Category Archives: Isaan

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