In the latest episode of Foodways, Jessica Sanchez travels to Houston to learn about Isan Thai cuisine from chef PJ Stoops of the newly opened Foreign Correspondents, a farm-to-table Thai restaurant. Isan cooking comes from the northeast of the country, and it's quite different from the Chinese-influenced stir-fries and noodle dishes that usually come to mind when we think of Thai food. Isan food bears strong resemblance to what's eaten in the bordering countries of Cambodia and Laos, and stateside it's often served alongside northern Thai food, uses lots of dried spices and has notable Burmese influence. In both regions, sticky rice rules. You've likely already tasted a number of the dishes below, which are happily now served at an increasing number of restaurants around the U.S. Check out the video below and after that, read on for a primer on the region's top dishes, and where to find them.
The chunky, chile-based family of dips or relishes known as nam phrik are found around Thailand in countless variations. In Northern Thailand, you're especially likely to run across varieties like nam phrik num, a green, moderately spicy paste that's generally paired with steamed or blanched vegetables for dipping; sausage is a popular addition to the plate for some protein heft. There's also nam phrik ong, a dip made with pork and tomatoes that's frequently referred as "Thai Bolognese" for obvious reasons; it's usually paired with blanched or steamed veggies and crunchy pork rinds. Just add sticky rice, and you have a light meal or substantial snack.
The Isan region's most iconic dish is this salad made of shredded green papaya, tomatoes, long beans, garlic and possibly other vegetables in a lime-juice dressing. It's traditionally pounded in a large stone mortar and pestle (the resulting sound, "pok pok," inspired the names of Andy Ricker's popular Southeast Asian restaurants in Portland, Oregon, and Brooklyn, NY). Som tum is now found throughout Thailand, with many regional variations and countless spins creative cooks have come up with. In the U.S., we know the sweet-and-sour Central Thai version best, but a true Isan som tum (usually called som tum Lao) is more funky than sweet thanks to the addition of salted crab or a large dose of fermented fish sauce.
Like nam phrik, the minced-meat-and-herb salads known as "larb" are a family of foods rather than any one specific recipe. As Thanuruek “Eh” Laoraowirodge, managing partner in New York's Somtum Der, attests, Isan's "very authentic one is the larb duck," or larb pet Isan, which contains toasted rice powder and tastes funky and fiery from the addition of fermented fish sauce and whole dried chiles. In Northern Thailand, you might run across a pork version replete with blood and offal, complexly flavored with dried spices such as cumin, star anise and cardamom. Larbs are eaten with sticky rice, which helps mitigate any spiciness, as do the frosty beers that are the common sidekick to this dish — or maybe it's the other way around.
We've mentioned it a bunch already, but one of the dishes that sets Northern Thai and Isan food apart from the cuisine of the country's other regions is the rice: instead of jasmine rice, Thais up north eat glutinous sticky rice with almost every meal. This super-starchy staple is often presented in small, individual baskets. Eaters typically grab a lump of sticky rice with their fingers and use it in lieu of silverware to snap of chunks of whatever's on the table — it's particularly indispensable and delicious with larb.
Where to Try: Any restaurant offering Northern Thai or Isan food
Chef-owner Johnny Monis of Little Serow in Washington, DC, tells us that "if there's one dish that encapsulates the ethos of Isan cooking, it's tom saep (literally, 'tasty soup')." He continues, "It's spicy, salty, sour and composed of ingredients that some would consider leftovers: pork or beef bones, flavorful innards like tripe, liver or spleen, galangal, lime leaf and whatever other herbs and greens you've got growing nearby. This dish is a great example of the simple, honest cooking that makes the most of limited resources to downright delicious effect."
Where to try: Little Serow in Washington, DC and Lacha Somtum in Los Angeles
Sai Krok Isan
Sausages are popular in both Northern and Northeastern Thailand, but this Isan version made with pork and glutinous rice is well-known enough to have made it to a number of menus stateside. Minced pork parts are typically mixed with garlic, salt and steamed sticky rice, piped into pig's intestines, and then allowed to ferment until slightly sour while drying, which gives the meat a rich and funky flavor. The finished product is often grilled and served with vegetables and herbs such as ginger, cabbage, shallots and chiles.
Few who taste Northern Thailand's most famous dish, khao soi, fail to fall in love with it. This curry soup laced with (usually) wheat noodles and chunks of chicken is both exotic to a Western palate and instantly recognizable as comfort food. The orange-tinged broth, thick and creamy from the addition of coconut milk and generally swimming with bone-in chicken chunks, gets its color and beguiling flavor from spices like turmeric and curry powder, which are thought to be Burmese influences. The noodles are often linguine-width wheat ones, made with or without egg. Fried noodles are thrown on top, and diners can customize the finished meal-in-a-bowl with accoutrements like chopped pickled mustard greens, shallots, chile paste and a squeeze of lime.
According to Monis of Little Serow: "You can’t talk about the foods of Northeastern Thailand without mentioning gai yang, grilled/roasted chicken — a charcoal-fired grill is a staple of even the simplest Isan kitchen. No two recipes are exactly alike, but lemongrass and garlic are almost always involved. Lean, bony, flavorful and truly 'free-range' birds are usually the norm, and this dish can be found in a street stall at all hours of the day. It's deceptively simple, but satisfyingly nuanced. Like all the best dishes, it's something you could eat every day."
If the rest of the foods on here are great for beginner-level enjoyment, this fermented fish dish typical of the Isan region might be considered intermediate-tier. After all, many people's instinct when they encounter seafood that seems to be rotten is to scram. But if you stick you around, you might just get to like pla som, a whole fish that's typically coated with a rice-garlic-salt mash and left unrefrigerated for several days. To serve it, Isan cooks fry the whole fish and accompany it with herbs and sticky rice. And if we've learned anything from this slide show, it's that that combination makes everything taste good.