Huan Soontaree Vechanont restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Chiang Mai

Huan Soontaree Vechanont
 Huan Soontaree Vechanont

The heritage of Northern Thailand and of Chiang Mai itself, is nowhere more evident than at Huan Soontaree. There is something here for each of the five senses. It is most evident in the taste and smell of Chiang Mai specific cuisine that emanates from the kitchen of head chef Salunu Muangwon. No Western food invades these premises - but there are any manner of river fish, northern curries and chili sauces.

Many interesting aspects delight the restaurant goers' sight. The decorations of this classic traditional house, with its multitude of cloth hangings and scattered antiques lining the walls, is most definitely northern. Entries in the menu and even the name of the restaurant itself are in Northern Thai. Huan is Northern Thai for "Ban," (house in Central Thai dialect). Literally, it is the "House of Soontaree Vechanont," one of the most famous singers to hail from Northern Thailand.

Then there is the feel of the hard wood floor upstairs, where patrons are seated in the traditional northern style around a table without chairs.

And the sounds - well, that is where this restaurant stands apart from the rest of the eateries that line the river. The sounds, instrumental and vocal, are all northern. The owner, for which the restaurant is named, comes to the microphone six nights out of seven, never on Sunday, to sing northern songs, celebrating her beloved culture - the culture of the north.

It is later at night when Huan Soontaree really comes alive, when the songs start to flow and the darkness of the evening matches the black tablecloths and dimly lit interior of this restaurant. On weekend nights, reservations are almost always required. Come early, anytime after 4 p.m. when the restaurant officially opens and you can catch sight of the staff preparing for the night ahead and even random snatches of kayaks making their way up and down the Ping River. You also see the scattered bits of rust left on the tables, from the rainy season floods and the age of the building itself. Nighttime hides these eccentricities.

Some nine years ago, further strengthening her quest to promote the Lanna culture, Soontaree convinced the talented Thai chef of the Prince Hotel, Khun Muangwon to accept the essential role of Head of Operations at her "house'. Ever since, Muangwon's kitchen has served a unique array of Chiang Mai treats, specially and more exactingly prepared than in other locations around town. One can sense the dedication in his explanation of how he makes his Gang Hang Lay, one of the classic pork curries of the north, creamy and coconut-laced.

"That has a real good taste," he says. "It takes three hours to make it. I make 15 kilos a day. I use both curry powder and hang lay powder and I use sugar cane instead of sugar. People usually don't bother with those. They just use sugar. It's very difficult to make. It takes a lot of time."

Our party tried some of the other dishes of the house, including a northern sampler, Saba fish with soy sauce and steamed crab/pork meat on bean curd. The northern sampler included sticky rice, an array of sausages and the ubiquitous green chili sauce of the north - "nam prik noom." This sampler is very authentic in appearance and flavour. Although we have been in Thailand long enough to have seen and tasted some rather unusual dishes, we must admit that we sent the raw items in the sampler back to be cooked! The remaining portions were highly palatable. The saba was flaky and succulent, cooked just long enough to enhance its sweet flavour. The crab/pork meat complemented the bean curd in both texture and taste and was laced with spring onions and egg.

There are so many other specialties to choose from - the northern sampler is almost more of an appetizer to whet your appetite for more.

Besides the aforementioned pork curry, Huan Soontaree is known for its boneless grilled snakehead fish, stuffed with garlic, egg and pepper. That dish is another of Muangwon's inventions, the other is chicken stuffed with crab meat and egg, topped with mayonnaise and lemon sauce.

Muangwon is an amiable person, well-disposed to talk about food preparation and the long hours he usually has to put in to ensure constant quality.

When asked about the continuing success of Huan Soontaree and the reasons it stands apart from all the other riverside attractions of Chiang Mai, he offers up the following concise explanation - "it has a good location, good food and a really good singer."

Huan Soontaree Vechanont is located at 46/1 Wang Singkhum Road in Chiang Mai.
Tel: 053-252445,
Fax: 053-872348.

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- December Issue, 2002

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