Essential Eating: Isaan Food in Northeastern Thailand

Essential Eating: Isaan Food in Northeastern Thailand
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Ant egg salads, street food counters lined with entrails, carts filled with bugs. I fully understand why visitors to Thailand can be put off by Isaan food. As not all of it is appealing and much is the complete opposite. But bravado and beetle munching aside, Isaan food does offer much of the best eating in Thailand, and it is very easy to track down in Bangkok. And while I do spend much of my time in Isaan’s rural rice fields, the Isaan stables are not always so widely available, as village shops and vendors often just specialise in one or two varying Thai dishes. Whereas Bangkok will always have Isaan-specific restaurants at near every other corner. Anyway, this is my Top 10 Isaan Food guide sharing the staples of Northeastern Thailand.  Note, Isaan food (or at least salads) will be eaten with sticky rice, and sides of white cabbage (Pak Gad Khao), sweet basil (Horapa), and Long Beans (Tua Fak Yao).

1. Grilled Pork Neck (Kor Moo Yang, คอหมูย่าง)

Perfect slices of pork neck, coated in a rich, sticky marinade, barbecued over charcoals and served with a sour, spicy side of chilli sauce (Nam Jim Jaew). Sounds good? I can go one better. Yum Kor Moo Yang. The added ‘Yum’ meaning ‘to mix hot and tangy ingredients’. Combine the grilled pork neck with a sweet, sour, salty and hot salad and perfection. The signature combination of Thai tastes is the reason why Yum Kor Moo Yang sits top of my Top 10 Isaan Food list. Yum Kor Moo Yang is best found in evenings at Isaan roadside barbecues along with me and some beers.

2. Minced Pork Salad (Laab Moo, ลาบหมู)

Originating from Laos this fiery minced pork salad is the big favourite in Isaan food. While there are variations the most popular Laab comes as a stir-fried minced pork dish with shallots, coriander and mint leaves. Seasoned with the salty of fish sauce and the sour of lime juice. Note Laab is at times found with raw uncooked meat. I would strongly advise against it.

3. Grilled Pork Salad (Nam Tok Moo, น้ำตกหมู)

Laab’s chewy brother. While others bundle it together with Laab I thought I’d be kind and give Nam Tok a place of its own. The difference between the two is the meat preparation. Instead of the minced pork as in Laab the Nam Tok Moo combines a tasty grilled pork with delicious laab flavours. Also available as beef (Nam Tok Neua). Fun fact, the name Nam Tok translates as ‘Waterfall’. Cute?

4. Isaan Sausages (Sai Krok Isaan, ไส้กรอกอีสาน)

Named after the Northeastern region in which it originates. This scrumptious sausage is one of my favourite street foods. Also one of the most common. The Isaan sausage brings a unique sour taste brought about by the fermenting of pork and sticky rice. Accompanying Galam (cabbage), sliced ginger and fresh chillies add that extra heat and spice (occasionally lime and peanuts). Roll together in a cabbage leaf, pop in your mouth, eat. Amazing. In evening hours, in puffs of smoke, lined with plump sausages, the Isaan Sausage vendors are easy to identify. Cost 10 baht per skewer.

5. Thai Hot Pot (Jim Jum,จิ้มจุ่ม)

The fiery Thai interpretation to the famous Chinese Hot Pot. Jim Jum, originating from Isaan, uses a signature Thai infused broth of shallot, Lemongrass, Chilli, Garlic and Sweet Basil. The rest is up to you. Jim Jum allows eaters to pick and prepare their own favourite ingredients. Cooked at hot pots on restaurant tables. Meats, veg, noodles whatever tickles your fancy. Once fully cooked the Jim Jum is served in small soup bowls and mixed with a hot, sour, tangy chilli sauce (Nam Jim). While traditionally prepared in clay pots the modern Jim Jum is now best found in franchised restaurants (Joom Zap Hut) at most major malls of Thailand.

6. Grilled Chicken (Kai Yang, ไก่ย่าง)

Kai Yang can be found all day, everyday, at near every street food area. It is a staple in Thailand’s diet and a great option for the non-spicy food lover. For those with spicier cravings the accompanying sides of sweet or hot chilli sauce will liven things up a bit. Best found sizzling over flaming charcoals at Bangkok’s evening barbecues. When travelling in Isaan Kai Yang is found everywhere. Often hawked on large sticks like giant chicken lollipops.

7.  Hot and Sour Soup (Tom Saap, ต้มแซ่บ)

The Isaan equivalent to the better known Tom Yum. Tom Saap literally translates as “Tasty Soup” where Saap in Isaan means “tasty” or “delicious”. And Tom Saap definitely lives up to its name. It is sweet, sour, salty and hot, with an added savoury flavour with a stock made from pork ribs. This hearty pork soup easily gives Tom Yum a run for its money (it’s a dead heat with tom yum nam khon for me) and it would be my go-to breakfast when in the rice fields of Isaan. Note, it may contain innards…

8. Papaya Salad (Som Tam Korat, ส้มตำโคราช)

Easily recognised by large mortar and pestles and bright red tomatoes. Som Tam stands are one of Thailand’s most common street food vendors. In the large mortar and pestle strips of green (unripe) papaya are crunched together with a handful of ingredients which include palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, peanuts and chillies. However, Som Tam Korat is the more popular Isaan alternative to the better known Som Tam Thai, where the ordinary fish sauce is replaced with a stronger pickled fish sauce (Pla Ra). Fiery, a little stinky, but delicious. I’ve also shared the many alternatives to this popular Thai dish here.

