Category Archives: Isaan

Stories we tell ourselves

Kai gata in Udon Thani

We all have our own little stories that we choose to believe, and this one is mine: We have Vietnam War-era American GIs to thank for two of the more beloved dishes in our culinary lexicon. One is a hastily-stirfried hodge-podge of sliced processed hotdog, ham, raisins, peas, and rice, lubricated with a generous dollop of ketchup and topped with a fried egg, sunnyside-up. This dish, a big ol’ smile on a plate, is generally known as “American fried rice” and can be found just about anywhere you can find a wok and a cook, and sometimes not even the cook. Just bring your two hands and a bottle of oil.

The other, because of its Vietnamese roots, is more prevalent in the Isaan region and known as “kai gata” (or “kai kata” or “kai gataa” or “kai kataa” … sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and point a finger and hope that it’s darn near close enough). Eggs are broken into a small metal pan and baked or cooked gently atop a grill, accompanied by sliced gun chieng (sweet Chinese sausage), veggies and  moo yaw (which, according to Chef McDang, was born as a Chinese cook’s approximation of European pate at the court of King Rama IV). And don’t forget the “bread” — usually a disarmingly sweet white bun, cleaved into two, buttered thickly and stuffed with ham, moo yaw and/or sausage. The story is that this dish was the closest an American GI could get to an American breakfast. What I see it as is 1960s-70s Asian-American fusion (just like me!): hearty and welcoming, pragmatic and resourceful, just what is needed sometimes to start what once threatened to be a deadly dull day.

Happily, you can find this dish in Bangkok. You just need to know where to look or, barring that, know who to pester. In my case, it’s my friend Winner, who knows the culinary ins-and-outs of Banglamphu like no one else. Gopi Hia Gai Gi (37 Siripong Rd., 02-621-0828. There is another one at the Wisut Kasat intersection), alongside stuff like Chinese-style flat stuffed noodles, dim sum and, uh, steak, serves up a mean kai gata, drizzled with minced pork and peas and, of course, accompanied by the mini white bread bun stuffed with moo yaw.  Best of all, it’s open from 7 am to 8:30 at night — a chance at kai gata at any time you think you might need to restart your day.

Banglumphu's version


Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, food stalls, Isaan, Thai-Chinese, Thailand

Stuffed in Isaan

Lunch at Jay Gai Som Tum in Udon Thani

It’s 10 in the morning, and I am already stuffed. I cannot imagine what lunch holds in store for us.

Yes, I am starting this all over again. The first book, researched while I was pregnant with my second child, gave me … well, the joy of publishing my first solo effort, and 25 extra kilos. This second, well, who knows? I certainly don’t want 25 extra kilos, and I’m not sure if I could do it, even if I wanted to. My digestive system is screaming, What are you thinking?! even as I lurch my way through downtown Udon Thani. And this is only the beginning.

After landing in Udon Thani, our gracious hosts promptly whisk us off to VT Nam Nueng (, a Vietnamese restaurant that, well into its second generation, is just about as big as any enterprise can get in Udon Thani. Every day, an assembly line churns out thousands of sticks of nam nueng (pork sausage wrapped in a flat rice noodle, lettuce and herbs and drizzled with a sweet-tart dipping sauce) and goong pan aui (shrimp mince wrapped around a sugarcane stick), later to be sold at either the restaurant, replete with air-conditioning and imposing Chinese-style furniture, or at the aggressively efficient take-out counter. There is even a hotline, where a motorcycle awaits your call should any nam nueng emergency arise. Not to mention the branches at the airport, or the various other Vietnamese-Thai restaurant chains in town, helmed by cousins or children of the original VT founder, who made his dipping sauces in a secret room so as to minimize infighting among his children.

The namesake dish at VT Nam Nueng

But Udon Thani isn’t all about Vietnamese food (though it does boast a sizable Vietnamese community, said to have fled the country during the French colonial era). Newcomers to the city jonesing for street food but unsure of where exactly to go should simply get themselves to Naresuan Road, which appears to be Street Food Central for the entire town. Here, you will get anything you could possibly want: toothsome Chinese-style rice porridge (jok) as well as the looser Thai kind (khao thom), boiled with pork cartilage to a porky mellowness; hunks of muu satay, pork slathered in coconut milk and grilled on bamboo skewers; winningly large portions of silky, golden, whisper-soft homemade egg noodles — what it must feel like to eat Jennifer Aniston’s hair, if her hair was delicious.

