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Northeastern Thai Cuisine

Thai food varies from region to region due to geography and history. In the West, most Thai restaurants serve Bangkok-style cuisine, so traveling in Thailand is a culinary adventure of discovery. The food of Isaan is famous for being very spicy and pungent, seasoned with fresh herbs and fermented fish (plah rah), featuring some of Thailand's spiciest salads. The cuisine has more in common with that of Laos then the rest of Thailand, as Isan people historically have been influenced by their neighboring county's culture and speak a dialect that is closely related to Laos.

Isan Thai Food

Typical Northeast (Isan) Dishes:

  • Somtam, green, unripe papaya salad made in Thai or Lao-style is this regions most famous dish
  • Khao niao or sticky rice is widely preferred over jasmine rice. Served in small, covered, bamboo baskets called gktratip, diners roll a small portion into a ball and eat with grilled chicken or naem, a slightly fermented sausage with a mildly sour taste
  • Gai Yang, chicken marinated in soy or fish sauce and spices, flattened and grilled
  • Pork or beef prepared naam dtok style is charred, then dressed with fresh herbs and fiery dried chilies
  • Naam jaew, a paste-like dip for meat made of dried chilis, tamarind, fresh shallots and shrimp paste
  • Laap bpet, pungent duck salad cooked with or without duck's blood
  • Pla ra, pla som, and pla daek, types of fermented fish are considered the signature elements of Isan food. Pla ra is the Isan equivalent of fish sauce and is often used to season curries.
  • Chili pastes known as jaew are a combination of spicy chilies, garlic, salt, pla ra and lime juice
  • Isan people have a reputation for eating practically anything for protein including frogs, birds, snakes, and even insects!

Background & History

The Northeast or Isaan region of Thailand is a wide plateau with the Mekong River forming the border with Laos to the north and Cambodia to the south. The climate is extreme, swinging between a hot, dry season and an extremely wet season, causing yearly droughts and floods. Rice does not grow consistently here, nor do most other crops, making it Thailand's poorest region economically, both historically and today.

Most of the rivers that cross the Isaan plateau flow into the Mekong rather than towards Central Thailand. As this complicates water travel into Central Thailand, the Isaan region shares a lot culturally, linguistically and culinary with its neighboring countries, with many Lao and Khmer-speaking people residing in Isaan today.

Isan Food

The food of Isaan is very hot and flavored with pungent herbs and seasonings, with some of Thailand's spiciest salads. The intense flavors of Isaan food is one way of managing an insecure food supply – very hot, flavorful dishes encourage diners to diffuse the flavors with a lot of sticky rice.

Fresh herbs like dill, basil, and mint make a bracing balance to the heat, usually from dried chilies. Mineral salts and a thicker, rustic fish sauce called pla ra – give a distinctive salty flavor. Fruits like sour hog plums or tamarind add sourness. Isan food is relatively simple, employing a smaller range of spices and seasonings then the other regions of Thailand.

Few large trees grow in Isan, so residents have had less access to wood for cooking. For this reason, Isan cuisine includes a large range of pickled and cured foods and when food can be eaten raw, it often is. Raw vegetables are served alongside spicy dips and fresh, spicy salads like somtam, with two main types - Thai-style somtam adds dried shrimp, peanuts, tomatoes and fish sauce while Lao-style somtam is pounded with fermented crab and pla ra. Isaan-style laap, like those of Laos, are often made of minced raw meat, “cooked” ceviche-style in an acidic sauce.

Soups and curries are simple concoctions of boiled preserved fish and forest vegetables, with grilled shallots, chillies and coconut milk often added to the curries. In the southern part of the Isaan region, the food more closely resembles the Thai food of the Central Plains with coconuts and long-grain jasmine rice being more prevalent then sticky rice. Grilled or roasted chicken, pork, and beef are often served alongside sauces or mixed with roasted, ground rice in laap.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of Isan food is their taste for water buffalo (less appreciated elsewhere in Thailand) and jungle creatures like rice-field beetles, geckos, lizards, frogs and sour red-ant eggs.

Image © 2012


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