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A Hunger For Yunnan

By Bertil Lintner, the REVIEW's Burma correspondent, based in Bangkok.

Ran Aharn Mitr Mai, 42/2 Ratchamanka Road, Chiang Mai 50000. Tel: (66-53) 275-033.

There is no shortage of Chinese restaurants in Chiang Mai serving up specialties from Guangdong, Fujian and even Beijing. But surprisingly few eateries offer the succulent spicy cuisine of Yunnan--the home of a large segment of the local Chinese community. Some food stalls run by Panthays, or Hui--a Muslim minority from Yunnan which has long dominated the caravan trade between northern Thailand, upper Burma and southern China--dish it up near the Chinese mosque in the night market area. But for mainstream Yunnanese cuisine, immigrants and visiting traders from China's isolated southwest head for Ran Aharn Mitr Mai, the "New Friends' Restaurant."

Its cleanliness, fast service and prices are unbeatable. The menu lists 115 regular items, a dozen "fast food" dishes such as Yunnanese fried rice, and nine house specialties--nearly all in the 40-130 baht ($1.10-3.40) range.

Ordering from the menu is easy for customers who read Thai or Chinese. But the English translations appear to have been done straight out of a Chinese-English dictionary: "White baby in bamboo" is the white larvae of the bamboo bug, a Yunnanese delicacy which, in its deep-fried form, is a popular snack. "A fish can cook two kinds of cooking" may sound bewildering, but is a delicious freshwater fish dish, prepared with two different combinations of herbs and spices. Other specialties may be easier to decipher, like bees, fried pigs' brains, steamed Yunnanese ham with ginger--or dried fried milk. Resembling thin sheets of cheese dipped in oil, it is a local specialty not found in any other Chinese cuisine. If the menu is too confusing, just walk into the kitchen, in a glass enclosure behind the downstairs dining hall.

Everything is prepared in full view of the customers. The owner, a long-time Yunnanese resident of Chiang Mai affectionately known as Long Duan, or "Uncle Duan," is usually at hand to give advice. Mitr Mai's excellent fish dishes are always fresh: Most fish are bred on the premises and tossed into the pot from the tanks.

For years, Uncle Duan's restaurant was located in a small, run-down, wooden house on Loi Kroa Road not so far from the night market. But recently, the restaurant moved to new premises on Ratchamanka Road, just around the corner from the bars and Western-style steak houses on Chiang Mai's main tourist drag, Moon Muang. It still attracts an unorthodox clientele of Kokang and Yunnanese traders. But several private, upstairs rooms now cater to individual parties. Tourists usually sit in the room downstairs, which is open to the street outside. Especially popular with foreigners, the cook says, is yam hua chai thao sod, a spicy salad made from fresh Chinese radish. The shiny new premises may be a bit more sterile than the old place. But the food is just as good and the prices are still affordable, making Mitr Mai an excellent place to make "new friends"--or to dine with old business partners.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, November 6, 1997

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