But the standout, for me, has to be the Isaan food — fiery, acidic, deep with the bass note of the fishy and fermented, without any fancy-fingers gimmickry or sugar. At Jay Gai Som Tum, you have to pick up a number and wait in line for a gander at one of the maestro’s artfully pounded concoctions: thum pa, a jimble-jamble of fermented rice noodles, some slivered green papaya, boiled snails, green pak grachet and bamboo shoots, perhaps? Maybe a thum lao, green papaya mixed with the bewitching brew of fermented Thai anchovies (pla rah) and pickled field crabs, or thum mamuang, julienned mango topped with tiny field shrimp and flavored with the juices of an especially large mashed field crab. Or maybe you’re a traditionalist and want to stick with thum Thai, in which case — why are you here again? The point is, there’s a lot of different kinds of som tum, from the traditional green papaya version to mango, to gratawn (the sweet-tart santol) to the rice noodle, or kanom jeen-based som tums that appear to be the default setting for the som tums here  — Thai fusion in action, a Central Thai ingredient getting the Isaan treatment.

Jay Gai's mango som tum

What perfectly sets off all that fire and acidity? A simply prepared bowl of snails, a mere 10 baht per dish, boiled with kaffir lime leaves.

Udon Thani is a great town that I must visit again, but I had to venture up to Khon Kaen, today one of Thailand’s biggest, fastest-growing cities. So we girded our stomach linings and made a special effort to go to Saeb Nua (Mitraphab Road across from Srinakarin Hospital), which ended up not being street food but special nonetheless, despite its factory cafeteria ambiance. Another long menu of som tums here, as well as delicious larbs (minced meat salads, including larb goy, or raw beef larb) and nam toks (grilled, rare meats in a spicy dressing). But the stars here are the gai yang, or whole chicken, pressed flat within the recesses of a wooden stick and grilled, and pla pow, freshwater fish encrusted in salt, stuffed with an herb parcel and also grilled. There is a lot of grilling in Isaan food.

Saeb Nua's grilled fish

At night, a meal of jaew hon (Isaan-style sukiyaki, with a chili-touched broth and strong, spicy dipping sauce that leaves every other sweet, cloying dipping sauce in the dust) at lakeside stall Tik Jaew Hon and we were done, clutching at our charcoal pills and glasses of water.  A “not spicy” salad of naem (cured pork sausage) arrives looking like a crime scene out of CSI, splattered with a lurid coat of smashed red chilies. If you haven’t noticed, Isaan food also likes its chilies. Alas, I do not. I will have to return to Isaan, later. After my stomach has a nice long rest.


Filed under Asia, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Isaan, restaurant, som tum, Thailand

Useless election-pegged food quiz

Passing vans blare loud music, election posters mark every signpost. Thailand is officially in the throes of Election Fever, once again.

Some people seem to be unsure of who to vote for. But more pressing matters await our contemplation. Maybe, if you are like me, you need a little quiz to figure out whether your political allegiances dovetail with your food stall choices? After all, quizzes tell you everything you need to know! I once spent an entire afternoon taking a plethora of “Which Hogwarts House are You?” questionnaires (I am a Hufflepuff, of course).

So in honor of looming elections, here’s a quiz that pretends to sort out everything for you via highly inaccurate and gross generalizations, without really telling you anything! Remember, it’s all in good fun! *laughs nervously, then runs away*


1. When you were in grade school, you were known as:

a. The great big nerd who told on everybody and cried when I (I mean she! I mean you!) got a “B”

b. The daydreamer who frequently got caught staring off into space

c. A big ol’ bully

d. Sort of a rebel, like Judd Nelson in “The Breakfast Club”. No, I do not have more recent cultural references. Too bad for you, Person Born in the 1990s!

e. You were home-schooled


2. Who do you find more handsome?

a. P’Mark. He went to Oxford and everything!

b. Richard Gere. He is a Buddhist who still managed to make tons of money out of “Pretty Woman” and then, against all odds, “Runaway Bride”!

c. Russell Crowe, now

d. Russell Crowe, “Gladiator” era

e. Yourself


3. You most value:

a. Tradition and stability

b. Tolerance and kindness

c. Law and order

d. Equality and fairness

e. The right to dress animals in clothing. Oh wait, what?


If you answered mostly A’s, you like … 


What does blue stand for again, aside from how I feel when I’m standing on the scale? I forget. Anyway, congrats! You like blue. And people who like blue can do worse than heading to the blue plates of Nai Peng (20, Chula Soi 20, Suan Luang market), where delicious guaythiew kua gai (chicken fried noodles) are the order of the day. You can even throw caution to the wind and order “taro” (processed squid strings) instead of noodles! It’s a crazy night out for you! Go insane!

