And so our third year of tropical holidays arrived. About a year ago we prepared for Christmas in the cold Canadian North and hit the malls of Malaysia looking for anything with warmth. Unlike in Thailand where they break out heavy down coats, scarves and gloves during the “annual freeze” where overnight temperatures drop all the way to 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) (shudder), Penang’s version of winter clothes includes mostly miniscule sized Japanese products in stores like Uniqlo that even most Malaysians can’t squeeze into. Picking up a nasty Malaysian flu bug two days before the long journey back home, I quickly regretted my crazy decision since the weather didn’t climb above minus 20 for three weeks. Even our old friends didn’t want to hang out because it was too cold and snowy and I proceeded to infect Diane’s family with an unfamiliar Southeast Asian bug that wouldn’t leave my body until a month after we returned.
Having learned my lesson about thinking I miss the cold, this year we’re staying here in Chiang Mai where the malls are awash with huge Christmas trees, cars drive around carrying tress and a flood of restaurants and hotels offer holiday dinners and serve everything from ham to local seafood. But let’s talk turkey. As some readers may recall, two years ago we suffered through the worst ecological disaster in Southeast Asian history perpetuated by Indonesia’s annual irresponsible and senseless illegal agricultural burns. Creating a stench that permeated the air in four countries for over three months, the haze season was the worst on record since they began burning everything to satisfy the west’s insatiable desire for palm oil. Needing to escape, we hit Chiang Mai for a few weeks and enjoyed our first Thanksgiving dinner away from home in a restaurant called Art Cafe. Featuring a real turkey dinner with all the trimmings for about 800 Baht, it wasn’t the best we’ve ever had but it was real turkey which is probably the thing I miss the most living away from North America. Despite a government protectionist policy on foreign turkeys, we still considered doing something like that again and although there’s not nearly as many Thanksgiving dinners as Christmas in Chiang Mai, there’s still a bunch of respectably decent choices. Anything seemed better than last year’s “mock Thanksgiving dinner” cooked by an interesting character and former chef that followed our blog to the letter and literally duplicated everything we did to get our MM2H Visa.
Although the bulk of farang expats in Chiang Mai are mostly European and Australian, there’s more than a smattering of North Americans so it seemed reasonable we’d find a real turkey dinner. And we did. Kind of. Patronizing local vendors and restaurant owners that you also call new-found friends has both ups and downs. Advertised as an all you can eat Thanksgiving buffet, our good friend Mike that runs Chiang Mai Smoke House, a distributor of smoked meats and other western style food products, listed the following event on his Facebook business page along with a picture clearly illustrating a western style turkey feast
All you can eat Thanksgiving Buffet
Norbest Turkey / Smoked Ham Thanksgiving Gravy Cranberry Sauce Cornbread Cornbread Stuffing Whipped Potatoes Roasted Potatoes Cole Slaw Potato Salad Tea Leaf Salad Mac n Cheese Salad Bar Green Beans Seasonal Fruit Gourmet Cupcakes
Adults ฿600 Under 10 ฿400 Under 5 Free
There will be 2 seatings 4-6 & 7-9 Seating will be limited
Reservations & Prepayment is required for this event.
Since moving from Penang, one of my biggest disappointments is the large contingent of obnoxious know it all assholes that dominate every conversation on almost all worthwhile social media pages related to Chiang Mai. Having engaged in endless arguments over the last six months with countless anti-American Brits and fellow Yanks calling themselves “proud deplorables”, we figured our friend’s event would draw some familiar and non hostile table mates although our best friends so far are all Australians we’ve met at other events catered by the same friend. With shared roots going back to New York Jewish delis, I enjoy chatting with one of the only Americans I’ve found in Chinag Mai without attitude so we figured his event would satisfy our Thanksgiving cravings and present a good social opportunity. But for the benefit of other turkey lovers thinking of retiring in Chiang Mai, I’d caution you on a few things to look for.
