- Beth Ellis & Bryan Santos
Dinner in Isaan
Khao Niaw (Sticky Rice)
In Isaan, sticky rice is the base for every meal - generally part of every bite you take. Though it’s sometimes sold as “glutinous rice”, there’s actually no gluten involved - glutinous refers to the texture of the rice once cooked; the individual grains remain intact, but they stick together quite strongly, making the rice the perfect edible utensil. If you’d like to try eating the rice like a pro, grab a ball about the size of a quarter, flatten it out a bit and use it to scoop the dishes or sauces below. Because the rice breaks down quickly, it is normally soaked overnight and then slowly steamed, rather than boiled. In fact, putting rice to soak overnight is a common bedtime ritual for many people in Isaan. Thai sticky rice is much more calorically dense than the more common jasmine rice and is therefore a favorite (and a necessity) for the people of northeastern Thailand, whose economy is more agriculturally-based than that of the rest of the country. In case you were wondering, Thai sticky rice is not the same as Japanese sticky rice - it has a slightly longer grain and is less sweet than its Japanese counterpart. (No gluten; vegan).
Som Tam Isaan (Green Papaya Salad)
An Isaan meal would not be complete without som tam (som is “sour” and tam is “pounded”), perhaps the most iconic dish of the region. Som tam originated in Laos (where it is called tam mak hoong), and has percolated throughout Thailand (via Isaan), but with the flavor profile varying from region to region. Check out our description of a classic central Thai papaya salad from our Dinner in Bangkok. At its most basic, it is a salad of shredded green papaya (but can be a variety of other veggies / fruits), lightly bruised with a mortar and pestle, mixed with cherry tomatoes and chilies, and dressed with myriad fish sauces and lime juice. This Isaan-style som tam is spicy (Thai chilies), sour (tamarind and lime), salty (fish sauce), a little sweet (palm sugar), and bursting with umami (fermented fish sauce and dried shrimp). All of these flavors would be completely overwhelming on their own, but when combined together in a bowl and tempered with a side of sticky rice, it’s bold but harmonious. One of the most unique ingredients is naam plaa raa, an unfiltered fermented fish sauce that is unique to Isaan - it’s much earthier and less salty than the fish sauce you might be accustomed to. (Contains fish, shellfish, peanuts; no gluten).
Het Paa Naam Tok (Mushroom Salad)
Naam tok translates to “waterfall”, and this “salad” is often made with grilled pork or steak, with the “waterfall” being the juices of the meat sizzling on the grill. For our Dinner in Bangkok we actually made a naam tok salad with pork collars. Originally an Isaan dish, this type of salad is now ubiquitous all over the country, thanks to a railroad connecting the somewhat isolated region to the capital which was built in the late 1800s. The defining flavors of any naam tok salad - sour lime, spicy chilies, citrusy lemongrass, and the nuttiness of toasted sticky rice powder - are a given, no matter what protein or vegetable is used. Mushrooms are featured heavily in Thai cuisine - both foraged and cultivated varieties so for this version we’re searing king oyster mushrooms before tossing them with the classic dressing and finishing the dish with a healthy topping of cilantro and mint. (Contains soy; no gluten; vegan).
Phak Buung Fai Daeng (Stir-Fried Water Spinach)
Water spinach is, as you might imagine, a leafy green vegetable that shows up in a lot of Southeast Asian cooking. It’s not actually related to spinach though - it’s an aquatic vine that is part of the morning glory family; if you’ve ever had morning glories in your yard, then you know how quickly they grow! Because of this, water spinach is considered a noxious weed in the United States (don’t try to cross state lines with a load of it in the trunk of your car!), but in southeast Asia, its rapid growth and low maintenance are considered beneficial. It has a very mild flavor on its own, and takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it with, while the hollow stems retain a wonderful crunch. Here, we quickly stir-fry it with oyster sauce (GF), fish sauce, chilis, garlic, and a touch of sugar. The “fai daeng” in the name literally translates to “red fire,” not because the dish is spicy, but because of the flames that seem to explode from the wok when it’s cooked over such high heat. (Contains fish, shellfish; no gluten).
Laap Moo Isaan (Minced Pork Salad)
Like many other Isaan foods, laap is originally a Lao dish. Though it is widely described as a meat salad, that phrase doesn’t really explain the dish at all - it’s certainly not like the chicken salad or steak salad we know in the US. It consists of finely minced meat (laap means “chop”), sometimes raw, sometimes cooked (as it is here), tossed with fresh herbs and fiery chilies, and dressed with lime juice, fish sauce, and toasted sticky rice powder. It is a staple food, both in Laos and Isaan, and is also now common throughout Thailand and is probably the most famous Isaan dish in the US, apart from papaya salads (sometimes spelled larb in the US). In fact, pork laap was probably the first true Thai dish I ever tried! This dish begins with a garlic, shallot, and galangal paste before the signature chilis, lime, shallots, lemongrass, toasted sticky rice powder are mixed in. This all gets topped with a generous portion of herbs such as kaffir lime leaves, green onions, cilantro and mint. As with the som tam, this dish is always eaten with sticky rice as a foil for all the flavors as well as a wedge of cabbage for some crunch in between bites (there is actually a whole subset of “jungle herbs” meant to accompany laap, although we couldn’t source any of them in Michigan!) (Contains fish; no gluten).
