Isaan. The name, rooted in the Sanskrit Isana for ‘flowing with wealth’ (hardly the case today), refers to the north-easternmost region of Thailand, that runs right along the border of Laos. Geographically, it is for better or worse defined by the Khorat pleateau, which rises 300 meters above the central plain, the Mekong River and many of its tributaries, and the Phu Phan mountain range. The result of this geography is bad drainage, low rainfall, thin soil and poor inhabitants. But despite the harsh environment,
Isaan is quite famous – and mostly for its cuisine. A recent visit to the area’s south-eastern capital, Ubon Ratchabani, seconded this motion as well as proving one of the greater truths in gastronomic history: that poor conditions often give birth to rich cooking traditions.
We suspect that Aahaan Isaan, the cuisine of the region, is popular precisely because it is cooking without pretense. Grilling and roasting are the main methods of preparation. Raw meats, wild herbs and roots, pickled vegetables, simple marinades and coarse cuts define most all Isaan dishes. Duck, meats, poultry and freshwater fish are popular proteins. An unpasteurized fish sauce called plaa raa adds haunting depth of flavor to all things edible. Mortar and pestle are used to coax juice and taste out of fruits and vegetables.
Kai yaang, a grilled chicken dish, should be the region’s edible mascot. Chickens are marinated in garlic, black pepper, coriander root or lemongrass and fish sauce. They are then pressed between sticks of bamboo and cooked slowly over coal. The dish is chased, as are many Isaan faves, with little diner-made balls of khao niaw (earthy, chewy sticky rice) and somtam — the iconic shredded green papaya salad that is pounded in a mortar with lime juice, garlic, chilies, and fish sauce. As this food is made to order, try going local with the addition of pickled crab’s legs (for the Lao-influenced), coconut sugar, tomatoes, green beans, dried shrimp, or peanuts. Consider this mealthe trilogy of Ubon cooking.
But that is just the beginning. Nearly as ubiquitous is a dish called laap, that some believe Marco Polo referred to in his early writings. Laap is made by finely – or in the case of Isaan, coarsely – grounding meat, fish, or poultry and tossing it with lime, fish sauce, chilies, mint leaves and spring onion. The flavors are dynamic and the texture gets its point-counterpoint nature from the addition of khao khua pon (dry rice, roasted, and crushed). In Ubon, laap is ordered most often with duck, and comes in many variations: suk (cooked), dip (raw), khao (white, plain) or daeng (red, with the addition of duck blood).
One of the great appeals of Ubon cuisine is its accessibility. Dishes are often eaten by hand, something facilitated by the use of khao niaw. To look local one must eat local; this means extracting the off-white sticky rice from your personal bamboo basket with your right hand, balling it up with three or four fingers, and using it to shovel, push, and spoon your food towards digestion. Targets for sticky rice utensiling are many. Dipping
sauces are among the beloved khao niaw partners and are called naam jim. They are made from a base of dried red chili flakes, shallots, tamarind juice and shrimp paste. Cooks take off from there with loads of variations including the addition of protein, cooking the dip for color and added taste and so forth.
As a cuisine of need, aahaan Isaan uses less-is-more ideals to ends that are at once stunning and, to Western palates, sometimes weird. Fish dishes are prepared very simply, with river fish from the Mekong or its many tributaries. Steaming with Thai lemon basil, pickled vegetables and lemongrass is a de rigeur preparation – and damn good. Soups are constructed from simple bases of vegetables, boiled for but a few hours or a matter of minutes, with pickled bamboo shoots, kaffir lime, roasted and ground sticky rice, and jackfruit as typical starring tastes; khai mot daeng (red ant larvae) is an uncommon ingredient with deep-tasting consequences. In the edible arcana categories, frogs are prepared with aplomb, fried with a dipping sauce or stuffed with pork, and lizards, water beetles, and grashoppers are all common plate visitors.
And that is but a peek at Isaan, as famous for food in Thailand as Thailand
is famous for food in the West.
Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur,
East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications
around the world.
Photo: khao niaw