Tag 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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What’s Cooking: Soup makuea

Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

Isaan-style Thai eggplant mash with shallots, fermented anchovy juice and toasted rice kernels

I’m trying this thing where I eat less meat. In fact, I’m trying not to eat any at all, beyond fish. This is because I went on a two-week barbecue tour where my friend Karen and I stuffed ourselves on different variations of pork product 3-4 times a day. So I am turning pescatarian, but trying not to be too strict with it, because that is a surefire way to get me to stop.

I change the rules as I go along. It keeps things fresh (i.e. confusing). If I am at a dinner party, I will eat whatever the host is serving me, because I don’t want to mold other people’s stuff around my dietary whims. Also if I’m doing an assignment involving some sort of meat. I was also cutting out booze but I am back off the wagon because why make my life less awesome? I drink a glass of red wine a day and, if I am going out, I drink more than one glass. WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL GRANDMA? I hear it’s heart healthy.

The focus on non-meat food, and my abject laziness in the kitchen, means I am trying a lot of new places. There is the vegetarian restaurant Na Aroon at Ariyasom Villa, old favorite Rasayana Raw Food Cafe, and a longstanding vegetarian Italian place saddled with the Indian-ish name Govinda. And there is a lot of Japanese food: Hinata at Central Embassy and a lunch at the newly opened Sushi Ichi at the Erawan that was so good I booked another lunch for the following week. I sometimes don’t miss red meat, much. Then I sometimes count the days to when I can find an excuse to eat it again.

This is one of those recipes that, for me, put many of the meat cravings at bay. It’s also dead easy (I am reading a lot of Jamie Oliver, because his are the only recipes I can stand to make right now). As with any other dish, it sprang out of necessity: we didn’t have any bamboo shoots on that particular day, and an abundance of the gumball-sized Thai eggplants known as makuea proh. With its toasted rice kernels, pla rah, and scattered mint, it’s very Isaan-inspired. Eat with sticky rice and grilled chicken like you would a som tum, or serve it with lettuce leaves like a larb — it’s up to you.

Soup Makuea (makes 4)

6-8 Thai eggplants, boiled

4-5 shallots, peeled

2 Tbs dried chili powder

2 tsp mahgrood lime leaves, julienned

3 Tbs toasted rice kernels, ground

1-2 Tbs pla rah juice (or fish sauce, if you’re in a pinch)

Juice from one lime (optional)

Handful each of mint, coriander and sawtooth coriander, chopped

1. With your mortar and pestle, mash your shallots until they are like a jam. Add the eggplants, and mash until they are at the desired consistency.

2. Mix in your chili powder, lime leaves, and toasted rice kernels.

3. Flavor with pla rah or fish sauce. Add lime to taste if you like.

4. Add your chopped herbs and mix in well. Serve at room temperature.

makuea

 

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What’s Cooking: Moo Jum

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Finally, a decent approximation

Isaan food is a celebration of simple things, put forth very directly and forcefully. Your finger-licking renditions of gai yang (grilled chicken) and nuea nam thok (spicy beef salad) aren’t content to sit mutely on your tabletop, requesting your appreciation; slightly smoky and full of heat, they practically shout I AM DELICIOUS as you cram morsel after succulent morsel down your throat. Paired with a hank of sticky rice and the battalion of condiments that Thais cannot resist pairing with everything, they are unstoppable, a food army that cannot be resisted, taking up all the valuable real estate in your gut that you have reserved for something useful, like beer.

Moo Jum (located at the entrance of Suan Luang Soi 3 after 6pm) specifically traffics in these very dishes, the ones that make you sorry you stuffed yourself silly. Like most great Isaan cooks, they focus on straightforward simplicity. The namesake dish, an Isaan-style sukiyaki, is a spicy-tart broth in which unwitting vegetables, sawtooth coriander, Thai basil, pork and an egg are dunked, creating an aromatic melange good enough to eat even on sweltering hot nights. A simple spicy squid salad, rings of flesh barely blanched, dressed in sharp shards of Thai celery stalk and chili. And of course, their famed kor moo yang (grilled pork collar): sweeter than up north to be sure, charred at the edges from the grill, lacquered like a freshly-baked pie, as brown as the skin of a dedicated bodybuilder.

