Category Archives: Isaan

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.

 

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

Isaan foodie haven

Fish grilled in a salt crust at Jay Dang

Fish grilled in a salt crust at Jay Dang

It’s official: I’m in worry for my second book, which threatens to be stillborn in Singapore. It’s hard for me to point fingers, since it is supposedly all my fault. Remember that time when I thought signing a book contract and handing over control meant I could sit back and let other people do the work? Remember that? That was foolish, me. At least there is my non-existent writing career to fall back on. Silver linings!

Let’s look at more silver linings. Such as: a movie like Pompeii 3D exists. My lack of social life means I can finally grow a beard, just like I always dreamed of. And that there are still little pockets of unique, special foodie-dom in Bangkok, existing in spite of jams and disturbances and disorders. Hanging in there until the commotion dies down. In some cases, thriving.

Example: the Isaan neighborhood on Petchburi Road, next to Ratchathewi intersection and across the street from the mosque on Soi 7. Dwight Turner of bkkfatty.com told me about this place first; later, the very talented Isaan artist Maitree Siriboon took me here when I asked him where he ate when he got homesick. By day, it’s a grimy, slightly down-at-heel working class neighborhood where you’d expect to see a lot of hubcaps sold. At night, though, the strip suddenly lights up and the people come out like Isaan food-loving vampires, basking in the dusk and the neon lighting of the restaurant signs as they are switched on: Jay Orn, Jay Goy, Jay Dang. There may be a Loong (or “Uncle”) sandwiched in there somewhere.

But the aunties are the big ones, the favorites of the diners here — either transplanted Isaaners like Khun Maitree, or chili-seeking junkies like me. In that respect, this place doesn’t disappoint: hot, hot grated papaya salads peppered with pickled crab and sprinkled with fermented Thai anchovy juice; steaming vats of soup sporting an abundance of chicken feet, bright orange in its toxicity and nicknamed thom super (“super soup”). There are strips of pork liver and minced pork or chicken meat dressed in a spicy-tart dressing and a shower of mint leaves. And, if spice isn’t really your thing, there are old favorites like grilled chicken, sliced pork collar, and snakehead fish cooked over an open flame, stuffed with lemongrass stalks and kaffir lime leaves and coated in a salt crust so that when the skin is split open, the flesh stays wonderfully fragrant and tender. There is nothing like this dish when it is done right.

A shame about the dancing shrimp: live baby shrimp that are drizzled in a tart-spicy Isaan-style dressing and served to you, as is. It is baab (a sin) to eat them, as you are causing the suffering of untold little animals, but the experience — while horrifying — is unparalleled by anything else in Thai food. When I asked about this dish last week, and the tanks that used to be at every cooking station, they all said the protests had made bringing fresh live shrimp to Petchburi impossible. Good or bad? As with everything else, my feelings are mixed.

 

 

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, Isaan

Breakfast at Uncle Mustache’s

Khao piek at Lung Nuad in Udon Thani

The holiday season is fast approaching, and with it — fingers crossed — the end of the “research period” (aka eating my weight in street food) for my book. Isaan is now firmly in the rearview mirror, and Sukhothai awaits. And Bangkok … well, that’s still around, too, stubbornly defying all my efforts to check it off my “to do” list.

Amid all the som tum, grilled chicken, and crunchalicious deep-fried morsels of tilapia wrapped in betel leaves and garnished with bits of lime, chili and ginger was a special stall in the middle of the disarmingly clean “Tessaban 1” market in downtown Udon Thani. Across from a stand selling out-of-this-world yummy Isaan sausage, moo yaw (a Vietnamese-style pork “pate”) and Chinese sausage was a mustachioed slim man with an Asian Jack Sparrow look to him. On offer: khao piek, which translates to “wet rice” but actually refers to giem ee (fat, short rice noodles) served in the liquid leftover from cooking rice (hence its glutinous, opaque quality) and crowned with a slice of moo yaw and a brief shower of chopped green onion. This is the ultimate in comfort food: nursery-like, tasting and smelling of chicken, yet still springy and gummy in all the right places.

The vendor, Lung Nuad (which translates to “Uncle Mustache”), also serves gaeng sen (glass vermicelli in a pork bone-based broth thick with bits of pig). Both bowls cost 20-30 baht, depending on the size, and can be seasoned with fish sauce, white pepper, chili oil, sugar, chili-flecked vinegar, or chili powder. Mornings only, and perfect for when the kai kata (egg in a pan) vendor nearby is just too busy to see to your breakfast needs.

