decade, Sticky Rice has hummed along just north of Irving Park Road along Western Avenue, Chicago's boulevard of Thai restaurants. In February, an offshoot opened three miles south in Logan Square called Sticky Rice Chiang Mai, the city that is Thailand's cultural center. Its menu is half the size of its flagship but with as many "Chiang Mai specials," so, proportionally, Sticky Rice II is more northern Thai than Sticky Rice I. I visited Sticky Rice Chiang Mai and eschewed the usual moo ping, som tam and lard nar in favor of its northern Thai menu.

Entry level

Kow soy: If you recognize just one northern Thai dish, there's a good chance it's kow soy ($9.95). It's the most accessible dish on this corner of the menu, a coconut curry soup bowl with mammoth chicken drumsticks and two textures of egg noodles: boiled and crispy. The kow soy here is a rather timid interpretation, however. I would've preferred upping the curry paste to level the sweet-savory field. That being said, I favor turning the funky/fishy/spicy/sourness to 11, so you just might find this bowl in that Goldilocks-baby bear zone of just right.

Gang hung lay: Though this Burmese-style curry ($8.95) is an angry-hued red, it's a 3 out of 10 on the spiciness scale. Mostly you taste the sweet complexity of tamarind and ginger. The real star is the fatty pork shoulder, braised to the point you could separate it with the tines of your fork.

Northern Thai larb: Good news and bad news. First the bad. This larb, I'm sorry to say, is wussified for Westerners (management told me so), stripped of most of the minced offal that gives the dish that off-center funk. The offal employed is, in fact, huge chunks of liver, which in such large pieces tastes minerally and off-putting. Now the good news: I suspect 98 percent of readers will prefer this non-entrails/kidney/bile version ($8.50). In fact, it was the consensus favorite of the day, a dish of crumbled ground pork and long green beans with that good stank of shrimp paste. One note: The larb you're used to is probably the Laotian interpretation of the dish, the one with lime juice, fish sauce and toasted rice powder. That version is elsewhere on the menu under larb, without the northern Thai prefix.

Next step

Northern Thai sausage (sai oua): Somewhat of a rarity in Chicago, as you're more likely to encounter sai krok Isaan, the fermented pork sausage of northeast Thailand. Sai oua ($5.95) has a complex flavor, a prevalence of lemon grass, red curry paste and kaffir lime, its colors producing a cross section that resembles a rastafarian flag. My preference would be for an extra minute on the grill to achieve that crackled casing. Even with its interior coarse and fatty from ground pork and pork skin, the sausage could stand to be more moist.

Nam prik nhum: This version of northern Thailand's most ubiquitous nam prik — mortar-and-pestled chile dips — fools the mind of the uninitiated. Somehow, this sauce ($8.50) tastes like a cross between Mexican salsa verde and the eggplants in baba ghanouj. In reality, it's a cool and garlicky sludge of charred green chiles rounded with a hit of fish sauce. Scoop raw vegetables into this, or slather onto kai tod ($7.95), the crackly fried Thai chicken wings.

Ap pla: "Ap" is the quintessentially northern Thai method of grilling meats wrapped in banana leaves. The fish that gets ap'd here is sole ($12.95), a white-flesh fish in that happy medium between firm and flaky. The texture, though, is all that remains — sole tastes fairly neutral to begin with, and the marinade obliterates whatever flavor is left with Thai chiles, lemon grass, green onions and kaffir lime. If you're have a taste for tom yum goong soup, you'll recognize this immediately. Not for the meek.

Sticky Rice Chiang Mai

1746 N. Western Ave.; 312-818-1810

stickyricecm.com

Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Noon-10 p.m. Sunday

Recommended dishes: Gang hung lay, northern Thai larb, kai tod, ap pla

kpang@tribune.com

Twitter @pang