Like many things in Thailand, the fine line between the official and unofficial reasons for a lot of things is often blurred and obtaining foreign turkeys for holiday events is no exception. Sadly absent from the delis, supermarkets and grocery stores, even processed turkey meat for sandwiches is woefully lacking. Although our holiday dinner two years ago did feature what tasted like real turkey, we like an opportunity to delve way into a fresh roasted turkey that’s just been carved and load our plates with dark meat, skin, breast and those perfect hot uneven slices dripping with juices. According to our friend, importing non Thai turkeys is almost akin to obtaining highly sensitive restricted goods and has something to do with government officials, relationships with customs and a host of other things better left unsaid. While some well established American style restaurants like The Duke’s and upscale hotels like The Meridian apparently have no issues offering genuine fresh roasted large western raised turkeys, the little guys seem to settle for something less than traditional.
Unclear what the official story really is, we asked about getting turkeys in Thailand over dinner with our other friend Patrick that runs the best western style restaurant in all Chaing Mai. Actually more of a strong acquaintance than friend, he’s a classically trained chef with a long career from the U.S. and Thailand at well-known establishments so we trust his word when it comes to the business end of things. Basically, his take on the foreign turkey business has something to do with protectionism and he wouldn’t really elaborate but it sounds logical that when the top gun for American food opts out of the immensely popular Thanksgiving Holiday Dinner in favor of the regular menu, he knows what he’d be able to serve wouldn’t be up to par. Thai raised turkeys are available but like local beef, the quality is greatly compromised and no sane American expat wants anything less than a giant Butterball style fresh roasted turkey hot out of the oven.
Deciding that the second seating made more sense since it was closer to dinnertime, we arrived early and searched around but found no familiar faces. Apparently, most everyone we’d socialize with or otherwise start a great dinnertime conversation with wanted to eat “early bird style” like seniors in Florida despite the equal price tag. Choosing a table close to the buffet, there was even a live guitar player and the comfortable evening temperature and lack of bugs was a huge welcome from the other events we’d been to at his outdoor seating venue. Some tall Germans asked if they could sit next to us and sometime after 7 PM, the food came out. Not being huge fans of a heavy fat and calorie content, the sides were better tasting and less fatty than last time but lacked some traditional stuff we’d rather see in favor of Burmese Tea Salad and other Southeast Asian dishes. The potatoes and stuffing were good however and as we approached the turkey laid out in an aluminum pan, I was somewhat disappointed although we knew a hotel style carving station wouldn’t be part of the evening.
Having worked at a gourmet grocery store during my darkest days of involuntary unemployment while living in Calgary, I know what great fresh roasted turkey tastes like and nobody does it better than Sunterra Market in Alberta. Raising their own turkeys, they roast six or eight per day and then offer them as lunch meat in the deli department. Immediately knowing we weren’t being served “fresh roasted turkey”, the first clue came with the perfectly even processed looking slices of only breast meat with a slightly salty glaze. Besides Butterball, I’d never heard of any other company mass producing turkeys in America but it turns out they call the turkeys our friend ordered “Norbest” and although it was implicitly stated on his Facebook event page, I thought nothing of it and figured it was a name for some special type of farm raised turkey.
Realizing later that most American expats in Thailand (including myself) had no what a “Norbest” was, I Googled it and lo and behold, up came a Utah based company that began as a producer owned cooperative called Utah Poultry Producers Association back in 1923. That’s all well and fine but the key thing to look for if you’re craving real roasted fresh turkey that came out of an oven is on their “about” page;
“We are a leader in pre-based turkeys, bone in breasts, roasts and other convenience items.”
