The main staple of North-Eastern Thailand (Isaan) is sticky rice and nearly every dish includes fish sauce. Not many vegetables are grown in the region due to the poor soil quality. Chillies do grow, however, and they play a very active part in making it one of the spiciest cuisines in the world. In truth, the chillies provide much needed flavour to what would otherwise be extremely bland food.
Isaan is the poorest region of Thailand with limited agricultural options, and it often seems that the people combine ingenuity with necessity when inventing their dishes. They are certainly a resourceful bunch, often using ingredients that would be considered unfit for human consumption in other parts of the world such as snakes, frogs, lizards, rats, snails, dogs, insects, chicken’s feet, cow’s blood and offal. Despite all this, Isaan offers some of Thailand’s most iconic and delicious dining experiences.
Som tam is to Thais what fish ‘n’ chips are to the British, cheeseburgers are to the Americans or spaghetti is to Italians. Also known as “pok-pok” because of the sound the pestle and mortar make as it is being prepared, som tam has yet to really catch on with most farangs but is a national necessity to Thais.
Flavour: sweet, salty and spicy
Ingredients: papaya, fish sauce, chillies, lemon, cherry tomatoes and sugar
Varieties: Crab, Thai (chopped and roasted peanuts with small shrimps), Pla Ra (fermented fish and sauce – only for the brave)
Method: ground in a pestle and mortar
Flavour: spicy, salty and sour
Ingredients: chillies, lemon, onion + mint and vegetable garnish.
Varieties: Moo (minced pork), Nam Tok (waterfall) with beef strips. It gets its name because the beef is grilled first so the fat runs off not dissimilar to a waterfall (provided the observer has eaten two large handfuls of hallucinogenic mushrooms)
There is some debate as to whether Yam originated in North-Eastern or Central Thailand, but I’m going to put it in Isaan while no-one’s looking. It’s certainly hot enough and my Isaan wife likes it.
Flavour: sour and spicy
Ingredients: chillies, tomatoes and lettuce with glass noodles and/or seafood.
Method: boiled noodles and seafood
Flavour: like chicken
Ingredients: chicken, marinating sauce (garlic, coriander root, black pepper, fish sauce)
Method: the chicken is grilled after being marinated briefly in the sauce
Isaan Eating: part 1 – excerpt from Naked Farang: Four Weddings and a Coup
The next morning I bought a large box of Chang beer from the village store, and Penh’s dear ma proved what a wizard of fermentation she was by bringing out a huge bucket of satho she had prepared. It was Songkran. Actually, it was still a few days away, but hey, who’s going to know the difference this far from civilization. We all sat around on the floor in the living room drinking beer and satho and eating sticky rice with grilled chicken. The garage-sized front door was wide open, and everyone from the village who walked past saw the farang and decided to come and say hello. When they saw the food and drinks, they decided to stay. Word soon got around and by mid morning, the house was full and most of the village was drunk. I had a deep, meaningful conversation with the guy sitting next to me, whom I couldn’t understand. We both talked away happily to each other, although neither of us had the blindest idea what the other one was saying. It didn’t matter really.
“Have some more satho and chicken, mate. You’ll be alright.”
After a while and several drinks, he jumped to his feet, said something to me, smiled and disappeared. He reappeared about half an hour later covered in mud and holding two large, dead frogs. He smiled proudly as he handed them to me. I called Penh over, and she explained that he didn’t have any money but he wanted to pay for the beer he’d been drinking, so he’d gone and caught some lunch for us.
“Nice one,” I said. “Here, have a drink. You look like you need it.”
I’m not sure what he said, but he seemed pleased with himself. Penh took the frogs into the kitchen while the rest of us carried on drinking.
She came back out a while later, carrying a large pot. She put it down on the floor in the middle of everyone and announced that lunch was ready. We were still eating breakfast, but I didn’t think it prudent to mention that. Isaan people “graze.” That is they seem to be constantly eating something. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper all blur into one long communal activity. I love the Asian style of eating where all the food is placed in the middle to be shared amongst everyone. In the West we are pretty territorial about our food.