Uncle Mustache at his station

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Filed under Asia, food, food stalls, Isaan, noodles, Thailand, Udon Thani

Just Delish

Something different: naem tod

It will probably not surprise you when I tell you I think Bangkok street food is the best in the world. It’s not just the flavors or the “above-the-title” dishes: the pad thai, the som tum, the I’m-gonna-kill-you spices or soothing coconut cream. It’s the sheer breadth of it, the mind-boggling variety — from soups and salads to grilled hunks of meat to curries to porridges to desserts and everything in between; even the formats change, from shophouses to mobile vendors to cafeteria-like khao gub gaeng (curry rice) to aharn tham sung (made-to-order). There is so much variety that sometimes people argue over whether something is even actually “street food” or not. Having been to a few countries over the past few year, I can tell you that this is a great luxury, to get to argue over what category So-and-So place actually falls into. Thailand is very blessed, food-wise.

To me, naem tod is an example of the awesomeness of Thai street food: a recent discovery that I now can’t help seeing everywhere I go. Naem, the beloved sour fermented sausage originating from both the North and Northeastern regions of the country. Usually made from a mix of pork, crunchy piggy bits like cartilage or skin, chilies, garlic and a bit of sticky rice, naem is wrapped up and “cooked” by leaving it to ferment for a few days, lending the meat its characteristic tang (for the record, my mother’s favorite naem maker is “Naem Anchan” in Chiang Mai).

Thais like to make sure everything is presented in its own special way, and naem is no different. The “proper” way to serve it — the best way to offset its acidity and slightly gummy texture — is with whole fresh bird’s eye chilies, fresh ginger, bits of rind-on lime,  slivered shallots, roasted peanuts and fresh cabbage. What naem tod does is to basically combine the shredded sour sausage (or, in some vendors’ cases, pork skin or cartilage) with its accompaniments, chopped salad-style, and top it with Northeastern Thai-inspired “croutons”: shredded bits of deep-fried sticky rice. The ensuing salad is then tossed lightly in a spicy yum-like dressing (a mix of fish sauce, lime juice, chilies and sugar).

Naem tod vendors can be spotted by the glimpse of croquette-like deep-fried sticky rice balls they usually place on their carts — these vendors are almost always ambulatory. The fixings that go with naem are also included, alongside “fresh” veggies like the aforementioned cabbage, sawtooth coriander and/or betel leaves. As for the name, well, the naem is occasionally wrapped in the sticky rice and deep-fried, which I think is ingenious. But sometimes it’s just shredded, or there is an approximation of it via just using the crunchy pig bits, and that’s ok, because the flavors and textures are all still there: fiery hot and tart, mitigated by some crunch and a bit of bounce.

The vendor I photographed here is in front of the Kasikornbank near Sukhumvit 33; he is on Sukhumvit 23 in the afternoons. There is another one at the entrance to the shortcut to the Polo Club from Rama IV Road, next to the Esso gas station by the muay Thai stadium there. My favorite, though, is at the entrance to Petchburi Soi 14.

The naem tod vendor’s typical wares

 

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

Comfort food, Ubon-style

Red rice porridge at Santi Pochana

Comfort food is different for everyone, but it usually involves what you know best. That is why what other people like to think of as comfort food says so much about that person. For one person it’s ice cream; for someone else it’s mapo tofu. Whatever it is, it says where and what that person thinks of first when they think of home.

For Thais, comfort food usually involves rice porridge (and of course, for a people who say “kin khao” when they mean “to eat”, it’s always rice-based). In Ubon Ratchathani, where @SpecialKRB and I found ourselves last week, the best place to kin khao thom (eat rice porridge) would have to be Raan Santi Pochana on Nikhonsaiklang Road, open from the early evening to about midnight.

Like many other rice porridge shops, Santi Pochana is a made-to-order stall; unlike many, the ingredients it offers for your perusal are top-notch. Ginormous bitter melons, sweet pumpkin shoots, crispy pork belly: all are available to tinker with as the cook — or you — see fit.