Flat fried noodles with chicken and egg


If you answered mostly B’s, you like …


With a color like white, you like everything and nothing. Because of this, who really cares what you eat? But if you must be pressed for a choice, then why not opt for the warm, comforting embrace of the Chinese-style rice porridge at Jok Samyan (245 Soi Chula 11)? It’s like a mother’s hug, only gooier. And that’s what you’ve been secretly yearning for all along, haven’t you?

Chinese-style rice porridge with preserved egg


If you answered mostly C’s, you like …


Look, eating on a rickety stool while taking exhaust-fume farts in the face from passing buses is not your thing. There is nothing wrong with that. No need for any pretense otherwise. We are all non-judgmental here, to your face. So go ahead and spring for the panorama of deliciously stir-fried  greens at Nakorn Pochana (258-260 Chula Soi 11), where the crab fried rice and deep-fried crayfish are city-renowned, the beer flows plentifully, and the air-conditioning is on at full blast.

Garlic chives with pork liver

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

If you answered mostly D’s, you like …


Red is the color of passion and of fire. It is also the color of hot, hot chilies. You know where I’m going with this, right? Of course you do!  Just two, er, three (or more) words: Hai Somtum Convent (2/4-5 Convent Rd., off of Silom).

Somtum Thai, with minced pork salad in background


If you answered mostly E’s, you like …


Yellow is the color of sunlight and (some) butterflies, and cookies. Also, snow that you shouldn’t touch or eat. Also, bananas. Yellow is such an all-purpose, useful color! Do you know what else yellow stands for? That’s right: bamee, or egg noodles. And where better to have some delicious egg noodles than on Sukhumvit 38, close to mom’s house? Make sure you arrive close to opening time (20.00) if you want a good parking spot for your luxury SUV. Haha, just joking! That’s the driver’s job!

Bamee at Sukhumvit Soi 38

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, chicken, food, food stalls, Isaan, noodles, restaurant, rice porridge, seafood, Thailand

What’s Cooking: Gaeng om

If there’s a good place to start for a Thai food cooking virgin, it’s with this tasty Northeastern Thai “soup”. It’s full of good-for-you greens, bright and light with fresh, herbal flavor, and crazy easy to make. Felt like I robbed a bank with this one.

Gaeng Om (for four)
-1 head white cabbage, chopped

-2 g Thai lemon basil (bai maeng rak)
-2 g dill, chopped
-2 g scallions, cut into 1-in pieces

-2 stalks lemongrass, cut in half
-1 large piece galangal, sliced
-12 shallots
-12 small red chilies

-3 g oyster mushrooms (het nang rong)

-300 g white fish filets, skin-on, cut into pieces*

-2 Tbsp fermented Thai anchovy juice (nam pla rah)**

-200 g chicken stock

-200-300 g water

-1 Tbsp fish sauce (plus more to taste)***

1. Set water and chicken stock to simmering boil in pot. Meanwhile, mix lemongrass, galangal, shallots and chilies in blender or food processor until finely diced.
2. Once simmering boil is achieved, add chili mixture to stock.
3. Add pla rah juice, 1 Tbsp fish sauce and fish pieces. Do not overstir, or fish will get mushy. Cover.
4. Increase heat to rolling boil. Add mushrooms and white part of scallions.
5. When water returns to the boil, add cabbage and the rest of greens. The pot should look like this:

6. When vegetables lose some volume, carefully “fold” into broth. Taste and add more fish sauce if needed.
7. Shut off flame. Pot should look like this:

Cover and let “marinate” for a few hours (cool and place in fridge if leaving overnight).

*If you’re a meat person, use sauteed chicken wings or pork ribs instead.
**You can buy Thai anchovies in any supermarket here in Thailand, but Khum Gon, my Thai food tutor, claims homemade is best (obviously). Fermented Thai anchovies look like this:

If this isn’t available to you, try mashing regular good-quality anchovies instead.
***Khum Gon believes that fish sauce from shellfish (such as razor clams) is best because it smells less fishy than other types. Frankly, I am not that sensitive to the smell, but if that is an issue, then take Khum Gon’s advice.

What we ended up with:


In the end, it was … pretty good. I’d use all chicken broth next time. And more Thai anchovy juice. But it was everything I expected and wanted from my first Thai cooking experiment. Next up: a veggie-rich gaeng liang.


Filed under Asia, Bangkok, fish, food, Isaan, seafood, Thailand