For all its supposed simplicity, I have struggled with this recipe. The basic recipe (as outlined in Chef McDang’s “The Principles of Thai Cookery”) uses a basic marinade of mashed garlic cloves, pounded coriander root, 1/4 cup of soy sauce, and 10 white peppercorns that is then slathered onto the meat. Very traditional, but nothing to set hearts aflutter. I tried to build on that recipe by going back to the marinade’s roots, substituting fish sauce for soy and adding some palm sugar. The result: ho-hum. I then tried to add molasses paired with fish sauce: NO DO NOT DO THIS EVER. It appears that where modern versions of kor moo yang are concerned, it is best to stick to soy sauce and build on that.

So last night, alongside an odd pairing of roasted cauliflower and soba noodles, I made some more pork collar for unsuspecting victims-slash-guests who had come over expecting dinner. The result was not awful! This is the best iteration of Moo Jum’s kor moo yang so far.

Kor Moo Yang (serves 4, just barely)

– 400 g pork collar (or shoulder)

– 4 garlic cloves

– 2-3 coriander roots, washed

– 1/2 tsp white peppercorns

– 1/4 cup soy sauce

– 1 Tb brown sugar

– 1 Tb sweet soy sauce

To make:

1. As in Chef McDang’s recipe, mash garlic, peppercorns and coriander root into a paste with mortar and pestle. Add soy sauce and sweet soy sauce and mash that all together to form marinade. Add brown sugar.

2. In a large mixing bowl, pour marinade over pork and allow to infuse meat, ideally overnight, or at least four hours.

3. When ready, grill meat until brown and charred a bit at the edges. If you, like me, don’t own a grill (why are American males so into grilling?), heat up a nice heavy pan (I use a cast-iron one) that has been oiled beforehand, and brown the pork until it’s a nice caramel-ish color. Then stick this into the oven that’s been set at 180 degrees Celsius for about 15 minutes, or until the edges gain the same charred edges and sticky-looking exterior that you would have gotten via grilling.

4. Slice and serve with a tamarind or sweet chili sauce, along with some sticky rice.

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Living to Eat

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The mieng pla at RBSC

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that I love food, or that I am drawn to other people who love food. My friend Gwen is one such person. A constant whirlwind of activity, she touches place here or there long enough to, inevitably, pick up a friend or two and eat at this or that fabulous place. She is also invariably kind, which is probably why the most damning thing she can say about someone is that he or she “eats to live”. 

Look, everybody has to eat to live. But it’s a very particular type of person who lives to eat. This is the person who plans his or her travel itinerary around restaurants; who would rather go hungry than eat something that tastes bad; who considers life a series of meals, and every sub-par meal a missed opportunity. I am this type of person, which explains why I have no friends and no one will travel with me. I have also met other people like this, and it’s like meeting other people with strange obsessions or second lives — the guy who dresses up like Boba Fett at the occasional Star Wars-themed convention, or Bruce Wayne in his off-time. 

A person who eats to live might not find much to trumpet about when it comes to the Isaan dish mieng pla: there’s fish, and vegetables, sometimes noodles, and a dipping sauce. There is no interesting technique, no volcanically hot wok, no smoke, no fire to speak of. No welcoming waft of steam when you lift the lid off the bamboo steamer, no doughy dabs wrapped like tiny birthday presents, no glistening jewel-toned slabs of flesh arranged artfully on a platter like pieces of jewelry. This is all DIY work — it’s all up to you. All you need are the fish and the seasonings. Anybody can do it.

Except that not all mieng pla is made the same. It’s hard to screw up, that is true, but it’s also hard to make great. And that’s what Khun Sakol Boon-ek, the proprietor at the mieng pla tu stand at the Prajane Lumpini market, is able to do. Plump, fat (and deboned!) pieces of Thai mackerel; fat, juicy greens, and fresh, unblemished condiments (lime, shallot, peanuts, ginger, green mango, chilies, and, in her case, blanched thin rice vermicelli, or sen mee), this is everything you need for an afternoon snack, a light lunch, or, if you are a Hobbit like me, elevenses.

