The Most Popular Dishes in Isaan
By Kelly Iverson
[THAILAND] The northeast of Thailand, otherwise known as Isaan, is the largest region in the country. Often times, this region is unloved by travelers because of its proximity (or lack thereof) to some of the biggest tourist hot spots in the Kingdom. Those travelers who can head up north, however, should do so, as Isaan is home to some of the most delicious cuisine in the country, if not the world. Here are the top 10 Isaan dishes you should try.
Tom Saap – Hot and Sour Soup
You will often find curry paste or some type of noodle in Thailand’s most popular soups. Do not allow an equally delicious dish to go unnoticed (or untasted) because it has not won a popularity contest or two. Tom saap, otherwise known as hot and sour soup, is jam-packed of flavorful herbs and appetizing ingredients, including lemongrass and onions for flavor, chilies for an added kick, mushrooms for texture, and pork tendon for substance and taste.
Tamnak Isan Ekamai
Address: 70/4 Sukhumvit Rd, Khlong Toei Nuea, Khet Watthana, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10110, Thailand
Larp – Spicy Meat Salad
When we imagine salads, we usually conjure up some sort of greenery in addition to different dressing and veggies. Not anymore, thanks to larp, one of the most popular northeastern Thai dishes. Carnivores rejoice, as this salad is made up almost entirely of meat. It is usually made with minced pork. However, this salad can be made in a variety of ways (some vendors will even substitute the meat with things like tofu). In addition to meat, this salad sports a pretty interesting combination of ingredients, including dry ground chili flakes, shallots, sugar, fish sauce, limes, onions, and cilantro. It is both spicy and tangy, and satisfying.
Bueno @ Basement
Address: Soi Ari 1, Khwaeng Samsen Nai, Khet Phaya Thai, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10400, Thailand
Nam Tok Moo – Grilled Pork Salad
Nam tok moo is a mouth-stimulating combination of one of the most popular meats in Thailand topped with a savory sauce. Nam tok means waterfall, and apparently, this salad received its name because the meat should still have some blood in it when served, flowing out like a waterfall when cut. We found that this is not always the case. It is quite like larp, except for a difference in how the meat is prepared. Nam tok moo usually has fried or grilled meat, while the meat in larp is minced. The dressing is made with a tangy and spicy combination of ground dried chilies, lime juice, mint leaves, fish sauce, and fresh spring onions. This meal has scores of different consistencies, with crunchy onions, tender yet firm pork, and thin sliced garlic giving it just the right amount of flavor.
Address: 233 South Sathorn Road, Kwaeng Yannawa, Khet Sathorn, Bangkok 10120, Thailand
Som Tam – Papaya Salad
Many visitors to Thailand have heard of som tam, better known as papaya salad. If they still have not heard of it, they have at least heard it being prepared. The sound of a mortar and pestle has become almost as recognizable as, let’s say, the traffic in Bangkok. While no version of papaya salad is quite the same, the Isaan equivalent’s flavor is a bit more intense. This salad is made up of shredded green papaya, crispy dried shrimp, juicy tomatoes, green beans, flavorful garlic, fish sauce, lime juice, and (deep breath) palm sugar. This spicy salad can be enjoyed at any time of the day, as many Thais eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This mouthwatering meal is best served with sticky rice to balance out all the spice.
Address: 432/1-2 Siam Square 9, 10330, Thailand
Gai Yang – Grilled Chicken
It may sound mundane at first, but grilled chicken Isaan-style is one of visitors’ most favored dishes. Gai yang, or grilled chicken, is no ordinary dish. It packs an extraordinary flavor in every bite because of the tangy marinade it is soaked in. The ingredients which make up this memorable sauce include lemongrass, fish sauce, garlic, and, of course, chili. One of the perks of this dish is that it can be found from the sois (streets) of Bangkok to the most remote areas of the Kingdom. It is also a great meal to have on the go, and it is not incredibly spicy either, so those suffering from Thailand’s love of chili can enjoy.
Sabai Jai Gai Yang
Address: Ekkamai Soi 1, Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok, Thailand, 10110
Gaeng Omm – Isaan Curry Soup
Thai-Isan curry is a bit different from the green, massaman, and phanaeng curries many visitors to Thailand have come to know and love. While it is certainly different than its more popular counterparts, Thai-Isan curry certainly holds its own in terms of taste and flavor. This curry is loaded with vegetables, with everything from Thai eggplants to even pumpkins and onions making an appearance. In addition to galangal which gives it an added citrus flavor, this soup is the perfect combination of spicy and tangy. This curry is not heavy like the soups that are made up of thick paste, making it a great meal for those who want a light meal.
Address: 70/2, Sukhumvit 63 (Ekamai), Phra Khanong Nuea, Wattana, Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Pla Pao – Grilled Fish
This bold-tasting dish gets its flavor from the seemingly pounds of rock salt it is doused with. Visitors to Thailand will find these sprawling specimens, or pla pao, on grills all over the Land of Smiles, slowly rotating over small pits of flames, even in the urban capital. It is one of the most unsightly of dishes, with the fish gape stuffed with lemongrass and pandanus leaves (not the best look for a selfie). Do not judge a book by its cover, and enjoy one of the most popular Isaan dishes in Thailand.
Pannee Guest House Food & Drink
Address: 150 ถนนรามบุตรี แขวงตลาดยอด Khwaeng Talat Yot, Khet Phra Nakhon, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10200, Thailand
Het Paa Naam Tok – Isaan-Style Forest Mushroom Salad
Healthy, delicious, cheap: what more could you want out of a dish? This is exactly what consumers will get out of het paa naam tok, or Isaan-style forest mushroom salad. It is not too filling, making it the perfect meal to eat mid-day or for breakfast, as all Thai food can be enjoyed at any hour of the day. This is a great dish for travelers who do not like spicy food, as well. This dish is still packed with taste and boasts unique flavors. The sautéed mushrooms are mixed in with chewy minced pork, making for an interesting combination of texture and flavor. Red onions, shallots, chili powder, and rice powder are a few other ingredients giving this dish its incredible taste. It is best served with sticky rice, a staple of the Thai diet in Isaan.
Tor Um Tum
Address: 1221/, 24 Sukhumvit Rd, Khlong Tan Nuea, Watthana, Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Pla Som – Sour Fish
Those who have sensitive palates should steer clear of this next dish. Pla som, or sour fish, is one of the most pungent of dishes from the northeast. It is made with fermented rice, which gives it its sour taste, and deep fried until it is crisp around the edges. This delicious dish can be found at vendors all over the country, specifically in Isaan. It is covered in dried chilies, crispy garlic, shallots, and embellished with fresh herbs. Not all sour fish are created equal, and visitors will find that each vendor or restaurant has a bit of a different take on this unique dish.
Address: ถนน กรุงเทพ-พัทยา สายใหม่ Prawet, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10240, Thailand
Kor Moo Yang – Grilled Pork Neck
Marinated grilled pork neck, or kor moo yang, is one of the most popular dishes in all of Thailand, though it did originate in Isaan. Paired with a tamarind dipping sauce, this dish is just the right amount of flavor without being too spicy. People in Isaan normally do not enjoy dishes which are too salty or spicy so it suits them just fine. Kor moo yang is not boasting too much of any one flavor, but it is still delectable, with meat grilled to chewy perfection.
Address: 2/F, The Taste, Thonglor Soi 11, Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Kelly is a freelance writer currently exploring the City of Angels. When she isn’t scouring the streets of Bangkok, she’s reading fiction and taking one too many photographs. Visit her Facebook page for more for her work.