What you choose from

What ensues is full-on delicious, from the rice porridge itself (red rice laced liberally with bits of taro and barley) to sweet slivered scallions stir-fried with bits of crispy pork, or a yum (spicy salad) of pak grachet (acacia leaves) coated in pulverized preserved egg. A highlight: double-fried crispy pork spareribs, tart and oozing with flavor.

Spareribs with scallions, garlic and chilies

But sometimes, “comfort” means something else entirely — a dip into the fiery, meaty hinterlands of one’s youth. That is where Porntip on Saphasit Rd. comes into play, a wonderland of larb (minced salad), Isaan sausages and grilled chicken and fish. Above all else, however, Porntip pays homage to the power of the mortar and pestle: here, som tum (grated salad, usually papaya) reigns supreme.

Porntip’s kitchen

Yes, there is som tum Thai — the stuff you see in Bangkok that is like candied fruit floss festooned with dried shrimps and peanuts, the eager-to-please dish that everyone knows and loves. Far more interesting to me is the som tum Lao — drenched in fermented anchovy juice, prickly and unknowable: do I like it or don’t I? It takes the entire dish for me to decide, yes.

Som tum Lao at Porntip

But there’s so much more. Don’t forget the grilled meats — why is it the North and Northeast have embraced smoke so, leaving the Central and South regions to their infusions, stir-fries and curries? — accompanied by hulking mounds of khao niew (sticky rice).

Salt-encrusted fish on the grill

In the end, it’s what you know: whether it’s the nursery-like pablum of rice porridge, or the smoky heat of a proper Isaan meal, you will find what you are looking for in Ubon, if what you are looking for is comfort.

(Photos by @SpecialKRB)

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Filed under Asia, food, food stalls, Isaan, rice porridge, som tum, Thailand

Noshing in Nan

For years, sleepy Nan was sheltered from the rest of the country by a string of richly forested mountains that kept the northern Thai village relatively isolated. Maybe that is why the “Nan-style” Northern food bears a different imprint from that of the rest of the “spine” running down Thailand, punctuated by Lampang, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. With more Lao influence, less traces of a Burmese presence, Nan cuisine still boasts the earthy, bitter undertow characterizing much northern Thai food, but more stripped-down — think Peter Luger instead of, like, Gramercy Tavern.

An example of this might be the down-at-heel open-air shack lining the street off of Kha Luang Road named Pu Som Jiao Gow (take the right at the three-way intersection at the end of Kha Luang Rd., 50 m to the left after the turn; 080-674-1658, 054-750-486), which boasts a menu that is heavy on jaew (dipping sauce), various types of thom (boiled soup), grilled meaty bits and, because we are a-truckin’ along with the times that are a-changin’, various items stir-fried with oyster sauce.

Raw beef larb with bile

Another popular dish type on the menu: various raw meat salads such as larb kom (translated as “bitter larb”, pictured above, made so with the addition of nam dee, or bile) and saa nuea (“beef salad”. Confusingly, saa here refers only to meat instead of vegetables). In addition to jaew, Pu Som serves an additional dipping sauce called kom, liberally flavored with bile and reminiscent of liquid air freshener. There is also raw pork salad, which, to be honest, is the menu item I greeted with alarm; everyone has a line, and that one there is mine. No raw pork, thanks (unless it is guaranteed to be delicious, like naem. I have standards!)

The menu is also heavy on the thom (boiled meats in soup), all appearing to be a variation on the famed Isaan standby thom saeb (spicy, tart soup), but with varying degrees of spiciness. There is thom kom (there is never too much bile) and, if you’re a great big scaredy-cat, thom om (which is what I ordered and still very spicy), free of the freshness and dill you see in Isaan but also without the satisfyingly deep flavor of a gaeng you might find in the rest of the north.

Thom om

And then there is awful. Oh, I mean offal! I usually like it, especially liver (here grilled and dressed in a yum-like sauce — yes, I’m talking about thub waan) and tongue (here referred to as lin yang, thin slices of beef tongue grilled). But I must admit, I have never had the pleasure of encountering a plateful of pigs’ lungs until this trip, where they are steamed and referred to as maam nung, resembling something a bit like boudin noir but spongy, with the slightest hint of springiness, tasting so gamey as to recall the deepest, glow-in-the-dark depths of the sea: the stuff you find in the opened crab shell, the dead man’s fingers and the like. That is maam nung. I managed two pieces.