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K. Sakol’s mieng pla

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K. Sakol’s accompanying greens

Khun Sakol’s secret is ultimately her dipping sauce: a mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, sugar and a bountiful harvest of chilies, yes, but somehow the sum is greater than the parts. Obviously she won’t tell me her secret.

To contact her (they deliver!) call 084-944-6732. Or, if you are very lucky, she might be at the Prajane Lumpini market situated along the right-hand side of Polo Road (Soi Sanam Klee) if you are coming from Wireless, but I’m not sure how much longer she’ll be there. Sadly, some big changes appear to be planned for that road: Khao Thom Polo (they of the fire-and-brimstone jungle curry) are being asked to move, and even the mighty Polo Fried Chicken might have to follow suit. 

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What’s cooking: Aim Och

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“Egg in a pan” at Aim Och in Khon Kaen

There is nothing easier to make in all of Thai street food than kai kata, or “egg in a pan”. Still stinging from our inability to decode Jay Fai’s Byzantine fusion of herbs and spices masquerading as tom yum goong, Chris and I decided to give ourselves a break and do something that is, quite literally, fool-proof.

Kai kata is the Thai version of the Vietnamese version of the American breakfast, said to have been inspired by homesick American GIs during the Vietnam War. In an attempt to replicate the American breakfast standby “ham and eggs”, Vietnamese cooks cracked eggs into “personal-sized” pans, garnished them with Chinese sausages and Vietnamese steamed pork pate (moo yaw) in place of sausages and ham, and cooked them quickly on a stovetop until the whites set. Garnished with a splash of red chili sauce like Sriracha and fish sauce and accompanied by a toasted, buttered bun stuffed with more “sausage and ham”, this no-fuss breakfast combo is quick, easy — and unbelievably satisfying. Best of all, you can let your imagination run riot: anything, anything at all, will work with these eggs. Have a sweet tooth and want to drizzle some maple syrup on it, maybe with a garnish of crispy

bacon? A handful of peas? Maybe some pancetta and sliced fresh chilies? Or maybe a

splash of minced chicken and diced carrots, just like at King Ocha in Udon Thani:

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Kai kata and buttered bun at King Ocha in Udon Thani

There are no rules for this fusion-y adaptation of a Western favorite. Ironically, if you are in the West, you may need to make some substitutions for some hard-to-find ingredients, so you may have to re-substitute those substitutions. Hence our choice to use buttered ceramic ramekins instead of tiny pans, because we aren’t sure how many of those are available back West. If you don’t have an oven, you can make a bain-marie by putting your ramekins in a pan, filling with water up to the middle of the ramekin, and cooking your eggs on the stovetop. However you decide to make it, we have tried to cleave as closely to the “authentic” (circa 2013) basic Isaan-style kai kata as possible.

Kai kata a la Aim Och (makes 2 servings)

What you’ll need:

– 2 ramekins, well-buttered

– 2-4 eggs, depending on size of ramekins

– 1 link Chinese sausage (gunchieng), sliced

– 6 slices moo yaw (Vietnamese steamed pork pate) — baloney works in a pinch

– Two mini-baguettes or soft rolls (for real Thai street food flavor, they should be as sweet as possible)

– Butter (for toasting buns)

– Fish sauce with sliced chilies, Maggi, or Golden Mountain sauce (to taste)

– Sriracha sauce (to taste)

– Salt and pepper (to taste)

To make:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit/180 degrees Celsius.

2. Place buns, slightly open and their insides buttered, into a casserole and toast in the oven until warm, edges are light brown and butter is melted. 

3. In a pan, warm slices of Chinese sausage and/or moo yaw until hot to the touch.

4. Crack 1-2 eggs into each buttered ramekin, depending on size. Cook in oven for 5-10 minutes (depending on how well your oven works), until whites are set when you jiggle them and start to pull away slightly from the sides of the ramekin. If you like your eggs more well done (I love runny yolks), wait at least 10 minutes.

5. Take eggs out of oven and garnish with sausages and “ham”. If you have cooked minced meat and/or vegetables, scatter those onto your eggs as well. Season with salt and pepper.

6. Fill toasted buns with slices of “ham” and “sausages”. Serve alongside eggs, and make sure to pass the fish sauce/Maggi and sweet chili sauce. Easy AND delicious.

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