9 Northern Thai and Isaan Dishes You Need to Know

By Jenny Miller | January 28, 2014 By Jenny Miller  |  January 28, 2014

Taking the pulse of this country's dining scene, it's clear we're in the midst of the second great awakening of Thai food. A new crop of restaurants is departing from the ubiquitous pad Thai and curry joints that first introduced most of us to Siamese flavors. For one thing, many of these eateries focus on the food of Thailand's Northern and Northeastern regions, quite different from the Chinese-influenced stir-fries and noodle dishes that usually come to mind when we think of Thai food. Northern cuisine uses lots of dried spices and has notable Burmese influence. Meanwhile, Isaan, or Northeastern Thai food, bears strong resemblance to what's eaten in the bordering countries of Cambodia and Laos. 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. Read on for a primer on the regions' top dishes - and let us know if we missed any in the comments below.

  • Nam Phrik

    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.

    Where to Try: Little Serow in Washington, D.C., and Night + Market in Los Angeles

  • Som Tum

    The Isaan 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 Isaan 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.

    Where to Try: Somtum Der in New York and Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon

  • Larb

    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, Isaan's "very authentic one is the larb duck," or larb pet Isaan, 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.

    Where to Try:  Zabb Elee in New York and Whiskey Soda Lounge in Brooklyn, NY and Portland, Oregon

  • Photo by: Cherie Cincilla

    Sticky Rice

    We've mentioned it a bunch already, but one of the dishes that sets Northern Thai and Isaan 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 Isaan food

  • Tom Saep

    Chef-owner Johnny Monis of Little Serow in Washington, D.C., tells us that "if there's one dish that encapsulates the ethos of Isaan 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, D.C., and Whiskey Soda Lounge in Brooklyn, NY and Portland, Oregon

  • Sai Krok Isaan

    Sausages are popular in both Northern and Northeastern Thailand, but this Isaan 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.

    Where to Try: Uncle Boon's in New York and Isaan Station in Los Angeles

  • Khao Soi

    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.

    Where to Try: Pig & Khao in New York and Pestle Rock in Seattle

  • Gai Yang

    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 Isaan 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."

    Where to Try: Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, and Sway in Austin

  • Photo by: Chopsticksandmarrow.com

    Pla Som

    If the rest of the foods on here are great for beginner-level enjoyment, this fermented fish dish typical of the Isaan 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, Isaan 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.

    Where to Try: Zabb Elee in New York

Places Mentioned

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Zabb Elee

Thai East Village
Food24 Decor13 Service18 Cost$28
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Zabb Elee

Thai Elmhurst
Food24 Decor13 Service18 Cost$28
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Pok Pok

Thai Richmond
Food24 Decor16 Service20 Cost$31
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Pok Pok Noi

Thai Sabin
Food24 Decor16 Service20 Cost$31
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Pok Pok Ny

Thai Columbia Street Waterfront District
Food26 Decor17 Service21 Cost$41
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Thai Bouldin Creek
Food27 Decor24 Service25 Cost$50
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Pig and Khao

Asian Lower East Side
Food26 Decor16 Service21 Cost$40
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Uncle Boons

Thai NoLita
Food25 Decor21 Service22 Cost$52
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Little Serow

Thai Dupont Circle
Food26 Decor20 Service24 Cost$68
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Night + Market

Food24 Decor15 Service18 Cost$32
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Somtum Der

Thai East Village
Food24 Decor17 Service19 Cost$36
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Food22 Decor22 Service20 Cost$27
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Whiskey Soda Lounge NY

Cocktail Bar Columbia Street Waterfront District
Atmo.- Decor- Service- CostM

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