Laap Plaa Duuk Isaan (Minced Catfish Salad)
While this dish shares many of the same ingredients with the pork laap above, with the obvious difference being the protein, it does have a uniquely bright and fresh flavor profile. Catfish is native to the Mekong River, the sixth largest river in Asia and the natural boundary between much of Thailand and Laos. The fish itself is used in countless dishes in the Isaan region and all Mekong-adjacent areas of Southeast Asia - it’s deep-fried, it’s pan-fried, it’s grilled, and it’s commonly minced into a laap. For this version, catfish is seared before being mixed with galangal, a rhizome in the ginger family that has a much more citrusy flavor than ginger. It’s then combined with kaffir lime leaves, green onions, cilantro, mint, and a good amount of lime juice. (Contains fish; no gluten).
Khao Niaw Sankhaya Turian (Coconut Sticky Rice with Durian Custard)
Thai desserts are usually pretty sweet, and often the perfect end to a fiery, salty, sour meal. The sticky rice here is prepared with coconut cream, sugar, and pandan leaf (which lends a light green tea flavor). Durian is a much-loved fruit in southeast Asia, but it’s fragrance (I’m trying to be diplomatic here!) can be overwhelming enough to discourage people from trying it. It is actually banned on planes, trains, and buses because the smell can be so overpowering. In Singapore, you can’t even eat it in public spaces - now that is an exciting fruit! The taste of the fruit is impossible to describe - much like trying to describe umami. One durian-obsessed blogger has described it as “... diced garlic and caramel poured into whipped cream.” It is both savory and sweet, and has a creamy texture. But trust us on this one - it’s known as the “queen of fruit” for a reason. In this dish, we’ve made a durian-based custard to bring out the caramel and butterscotch flavor that pair exceptionally well with the rich coconut-cream rice. It’s a mild version of durian and a perfect introduction to the fruit - we hope you love it as much as we do! (Contains eggs; no gluten, vegetarian).
Beer is simply the best pairing for all the spicy, pungent, and herbaceous notes inherent to this food. While the history of beer in Thailand is relatively young, with the first brewery opening in 1933 by an ingenious businessman, it has taken the country by storm. Today there are many brewers but Singha and Chang are by far the two most famous. You can find Singha at A&L Wine Castle or you can use any light Asian lager such as Tsingtao, Sapporo, Asahi, etc.
Mor lam is the music of Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand. It has a distinctive, strong rhythm and plaintive song, with lyrics often filled with longing - for love, for family, for home. Isaan is Thailand’s poorest region - though it is home to over a third of Thailand’s population, it contributes only slightly over ten percent to the nation’s GDP. It is home to four relatively large cities, but the vast majority of its people live in rural areas and participate in agricultural work. Because of the high poverty and lack of industry, many Isaan leave home to work in the service sector in big cities outside of Isaan - often sending money home to family remaining in the region. Mor lam frequently features this narrative - the lonely immigrant, exploited and disillusioned in a big city, longing for their pastoral homeland. Isaan is the largest region of Thailand, and it is geographically, ethnically, and linguistically distinct; it has much more in common with neighboring Laos than the rest of Thailand. The food, too, is unique, and not what Americans usually get to experience in Thai restaurants here in the US. However, because of the large numbers of Isaan people who have emigrated from the region, their cuisine can be found throughout Thailand and is becoming increasingly popular in the US - the food, along with mor lam, have combined to reinforce Isaan culture in the face of modernization and discrimination.
The Isaan region has traded hands between Laos and Thailand (then Siam), with governments in both countries trying to exert cultural influence over the region. As with many culturally ambiguous populations, this has led to discrimination against Isaan people within Thailand. Most people of Isaan are ethnically Lao, and often self-identify as Lao-Thai, demonstrating pride in their Lao heritage. The central Thai government, however, has made concerted efforts to unify all of Thailand under the umbrella of one Thai identity - that of central Thailand. Despite these efforts, Isaan people have great pride in their homeland, culture, and food.
