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The Northeast region of Thailand, or Isan in the local dialect, is renowned for its cuisine offering unique dishes with a pungent taste that has propelled it to nationwide popularity. Also many dishes like Som Tam Salad, Larb or Nam Tok have become worldwide favourites. The cuisine in the Northeast region has more in common with Laotian cuisine than the rest of Thailand, as Isan and Laos share a historical background as well as culture, culinary history and language.
Isan food is based primarily on sticky rice, along with vegetables, spices and fish. Sticky rice, or Khao NIao or sticky rice is usually cooked in a bamboo steamer and served in small, covered, bamboo baskets called Kratip.
The food palate is full of flavours, salty, sour, hot and spicy and herbal fragrance. The food from this region also tastes more pungent than other regions, due to its heavy reliance on spices for flavoring. One of the main ingredients that makes Isan food outstanding is Pla Ra or fermented fish, the locals like to use it for dipping or seasoning their food. It is salty and has a strong smell, which is not everyone’s favourite.
Once you try, you will either love it or hate it. The Isan cooking method is usually simple and quick due to the local lifestyle. In the past most Isan locals worked as either farmers or weavers. So they needed to prepare something quick and easy in the morning so the workers could take it into the fields with them to eat later on. Sharing communal dishes with friends and family is common throughout Thai food culture, and family gatherings are a huge part of the Isan eating tradition.
So when it is time to dine, Isan people usually gather around a table before serving a variety of dishes and sticky rice which is shared with the whole table.
Som Tam, known as Thai papaya salad, is the most renowned dish from this region. Although there are many versions of the dish, the main ingredients contains fresh, crisp green papaya slices that are mixed with tomatoes, chilli, garlic, fish sauce.
In the Isan version, Pla ra is a common ingredient to use. This must-try dish also has a local variation in each area of the Northeast with their secret recipes and unique ingredients like acacia seeds, rice noodle, or shrimp paste, amongst others.
Larb or Thai spicy meat salad is another famous Isan dish. It is made with minced meat mixed with ground roasted rice, shallots, spring onions, mint leaves and seasoned with chilli, lime juice and either fish sauce or Pla ra.
The typical meat used in the dish is pork, chicken, duck, or beef. Larb is usually served with steamed sticky rice, fresh vegetables and locals usually order it with Som Tam and Gai Yang (grilled chicken).
Nam Tok Moo or Grilled Pork Salad is similar to larb in terms of seasoning and herbal ingredients. But rather than using minced pork it uses slice grilled pork.
Nam Tok uses marinade meat, it gives more umami flavor and a chewier texture. Beef or chicken is also used in the recipe, but is not as popular as pork.
Om is an Isan spicy soup made with freshly pounded chilli paste, but without coconut milk. The base chilli paste consists of shallots, lemongrass and chilli, and local herbs like cilantro and lemon basil which give the soup its distinct aroma and flavor.
A variety of seasonal vegetables are added to the broth, mixed with meat like chicken, frog, pork, or catfish.
It is called Gaeng Nor Mai Bai Yanang in Thai, but this dish is more like soup than curry because it contains no coconut milk or curry paste.
This distinctive northeastern dish is made from freshly pounded chilli paste, bamboo shoots and yanang leaves. The bamboo shoot needs to be boiled beforehand to reduce its bitterness then it can be mixed with other ingredients.
The soup is typically seasoned with Pla ra and additional flavors come from other seasonal vegetables in the dish.
Kor Moo Yang or grilled pork neck is one of Isan’s most famous dishes. The secret to this simple, but delicious recipe lies in the marinade and grilling method. It is usually made from a combination of ground coriander roots, garlic, peppers, oyster sauce, light soy sauce and black soy sauce and is normally cooked on a charcoal grill.
Kor Moo Yang is also used as an ingredient in Nam Tok Moo. The grilled pork is popularly served with Isan style dips called Nam Jim Jeaw, a hot, spicy and sour dipping sauce.
It is a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice or tamarind juice, palm sugar, chopped shallots and ground dry-roasted rice.
Gai Yang or grilled chicken is another all-time popular staple food from Isan. Thai people usually order it with Som Tam and Larb or Nam Tok to balance out the spiciness from the spicy salads.
Typically, the Isan Gai Yang is marinated in soy or fish sauce and spices, flattened and grilled. One of the most famous grilled chickens in Thailand is from Khao Suan Kwang Grilled Chicken restaurant in Khon Kaen.
Their secret recipe is to choose a male chicken aged 55 days and grilled on a charcoal stove which produces juicy, natural sweet and tender meat. Now you can find the franchise of the grilled chicken almost everywhere in Thailand.
Northern Thailand has Sai Oua, and the Northeasten region has its own unique style of sausage ‘Sai Krok Isan’.
The sausage is made from pork meat and pork fat and cooked rice is added to the mixture and usually seasoned with garlic and salt. Then it is fermented for only two to three days. It has a distinct sour taste which comes from the fermented pork and sticky rice ingredients.
The sausage is typically served with fresh cabbage, slices of ginger, fresh chillis and fried peanuts.