And that explains how we wound up with a supermarket quality pre-cooked processed “turkey roast” and not a real Thanksgiving turkey with skin, dripping juices, dark meat, gizzards and thighs. Mind you I’m not upset or mad at our friend because it should’ve been my place to ask more questions. But with one more major holiday on the calendar, we scrolled through Steve’s monthly email list of all things Chiang Mai and decided on Christmas Eve Dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel. Offering a promising array of holiday treats, we’re splurging at 2,888 Thai Baht per person but for real turkey, I’d pay almost anything. Almost. But not $79 USD, which is the absolutely insane price we saw last year for a stale frozen turkey in Cold Storage, Penang’s only real choice for a western supermarket.
Thankfully, the times are changing in the suburbs of Chiang Mai and there’s a few new restaurants and eateries opening right on the street outside our moo-baan that piqued our curiosity. One of the biggest Chinese tour bus joints not in the Old City is the The Good View Village. Always wanting to try it but hating crowds and tourists we avoid it like the plague. But they’re opening a smaller “all day version” so maybe we’ll give a shot. Better than that, a very upscale looking Thai/semi-western restaurant called Chom Cafe and Restaurant opened this week right down the street from us. Clearly spending some hefty bucks, somebody broke the bank and it looks like a trendy more upscale hipster place for the yuppies in Nimman or the “high-so” Thais. With beautiful landscaping, marble bathrooms like a hotel and a relaxing quiet dining room with soft music and a very attentive staff, I’m not sure who they’re trying to attract but since we can walk there, we gave it a shot last night.
Featuring mostly seafood and some imported beef, chicken and pork, the dishes were all plated nicely and service was very fast although sadly, there were only about two or three other tables of patrons by 8 PM on their first Friday night. The dish above is a yellow curry seafood with shredded egg which was a perfect blend of spice and flavor and not your typically runny Indian curry dish. Large mussels are amazingly tasty in this landlocked province and this was no exception. Pasta dishes with Thai flare are quite common in Thailand and their version of Tom Yum Spaghetti differed from of most others we’ve had and featured an orange-colored slightly creamy sauce with hints of lemongrass but it wasn’t immensely spicy.
Finishing off the meal with a beef dish in something called Grand Ma Sauce and some tasty fried rice with fresh crab, the price tag was 770 Thai Baht (about $23 USD). Unclear if they’ll be able to survive given the suburban location, we highly recommend it if you’re a Chiang Mai suburbanite looking to avoid the parking and crowd hassles of the Old City. They also have a free parking lot, desserts that are unusually good for Asia and a café serving specialty drinks. Also featuring European beer and wine, the expat community feels the booze is way overpriced and we don’t usually drink alcohol so I wouldn’t know or care. But God Forbid the Europeans don’t get their cheap booze so they’ve mostly already trashed the place before even trying it.
And finally, sometimes things get lost in translation. After an unusually drab and crappy November, the “cool season” finally arrived in December but only for a few days. Not like those “under 20 Degree Celsius nights” they all promised would be here, there’s been a slew of decent days with nice clear skies and comfortable sleeping weather.
But unlike past years when we’ve visited in high season, it hasn’t lasted long. Although the forecast called for a 50% chance of rain, what’s really going on are skies are already starting to get hazy from the annual “smoke season” that usually begins in late February when farmers burn their land continuously and everybody suffers. Already seeing some complaints on social media, I gave up talking about it because ultimately, Thailand is a developing nation and like all expats, I can complain on Facebook but I don’t expect any meaningful environmental legislation that threatens the livelihood of the local population. Anyway, while shopping in Tesco for an air purifier, we came across the sign seen in the sidebar picture and wondered if we slept through an entire year? If it’s holiday season in 2018, did Trump get impeached? Surely I wouldn’t miss that. Our car’s registration reads the year 2560 and the Buddhist calendar ends in April yet they begin dating things 2561 in January of the Christian year 2018. And just like in the Muslim nation of Malaysia, they inundate the malls with holiday music, gift baskets and Santa images every December. All I really want is some fresh roasted turkey.
If you’re visiting Chiang Mai this holiday season, here’s the link for the most comprehensive list of happenings during December.
Comments always welcome and Happy Holidays from Thailand