We wrote a bit about the history of Thailand and the regional differences in Thai cuisine for our Bangkok menu; most of what we (Westerners) know of Thai food is central or southern Thai food (e.g., pad thai and coconut curries). Isaan cuisine, by contrast, often features much stronger flavors and aromas - more sour, more heat, more salt, more umami! There is less coconut in the food, and the rice served with Isaan meals is sticky rice, as opposed to the jasmine rice served in central and southern Thailand. The strong flavors are part of a long history of food insecurity in the region - people generally eat more rice with spicier food, and thus families are able to stretch meat and vegetables further. There is also a great deal of dried and fermented ingredients, as fermentation preserves fresh food without refrigeration. Dried shrimp, fermented fish sauce, tamarind, and dried chilies are just a few of the ingredients that lend signature flavors to the food. Fewer spices are used than in central Thai cuisine, but greater quantities of fresh herbs like green onion, spicy basil, culantro, lemongrass, and galangal. Fresh and bright salads (yam) are part of every meal, and you might have come across larb (laap) if you’re a fan of Thai food. Larb is more familiar in the US, and common across all Thai regional cuisines now, but this minced meat dish originated in Isaan. There are no heavy sauces or creamy curries; there is quite a bit of chopping, slicing, dicing, and smashing involved, but most of the food is actually cooked very quickly.
The food on this menu is aahaan kap khao, or food to be eaten with rice. This meal does not have courses - just several dishes to be shared. In Isaan, diners would traditionally sit on the floor around a small table or rattan mat, and use their right hand to form a small ball of sticky rice, and use that to pinch up bites of the other dishes (if you want to give it a try, check out the video in the resources below!). Eating a meal without sticky rice is inconceivable, and most of the dishes were created with rice as an integral part, even though it is not an ingredient. The common informal Thai greeting is, “Kin khao reu yang?” It translates literally to, “Have you eaten rice yet?” The looser translation is simply, “How are you?”
So how are you, anyway? And have you eaten rice yet? No? Well, you’re in luck then, because we made some for you!
Featured Recipe: Laap Moo Isaan
Serves 4 people
Adapted from Pok Pok
1 oz unpeeled garlic cloves
1 oz unpeeled asian shallots
14g frozen galangal
12 oz ground pork
2 tbsp vegetable oil
12 dried thai chilis, fried (see note 1)
4 tbsp lime juice
4 tbsp fish sauce (or naam plaa raa if you’re feeling adventurous)
1 tsp sugar
28 g peeled shallots, cut in half and sliced
14g thinly sliced lemongrass
2 tbsp toasted sticky rice powder (see note 2)
2 tbsp toasted chili powder (see note 3)
2 tbsp kaffir lime leaves
4 tbsp thinly sliced green onions
4 tbsp coarsely chopped cilantro
4 tbsp mint leaves
Dry fry the garlic, shallots, and galangal until the galangal is cooked through and looks dry on both sides. The garlic and shallots should look charred but not burnt
Pound the galangal in a mortar and pestle until it’s a fibrous paste, 2 minutes. Remove the garlic skins and pound until incorporated, 2 minutes. Do the same with the shallots and pound for 2 minutes
Heat a large pan, pour the oil, then add the ground pork and 2 tbsp of the galangal paste. Stir fry for 45 seconds.
Remove the pan from heat and add the fried chilis, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. Return to high heat Cook until all the moisture evaporates, 2-3 minutes. Let cool to just above room temperature in the pan
Add the shallots, lemongrass, rice powder, chili powder, kaffir lime leaves and 2 tbsp of each herb. Stir well. Garnish with the remaining 2 tbsp of each herb
Note 1: Put the Thai chilis in a pan and add enough oil to coat. Heat over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the chilis are dark brown 6-10 minutes
Note 2: Take the raw sticky rice and add to a frying pan. Over medium heat, toast the grains of rice, stirring constantly, until they are evenly golden brown. Let cool then grind in a spice grinder
Note 3: Take 1 oz of dried Mexican puya chili and place on a dry frying pan over low heat. Stirring constantly, allow the chili to become very brittle and almost black, 15-20 minutes. Let cool and grind in a spice blender
Recipes Inspired By:
Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand by Andy Ricker.
Night + Market: Delicious Thai Food to Facilitate Drinking and Fun-Having Amongst Friends by Kris Yenbamroong.
The Food of Northern Thailand by Austin Bush.
Jintara Poonlarp is Thailand’s most famous mor lam singer; she is from Isaan, and she has reached superstar status within Thailand. Here is a more traditional mor lam song.
Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, Season 3, Episode 7 (Thailand).
This video illustrates how to eat Thai sticky rice and accompanying dishes with your hands.
This story of a road trip through Isaan has great photos.
Photos of a precarious climb up the Buddhist mountain temple of Wat Phu Tok, on the Mekong River.
Durian - hate it? Love it? Read more here.