It was one of the more adventurous meals I’d had in a while, made more so by having a giant bottle of Chang Beer to myself  (honestly, is there really no other size?) and having to navigate a crowded street crossing (watch out for that bicycle!) on the way home. In a few days, I look forward to returning to Japan, where my biggest challenge will be to keep myself from breaking a bone out on the ski slopes. Nihon ni ikoo!

Steamed lungs

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

Infatuation with Isaan

"Thum pa" in Udon Thani

There are certain ways people are supposed to talk about things. Like, unless you are a commie weirdo freakazoid, you have to say Tim Tebow is “inspiring”, or “great”, or at least “intriguing”. Or, as long as you aren’t one of those strange people who hates freedom and puppies and all things wonderful, you obviously think the “Game of Thrones” HBO series is the best thing EVAH and don’t feel any need whatsoever to read the books, instead harping on and on about how you can’t wait until the next installment airs so you can find out what happens next instead of picking up a book and, uh, actually reading it (no, it doesn’t bother me that much, why do you ask? I’m just plucking an example out of thin air, I say!)

There are also ways, it seems, to talk about whole groups of people. For example, when someone is Asian, they are invariably described as “technical” or “proficient” or, if you are really good at describing, “technically proficient” (read: good at violins and math). Asian food gets similar treatment.  If you write about Asian food, you have to make sure you are as reverent as possible. References to old recipes from the 17th century get you extra points (and more if, like, you can go back to the Bronze Age. Everyone wants to know what those guys were eating!) You should consider it a monolithic “whole” that never, ever changes in order to ensure as much “authenticity” as possible. And, for God’s sake, make sure to use a poncey know-it-all tone so that people who don’t know what you are talking about feel ashamed and bad about themselves. If you cook, everything has to come out properly; if you eat, everything has to be difficult to find and hard to consume.

I try as hard as I can to adhere to these rules. Sometimes it works out splendidly. But today, it might not work out so well, because, to tell you the truth, I don’t know all that much about Isaan food. Yes, you’d think I would, since I know a bit about Northern Thai food and, since Northerners also use sticky rice, then Northern Thai and Isaan foods are OBVIOUSLY ONE AND THE SAME CUISINE. But those uppity Northerners and Isaan-ers insist that their cuisines are completely different. What do they know, right? I just can’t wait for that next “Game of Thrones” episode.

So when I trekked up to the Northeast and had my first bite of thum pa (jungle som thum), I was blown away. Rice noodles instead of grated fruit or veggies? A fishy, earthy dressing, heavy on the fermented Thai anchovy? The inclusion of everything but the kitchen sink: some shards of bamboo shoot, a few stray strands of acacia, a handful of unripe tomatoes, a few lost snails, the occasional bashed-in green bean. Thum pa (also referred to as thum sua or thum mua, “confused thum“) incorporates what Isaan is all about — fire, earth, and even water (if you include those fermented fish) — with the relatively newfangled addition of kanom jeen “noodles”. I had to find some in Bangkok!

It was harder than I expected. Bangkokians really love their som thum Thai, what can I say? But finally, on Rachadapisek Road across from the Esplanade shopping center, Saab Wan (or “Yummy Day”, 081-751-3181, parking at the gas station next door), where thum sua (40 baht) is on the menu.

Saab Wan's thum sua

This is a nice melange of crispy bean sprouts and tiny deep-fried fish with the smooth slithery silk of noodles, papaya and bamboo shoots, spiked liberally with chili and pla rah (fermented anchovy). But even more startling is the so-called gai yang (80-150 baht), which turned out like this and, at a glance, explains the rampant popularity of this street food stall:

Saab Wan's gai yang and bamboo shoot salad

You and I know this is not Isaan-style grilled chicken. This is a lacquered Kim Kardashian of a chicken dish, a bastard child of American barbecue and Chinese sweet pork. This is sugary, sugary stuff — in spite of the fact that Isaan food is not supposed to have any sugar in it. No wonder this stand is packed at all hours of the day! Bangkokians are stuffing their pie holes with the saccharine-sweet oblivion that only sugar can provide.

Of course, this has inspired me to open my own Isaan food stall, using beer-butt chicken instead of gai yang, a grilled corn thum on the side, and maybe a white barbecue sauce alongside the jeao (Isaan-style spicy dipping sauce). Think I’m kidding? Watch this space.

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, chicken, food, food stalls, Isaan, som tum, Thailand