Meet Grandma Lek (and yes, she is small). She’s the hands and heart behind the food at a fantastic new little Chiang Mai spot called, appropriately, Grandma’s Thai Recipes. There she is above, making one of her specialties, mee krob.
Grandma has long cooked for a popular restaurant on one of Chiang Mai’s outer ring highways. But granddaughter Jib and her husband opened the new spot in February with an aim toward foreign eaters. It’s tiny, and it looks like one of those arty little cubbyhole restaurants on Bangkok’s Phra-A-Thit Road. Grandma’s sits near Thapae Gate on the moat road, perhaps an unlikely area to find Thai food of this caliber. But it’s here, and Grandma awaits you.
So does Jib. She looks forlorn, glancing at the street as tourists browse her menu and pass right by. She says backpackers complain her prices are too high (apparently $7-$10 is too much for a fresh two-person meal cooked in an open kitchen right before the eyes). Problem is, Jib wants to offer real Thai food, healthy food, food cooked the way Grandma likes to cookâ€”but she thinks tourists want 20-baht noodles, sandwiches and fruit drinks instead. She’s thinking of finding a decent bread supplier so she can add Thai sandwiches to the menu, in addition to Grandma’s homestyle recipes.
Jib asks her guests for advice on attracting and keeping foreign customers. One young man, a nutritionist, advises her to promote her healthy ingredients. I ask if she cooks with organic foods. Her answer: yes, when she can. She keeps her own organic garden and buys organic when possible. But some supposedly organic ingredients in Thailand are not always so. (This is substantiated by the farmers I have interviewed in years past who grow such vegetables. They admit organic is a goal but not yet an absolute acheivement.) “I don’t want to lie to the people,” Jib says. So, no big sign declaring organics at Grandma’s. What we do find on our next visit: a colorful chalkboard declaring no MSG.
If you’re interested in real Thai food, Grandma and Jib are delighted to give it. In fact, Jib will give you the dinner off her plate, if it’s a Grandma special and it sounds like something you might like. Or she’ll offer to fry up a mound of fresh vegetables, whatever she has on hand from the market that day (such as local fern-like greens mixed with garlic, not often found on tourist menus).
Jib comes from Chiang Mai, but Grandma comes from the Central region and has some Muslim roots, which enter her recipes at times. Her specialty is curry, all curries, any curries. Ask for her Massaman. And ask for her own special nam phrik kapi. It’s made from shrimp paste, chile, lime, sugar, garlic and green mango to give it a different but tantalizingly sweet-sour kick. Better yet: in addition to the usual accompanimentsâ€”mackerel, cucumber, eggplant, eggplant frittersâ€”Grandma serves hers with white turmeric slices, which are tender and mild but fragrant and healthy. (A cancer cure? Wouldn’t surprise me, given all of the benefits of turmeric in general.)
We choose Grandma Lek for our last meal in Chiang Mai before departing for Cambodia. Grandma finishes before we do. As she’s walking out the door, she turns to her granddaughter and asks, “Are they coming back tomorrow? Because I want to cook something special for them.” As though she hasn’t already.