Isan, the northeast region of Thailand, makes up thirty percent of the country’s population located on the Khorat Plateau. The cuisine bears heavy influence from the Laos and Khmer palate of Cambodia. Found everywhere from street food vendors and high-end restaurants in Bangkok, to its growing presence in the rest of the region, Isan cuisine is taking over cities, a menu at a time and exerting its dominance over the culinary scene.
Predominantly made with chili peppers, lime, peanuts, dried shrimp, fresh fruits and vegetables, sticky rice, cilantro, mint, and other fresh herbs, the cuisine takes simple food preparation and tosses complex layers of flavors, while adding plenty of color into the mix.
Laab me some Meat
Think salad, but a zesty minced meat version. An unofficial Laotian national dish, Laab is a meaty dish soaked in a sauce made from fresh lime juice, garlic, mint leaves, other herbs with red chilies, and scallions. The meat itself, either Chicken (Laab Gai), Liver (Laab Dtup), Pork (Laab Moo) or Fish (Laab Blah) is then wrapped in a lettuce leaf parcel to consume. This Southeast Asian version of steak tartare is a Laotian specialty that has seeped into the Thai cuisine. Locals usually pull off a clump of sticky rice (Khao Neow) before pinching it together with a little piece of meat and then dipping into the sauce. At times, raw variations are preferred with a dollop of blood.
Grilled to Meat You
Gai Yang is an Isan charcoal grilled chicken staple, with versions of pork neck and fish too. It is marinated in a mixture of lemongrass, garlic, turmeric, cilantro, pepper, palm sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce. Gai Tod (Fried Chicken) is the fried alternative for folks looking for a crunchy bite. It is sweetly coated and freckled with sesame seeds, and accompanied with a super spicy dipping sauce. Whether Gai Yang or Gai Tod, both are common variations consumed with a side of Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad), and hot fresh sticky rice. This ultimate trio bridges the Mekong River for all Isan-lovers.
Charcoal Grilled Chicken, Gai Yang (Source: Serious Eats)
Sour Sausages on Fire
Locally known as Sai Krog Isaan, the Isan Sour Sausage is a popular evening snack that comes in bite-size balls or threaded with bamboo skewers. Inside, a meat (pork meat and pork fat) and rice mixture are stuffed into casings and fermented for a few days before cooking on a grill. Packed with smoky and tangy flavors, these sausages are seasoned with garlic and salt, served with fresh chili, ginger and cabbages. And if you’re feeling adventurous, throw in some of Thailand’s spiciest Prik Kee Noo chilis – guaranteed to set your mouth on fire and still wanting more!
Sai Krog Isaan (Source: Rice and Relish)