For most Thai food travellers, and many Thais, north-east Thailand is a distant, forgotten land. Isan, the collective name for the 19 provinces that make up the north-east, offers travellers a peek in to the Thailand that was.
If your Thai food travel takes you to this part of the country, you will discover that it is an untouched corner of the country that continues to live life slowly and steadily. The relative isolation and underdevelopment of the area means that Isan is a good place to get off the beaten track and discover Thailand’s agricultural roots and natural scenery.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, north-eastern Thailand has been generally known as Isan, a term adopted from Sanskrit “Ishan”. The language, food, and culture of Isan are more related to Lao than Thai, with hearty helpings of Khmer and Vietnamese thrown into the melting pot.
Isan food, in which sticky rice and chili peppers feature prominently, is distinct from Central Thai food, though it is now found throughout the kingdom. Cooking methods here include roasting or broiling.
Droughts are common in this region, and the heat during the day can be stifling. Like Thai’s northern region, fish and coconut milk are not readily available for everyday home cooking. When animals are eaten, no part is left to waste. Beef (including the tongue, stomach, intestines, heart, and liver) is common, as are chicken, pork, and even wild boar.
Perhaps the best-known Isan dish is Som Tam, a spicy salad prepared from unripe papayas. While Thais prepare this with dried shrimp, in Isan, the preferred style is with preserved crab or mudfish, which is an acquired taste.
Other characteristic dishes include roast chicken (Kai Yaang), sticky rice (Khao Niaw,) and a wide variety of cold meat, mint and lemon juice “salads” known as larb. Soups are also a frequent element of any meal, and contain either vegetables and herbs, noodles, chunks of fish, balls of ground pork or a mixture of these, which are eaten using a spoon and chopsticks at the same time. Grilled meats are marinated before being char-broiled to maximize its flavour. Fish are often coated with a thick layer of salt before being grilled in order to retain natural moisture and add flavour.
With most popular Thai food dishes originating from Isan, this region is the perfect place to visit to understand what all the hype about Thai food is about. A sensational blend of tastes and textures, north-eastern Thailand is a place you wouldn’t want to miss, especially if you’re a big foodie.
Warning: Isan food is known even among Thais for being fiery hot. So, keep a bottle of water, or a packet of milk handy is you aren’t a fan of spicy food.
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