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

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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Filed under Asia, food, pescatarian, Thailand

What’s Cooking: Moo Jum

Image

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