“If it’s on my plate, it’s mine, so keep your thieving hands off it!” Eating Thai style, you get your own plate and help yourself to the food before you, taking just enough each time for a mouthful. Usually you get a fork and spoon, using the spoon in your right hand to eat and the fork in your left hand to move the food about on the plate and help it onto the spoon. Most of the time in Isaan, they don’t use cutlery, instead rolling small balls of sticky rice in their right hands and then holding the ball in their fingertips and pinching up food from the shared dishes. By the way, if you don’t have any soap or water, rolling sticky rice balls is a great way to get your hands clean.
Inside the pot was some boiled water, a few leaves, some lemon grass and the two frogs, belly up. Penh took a knife and split the first one’s belly open. Its guts poured out. She seemed disappointed for some reason. What had she expected? Money? A mobile phone? The Man from Atlantis? Then she sliced the second one’s belly open and smiled triumphantly as she cried, “eggs!” She quickly grabbed a spoon and helped herself to the dubious delicacy. She turned to me offering me the spoon and smiling as she motioned for me to tuck in. I was on a cultural mission, and I was drunk, but when those guts spilled out I was tempted to pass on this one. Then I saw my mud-splattered friend looking at me enthusiastically, and I knew there was no escape. I managed to scrape some meat off the leg and ate that with a handful of sticky rice before passing the spoon on to the frog catcher and making mmmmm noises to show my appreciation. When the spoon came back my way, I patted my stomach signalling how full I was whilst smiling politely. It worked. Phew, that was a close one!
Isaan Eating: part 2 – excerpt from Naked Farang: Four Weddings and a Coup
The evenings were quiet times, but not entirely without incident. One time, I was reading a book in the living room and enjoying some time alone. Everyone had wandered off somewhere. Suddenly, the tranquillity was shattered. Penh’s youngest sister, Aeyen, came running in excitedly shouting, “Paul, Paul. Come.” I was firstly surprised to hear her call me by my name as I was used to just being called farang. I was also interested to see what was causing such excitement, so I followed her outside, where I saw a bright light in the field behind the house with several people gathered round. Could it be a UFO landing? Would this be aliens’ first impression of human life?
As we walked towards the light, I noticed that there was a long extension lead running from the house to a fluorescent strip light, which was attached to a pole. The pole was stuck in the ground at a 45 degree angle with a corrugated tin sheet draped over it. Under the light was a large bowl of water. Crickets were being attracted to the light and jumping into the bowl, where they would drown. The congregation was aiding this process by picking up more crickets and throwing them in to the bowl. I joined in, thinking to myself, “What a great idea. What an ingenious way of getting rid of so many insects and stopping them from hopping into the house.” The ingenuity didn’t end there. Guess what we had for breakfast the next day!!! Actually, deep fried crickets were quite tasty. They were much more palatable than the fried cockroach I once tried with Penh on a night out in Bangkok. The trick is to pull off the legs first so that they don’t get stuck in your teeth.
I had other experiences with insects there, too. On one trip, I was wandering around the market in Pankorn, looking for dogs, when I saw something that I couldn’t quite figure out. It looked like a kind of white honeycomb. I thought it may be honey, but I wasn’t sure. The stallholder saw me looking and invited me to try some. The taste was kind of sweet and actually nice. This was when Penh came over and told me that I was eating raw, red ant’s eggs. That turned out to be one of the better epicurean adventures I had in Isaan.
The worst culinary incident I had during my trips to Sakhon Nakhon didn’t involve dogs, but giant snails. These were just cooked in the shells and almost inedible. I have eaten escargots in France. They were soaked in garlic sauce and not particularly to my taste but edible, after a jaw-aching period of rumination. It was like eating garlic chewing gum. The Isaan version was like chewing on wet rubber.