Isaan Road Trip

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

A coconut milk-based snail curry in Pak Chong

I am rubbish on road trips. I can’t drive, and I don’t like to read maps or mess around with GPS. I am good with the radio, but if it’s not Boston, or Led Zeppelin, or Rush, I will probably try to rush past your favorite song in pursuit of something from one of these three groups. My friend Karen (@karenblumberg) can tell you I’m rubbish on road trips, if you asked her (but she wouldn’t, because she’s loyal and kind and my best friend), but, for some reason, Chin (@chilipastetour) and Anne (@anneskitchen) are both willing to spend a whopping 6 days with me cooped up in a car!

In all seriousness though, it’s for a very good reason. We are going to be tasting Isaan, Chin’s home turf. Despite the huge popularity of Isaan food in Thailand — and its growing popularity abroad — Isaan as a region has yet to draw the kinds of tourist numbers that Northern Thailand and the South see. That boggles my mind, since its Laos- and Vietnam-influenced food — succulent meats on the grill, tart and spicy larbs (minced salads) thick with roasted rice kernels, som tum (grated salads) of every possible variation, eggs cooked in a pan with steamed pork sausage (kai kata) and sticky rice — are what a lot of Thai food lovers think of when they think of their favorite dishes. Why not go to the source?

Yet Isaan remains bewilderingly under-visited. Every national park and waterfall we visited had either just a handful of people or, in some dazzlingly lucky cases, was completely abandoned. Restaurants, if full, were full of locals. Hotels were populated with Thai tourists from somewhere close by. For travelers who want a slice of something truly “authentic”, an experience just like that of someone living right there where you are visiting, you really can do no better than Thailand’s northeast: the country’s most populous region, producing some of its most memorable food, yet still strangely underrated.

Our road trip started with a stop at Pak Chong, just a few hours’ drive from Bangkok but still seen as the gateway to Isaan. While there, we sampled the wares at the restaurant Mae Fai Pla Pow, where of course we had the namesake grilled fish which came stuffed with roasted eggplant and accompanied with a platterful of fresh vegetables served under a layer of ice cubes to keep them crunchy, plus six dipping sauces (nam jim).

"Pla pow", or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

“Pla pow”, or grilled fish, at Mae Fai Pla Pow

These fabulous sauces (Thais are all about the sauce, after all) included a nam prik gapi (shrimp paste chili dip); a tart/spicy seafood dipping sauce; a sweet tamarind dipping sauce to go with the sadao (a bitter river herb) served alongside the fish; and a dipping sauce flavored liberally with the essence of mangda (giant water beetle). These big critters feature in a lot of Isaan cuisine, either pounded into chili dips, deep-fried whole, or steamed. The taste is heavily floral, slightly cucumber-y, and even a little sweet. It’s just one of many examples of Isaan ingenuity.

Mangda at the market

Mangda at the market

At the Pak Chong market the next morning, we indulged in a couple of kafae boran (old-fashioned Thai coffees), sweetened with condensed milk and accompanied by a couple of glasses of Chinese tea to cut the sugary flavor.

borancoffee

We also came across a “sticky rice” stall, where you get your pick of toppings — most porky and/or deep-fried — which are then plopped onto a handful of sticky rice and wrapped in a banana leaf to stay warm:

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Making a selection at the sticky rice vendor

Selections made

Selections made

Later on, we hit Korat, where a lot of the Mon-style fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen are made. In fact, we were lucky enough to reach “kanom jeen row”, an entire aisle of rice noodle vendors featuring highly-spiced curries — usually including nam prik (sweet peanut curry), nam ya pa (fish curry without coconut milk), and/or nam ya (fish curry) — complete with the requisite toppings like shredded banana blossom, fresh bean sprouts and sliced green beans set conveniently in front of stools to sit on.

"Kanom jeen pradok" at a market in Korat

“Kanom jeen pradok” at a market in Korat

I ended up choosing a mix of the sweet peanut curry and nam ya, topping it with a scattering of bean sprouts, sliced and blanched morning glory stems, and the julienned banana blossoms:

kanomjeenbowl

 

Another noodle dish we saw frequently on our table was the Vietnamese-inflected dish guay jab yuan (Vietnamese-style Chinese noodles), which, despite its name, employs a boatload of Thai flavor embodied in the sweetness of deep-fried shallots and an armload of dried spice. The best town for this dish by far was Ubon Ratchathani. However, the version we had at Mukdahan was more photogenic.

guayjab

Of course, no trip to Isaan is complete without a sampling of each town’s best som tum. Whatever your views on the fermented Thai fish known as pla rah, every som tum we had felt like som tum as it is meant to be: fresh, juicy, and heavy with the deep bass note pungency of salty fish. Just about every street side vendor we encountered proved adept with the mortar and pestle, and every variation was available to us, including green banana leavened with yellow Thai eggplant and the standard green papaya. But one of our favorites was a version made with cucumber and tomato:

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

Cucumber som tum at a roadside stall

One of my favorite things about Isaan was the seasonality of the ingredients and the immediacy (read: simplicity) of the cooking. Many of the things we ate were foraged from nearby. In fact, taking a walk through the woods with Chin involved a “Hunger Games”-like cataloguing of all the plants and leaves that were edible (note: a lot of this stuff is edible). One great meal involved buying mountain mushrooms from a roadside vendor who had just plucked them from a hillside 5 km away that morning:

Fresh mountain mushrooms

Fresh mountain mushrooms

A few minutes later, those mushrooms were being cooked at a roadside stall down the road, replete with chilies, a bit of pla rah juice, and herbs gathered by Chin from the nearby forest:

mushroomstew

The best meal, though, was cooked by Chin’s parents who — amazingly — set up a makeshift outdoor kitchen over the course of three days expressly for our visit! It was a lesson in real Isaan cooking: food seasoned with pla rah, fish sauce, and salt, cooked simply over two charcoal braziers, with many of the ingredients — down to the mushrooms, peppercorns, fruits and herbs — gathered from the backyard. We ended up with a gargantuan Isaan feast, featuring shredded bamboo shoot salad with chilies and toasted rice kernels, sliced pork with rice vermicelli and a scattering of fresh herbs, a quick and tasty soup of locally reared chicken thick with fresh dill, a larb of chicken skin and livers, grilled pork belly, steamed mushrooms dipped in a chili-flecked fish sauce … I am sure I am forgetting something. It was a dizzying array of great food.

Feast at Chin's family home

Feast at Chin’s family home

Let’s focus on that great bamboo shoot salad (soup naw mai, one of my very favorite Isaan dishes) again:

So good

So good

The meal encompassed everything I’ve come to learn about Isaan: the generosity, the hospitality, and of course, the great, fresh, seasonal produce cooked simply and flavored with only a handful of different seasonings. I may be ruined for every other kind of food for a while now.

 

21 Comments

Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, Isaan, restaurant, Thailand

21 responses to “Isaan Road Trip

  1. Hello, thanks for an informative post that answered some questions I had about guay jab yuan. I am a food blogger myself, and have a blog about Asian noodles. http://noodlefrontity.blogspot.com/

    After being focused on mainly Chinese food for half a century, I am beginning to really feel my way around Thai food. I’ll probably try to schmooze with you more through social media, as I’m tentatively planning to make my first trip to Thailand next Winter at the age of 74 and am trying to build up a little bit of a support network.

    Thanks again,
    Gary

  2. Pingback: My Ubon Ratchathani story | Life, the Universe and Lani

  3. Pingback: Wat Phra That Phanom Thailand | Jon in Isaan, and everywhere else in Thailand!

  4. Pingback: Visit to the Mekong Underwater World Aquarium, Nong Khai | Jon in Isaan, and everywhere else in Thailand!

  5. What a great trip. We’ve never been to Isaan as we spend most our time when in LOS in the North in Chiang Mai or Lampang. The snail curry I’ve not seen before however my wife (Thai) has said there’s “different” dishes up there🙂

    We’ll get there one day I’m sure and the National Parks do look amazing.

  6. Pingback: A photographic journey through Isaan (Northeastern Thailand)

  7. wow!! what a great trip.. have you ever though of taking a small tour group of non-Thai food lovers, it would be a hit, let me know

  8. What a wonderful road trip story. All these food make me nostalgic for my younger years at home with my parents. I love the photo of the spicy cucumber salad. I didn’t think anyone else made it that way. My mother taught me how to make Som Tum (ส้มตำ, spicy papaya salad), but green papaya can be scarce or expensive depending what part of the world you are in. So my mother showed us kids how we can get the Som Tum taste with cucumbers. There are some Thais who also use shredded carrots. Thanks again for taking us along on your trip through your blog.

  9. Saep lai! I love soup nor mai too and now my mouth is watery because of your wonderful post.

  10. Great write up as always. Having lived in Isaan for a year I know how great the scenery and the food is and you captured the essence of Isaan superbly. I am like you very surprised that tourism has not had a greater foothold in Isaan as yet but I am also sure that will change soon. Those of you who wish to see the unspoiled nature of Isaan had better get in there before the hordes of tourist buses change the atmosphere completely!

  11. Wonderful! You should be running food trips Chow – we could be your guinea pigs! (not on skewers though!).

  12. This post is so awesome! Great write up and just love the amazing photos, especially of the mountain mushrooms and soup naw mai. The food looks so delicious and very Lao indeed. Yum! Am sharing on Facebook. Best wishes!🙂

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