Ant egg salads, street food counters lined with entrails, carts filled with bugs, I understand why visitors to Thailand can be put off by Isan food. Not all of it is appealing. Some the complete opposite. But bravado and beetle munching aside Isan food offers much of the best eating in Thailand. Less celebrated globally but hugely popular locally. This is my guide to the exciting dishes of Northeastern Thailand. My Top 10 Isan Food. Eat Isan food with sticky rice and booze and optional sides of White Cabbage (Pak Gad Khao), Sweet Basil (Horapa), Long Beans (Tua Fak Yao). In Bangkok Isan food is easy enough to track down in the central Sukhumvit area but for truly authentic Isan food is best found in the Isaan Region of Northeast Thailand.
1. Grilled Pork Neck (Kor Moo Yang, คอหมูย่าง)
Perfect slices of pork neck, coated in a rich, sticky marinade, barbecued over charcoals and served with a sour, spicy side of chilli sauce (Nam Jim Jaew). Sounds good? I can go one better. Yum Kor Moo Yang. The added ‘Yum’ meaning ‘to mix hot and tangy ingredients’. Combine the grilled pork neck with a sweet, sour, salty and hot salad and perfection. The signature combination of Thai tastes is the reason why Yum Kor Moo Yang sits top of my Top 10 Isan Food list. Yum Kor Moo Yang is best found in evenings at Isan roadside barbecues along with me and some beers.
2. Minced Pork Salad (Laab Moo, ลาบหมู)
Originating from Laos this fiery minced pork salad is the big favourite in Isan food. While there are variations the most popular Laab comes as a stir-fried minced pork dish with shallots, coriander and mint leaves. Seasoned with the salty of fish sauce and the sour of lime juice. Note Laab is at times found with raw uncooked meat. I would strongly advise against it.
3. Grilled Pork Salad (Nam Tok Moo, น้ำตกหมู)
Laab’s chewy brother. While others bundle it together with Laab I thought I’d be kind and give Nam Tok a place of its own. The difference between the two is the meat preparation. Instead of the minced pork as in Laab the Nam Tok Moo combines a tasty grilled pork with delicious laab flavours. Also available as beef (Nam Tok Neua). Fun fact, the name Nam Tok translates as ‘Waterfall’. Cute?
4. Isan Sausages (Sai Krok Isaan, ไส้กรอกอีสาน)
Named after the Northeastern region in which it originates. This scrumptious sausage is one of my favourite street foods. Also one of the most common. The Isan sausage brings a unique sour taste brought about by the fermenting of pork and sticky rice. Accompanying Galam (cabbage), sliced ginger and fresh chillies add that extra heat and spice (occasionally lime and peanuts). Roll together in a cabbage leaf, pop in your mouth, eat. Amazing. In evening hours, in puffs of smoke, lined with plump sausages, the Isan Sausage vendors are easy to identify. Cost 10 baht per skewer.
5. Thai Hot Pot (Jim Jum,จิ้มจุ่ม)
The fiery Thai interpretation to the famous Chinese Hot Pot. Jim Jum, originating from Isan, uses a signature Thai infused broth of shallot, Lemongrass, Chilli, Garlic and Sweet Basil. The rest is up to you. Jim Jum allows eaters to pick and prepare their own favourite ingredients. Cooked at hot pots on restaurant tables. Meats, veg, noodles whatever tickles your fancy. Once fully cooked the Jim Jum is served in small soup bowls and mixed with a hot, sour, tangy chilli sauce (Nam Jim). While traditionally prepared in clay pots the modern Jim Jum is now best found in franchised restaurants (Joom Zap Hut) at most major malls of Thailand.
6. Grilled Chicken (Kai Yang, ไก่ย่าง)
Kai Yang can be found all day, everyday, at near every street food area. It is a staple in Thailand’s diet and a great option for the non-spicy food lover. For those with spicier cravings the accompanying sides of sweet or hot chilli sauce will liven things up a bit. Best found sizzling over flaming charcoals at Bangkok’s evening barbecues. When travelling in Isan Kai Yang is found everywhere. Often hawked on large sticks like giant chicken lollipops.
7. Hot and Sour Soup (Tom Saap, ต้มแซ่บ)
The Isan equivalent to the better known Tom Yum? Tom Saap literally translates as “Tasty Soup”, Saap in Isan meaning Tasty. And yes it definitely lives up to its name. Sweet, Sour, Salty and Hot. Add savoury and hearty with chunks of pork ribs, mushroom and tomatoes. This delectable pork soup does give Tom Yum a run for its money. May contain innards…
8. Papaya Salad (Som Tam Korat, ส้มตำโคราช)
Easily recognised by large mortar and pestles and bright red tomatoes. Som Tam stands are one of Thailand’s most common street food vendors. In the large mortar and pestle strips of green (unripe) papaya are crunched together with a handful of ingredients which include palm sugar, lime, fish sauce (pla ra), peanuts and chillies. Som Tam Korat is an extreme salad. It is the Isan equivalent of the better known Som Tam Thai. The distinguishing difference being added pickled fish sauce (pla ra). Fiery, a little stinky but delicious.
9. Grilled Fish (Pla Pao, ปลาเผา)
Accompanying Kai Yang over flaming charcoals. Fish are gutted, stuffed with pandanus leaves and lemongrass then coated with flour and rock salt before taking a grilling over charcoal barbecues. Served with a fish sauce, lime and chilli dip. Eat the meat not the skin. There are three common freshwater fish found at evening Isan food barbecues. Tilapia (Pla Nin), catfish (Pla Duk Dam) and snakehead fish (Pla Duk Yan). A favourite fish grill hangout (pictured) is found near the front of CentralWorld Mall on the walk towards Pratunam area.
10. Marinated Pork (Moo Dad Diew, หมูแดดเดียว)
The Thai equivalent to the delectable pork Jerky. Ok not overly exciting but does well for a quick nibble. Small bites of pork, marinated in dark soy, oyster sauce, garlic, pepper and palm sugar. Occasionally sprinkled with sesame seeds. The marinated pork is then left in the sun to catch some rays. Dry and glaze. A quick grilling at roadside street food vendors gives an added smokey flavour. End result, a chewy, sticky, nibbletastic pork snack. Served with a sour and spicy chilli dip (Nam Jim Jaew).