9. Grilled Fish (Pla Pao, ปลาเผา)

Accompanying Kai Yang over flaming charcoals. Fish are gutted, stuffed with pandanus leaves and lemongrass then coated with flour and rock salt before taking a grilling over charcoal barbecues. Served with a fish sauce, lime and chilli dip. Eat the meat not the skin. There are three common freshwater fish found at evening Isaan food barbecues. Tilapia (Pla Nin), catfish (Pla Duk Dam) and snakehead fish (Pla Duk Yan).  A favourite fish grill hangout (pictured) is found near the front of CentralWorld Mall on the walk towards Pratunam area.

10. Pork Jerky (Moo Dad Diew, หมูแดดเดียว)

The Thai equivalent to the delectable pork Jerky. Ok not overly exciting but does well for a quick nibble. Small bites of pork, marinated in dark soy, oyster sauce, garlic, pepper and palm sugar. Occasionally sprinkled with sesame seeds. The marinated pork is then left in the sun to catch some rays. Dry and glaze. A quick grilling at roadside street food vendors gives an added smokey flavour. End result, a chewy, sticky, nibbletastic pork snack. Served with a sour and spicy chilli dip (Nam Jim Jaew).

I actually spend a lot of time these days in Isaan’s rural rice fields, where every meal through the week is sourced from the family’s gardens and farm. It’s like a foodie’s paradise, where even the streets out front are lined with lemongrass and kaffir lime trees, so the smells of citrus breeze through the village every time they are trimmed. But it is relatively rare for me to eat many of the foods above. So I thought I would share some of the more common foods I find in Isaan, that aren’t exactly Isaan food, specifically, but are just very common when eating in Isaan (also check my book on Amazon sharing life in rural Thailand).

1. Veg and Chilli Dip (Nam Prik Pak)

The older generations in Isaan would eat Nam Prik Pak for almost every meal of the day. As it is a simple meal, of boiled vegetables (pak), served with rice, and a side dip of chilli sauce (nam prik). And it feels like a meal from the good old days, when it was all too easy to just grab a handful of greens from the garden, and throw them into a pot to boil. And cost pretty much nothing. So every village local would have their own variation of chilli dip, stashed in cupboards, and ready to eat with boiled veg at every meal.

2. Pork Skillet Barbecue (Moo Krata)

The is a personal favourite of mine, as I would often be invited to join local families and villagers, to gather around flaming charcoal barbecues, to share grilled meats, soups, drinks and rural banter. It is very much hands-on eating, as everyone is involved in the preparation, cooking and serving of the food (although I’m only trusted with pouring beers). Marinated meats are barbecued on the top grill of the skillet, while veg and other ingredients are boiled in a soup on the side. They are then served with a phenomenal spicy ‘Nam Jim’ chilli sauce.

3. Rice Whisky (Lao Khao, )

‘Lao Khao’, or ‘White Spirit’ as it translates to English, is a drinking potent rice whiskey, and staple in Isaan, which is somewhat synonymous with alcoholism in the rural parts of Thailand. And for those who don’t even drink it this 40% liquor still plays a role in daily life and celebration and will be gifted or involved in ceremonies such as engagements, weddings and even funeral ceremonies. It is an important part of culture and tradition in Isaan.

4. Sweet Sticky Rice (Khao Niao Wan, ข้าวเหนียวหวาน)

Sticky rice is a staple served with most Isaan meals, but it is also the main ingredient in many desserts and sweet snacks as well. And every time someone went to the local market they would arrive back with variations of sweet treats to share around. More than not it would be sticky rice mixed with coconut milk, palm sugar, and maybe some local fruit (e.g. banana). Before being wrapped in bamboo (khao lam) or banana leaves (Khao Tom Mud, ข้าวต้มมัด) and cooked by steam or in charcoal grills or ovens.

5. Steamed Pork (Moo Yor, ยำหมูยอ)

This steamed sausage snack can be eaten alone and whole, like a giant meat sausage, although it is more commonly prepared in a spicy salad (Yum Moo Yor) which fuses the steamed pork with a fiery mix of chillies, fish sauce, pickled garlic, lime and coriander. While Moo Yor is common more to Northern Thai Food (Lanna Cuisine), it is also hugely popular in parts of Isaan, where it is famous in Ubon Ratchathani (Moo Yor Ubon). It is said to originate from Vietnam, and it is pretty much identical to Vietnamese Sausage (Cha Lua).

6. Leaf Wraps (Miang Kham, เมี่ยงคำ)

Miang Kham is essential nibble food, where it offers an ideal introduction to Thai Food, and the essential Thai flavours. While there are many variations of Miang Kham, the typical wrap set shares a combination of shallot onion, chillies, ginger, peanut, coconut, and small cuts of lime. These ingredients are then wrapped in a “Cha Plu” leaf, and popped in the mouth for an explosive Thai flavour experience. They are typically found as starter sets on fancier menus, but are also popular with Khantoke dining, where again they are more common to Lanna Cuisine.

7. Steamed Curry Cakes (Hor Mok)

These mousse-like curry “cakes” are traditionally made from fish (although minced pork is also common) that has been flavoured with a fiery curry paste, and topped with coconut cream and cuts of fresh chilli and kaffir lime leaves. Before steaming in banana leaf “boats”. They are also considered the national dish next door in Cambodia (where it is known as Amok), although they still are commonly found along the nearer borders of Isaan (e.g. Buriram, Surin etc). Whereas many other Isaan staples are also found next door in Laos. (Note, I once opened and squeezed 60 coconuts to make Hor Mok for a temple celebration in Isaan.


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