If you find yourself traveling in Isaan, or stumble across an Isaan restaurant while in other parts of the country, give the following a try:
01 Laab ลาบ | Minced Meat Salad
How to Really Pronounce It
Note: ลาบ is often spelled l-a-r-b which is misleading because it does NOT rhyme with carb!
What to Look For
The telltale sign of laab is a plate of ground or finely diced pork (laab moo) that's been tossed with fresh mint leaves, scallions, lime juice, dried red chili, and ground toasted rice. It's a colorful dish, with speckles of deep red and white, and light and dark greens thanks to fresh herbs and spices.
It is also made with chicken (laab gai), liver (laab dtup) and fish (laab blah), but vegetarians can find versions served with minced tofu or mushrooms. Some laab is very dark reddish-brown thanks to an extra dose of smoky chilies and a spoonful of blood. There are also raw versions, but it's not for the faint of heart!
Our absolute favorite version is laab blah tub tim grawp (ลาบปลาทับทิมกรอบ). It's a whole tilapia fish that's been filleted and cubed, deep fried, and then tossed in the chili-fish-sauce-lime juice-toasted-rice-mint dressing. It's to die for!
02 Sataw สะตอ | Stink Beans
If the beans haven't been prepared yet (what you would buy at the market), look for flat green pods (about an inch wide) that stretch a foot or so long. Each bean is separated in its own pocket throughout the length of the pod.
How to Eat It
There is no special method to eat stink beans. They can be served as a side dish or as a main course. One popular pairing is stir-fried stink beans with shrimp or pad sataw goong.
03 Tom Saep ต้มแซ่บ | Hot and Sour Soup
04 Sai Grok Isaan ไส้กรอกอีสาน | Isaan Fermented Sausage
Some people might be turned off by the thought of eating fermented port. However, salami and chorizo are made in a similar way and many have eaten those items without giving their process a second thought!
How to Eat It
Sai grok Isaan can be a meal on its own or a snack. Between bites, nibble on the accompanying slices of ginger, chopped raw cabbage, and (if you dare) prik kee noo chilis.
05 Som Tum Thai ส้มตำไทย | Papaya Salad
Some people like to add in bpoo bplah rah (pickled blue crab and fermented fish sauce) or kai khem (salted egg). There are also variations of this dish where the main ingredient isn't unripe papaya but kernelled corn, shredded carrot, diced cucumber, or lotus stems instead. Som tum can be found all over Thailand.
There are also variations of this dish where the main ingredient isn't unripe papaya but kernelled corn, shredded carrot, diced cucumber, or lotus stems instead. Som tum can be found all over Thailand.
It's fresh and crunchy because all the veggies are raw. It has a kick of flavor thanks to the garlic and fish sauce, and this is one of those dishes that no one bats an eye if you ask for it fiery hot. We like it so much we've dedicated an entire post to som tum.
An alternative is to buy a little baggy of kanom jeen (thin fermented rice noodles) and mix it into the som tum. A perfect lunch for us is pairing som tum with sticky rice and grilled chicken.
Speaking of grilled chicken...
06 Gai Yang ไก่ย่าง | Grilled Chicken
What to Look For
Grilled chicken is just grilled chicken right? Wrong. The kind found in Isaan has a distinct flavor thanks to its marinade and cooking style. Look for small whole chickens that are butterflied open (with or without bamboo spits) and are slowly cooking over a charcoal grill. You know you have the right kind if you can spot what looks like little fibers coating the chicken.
Believe it or not, it was a challenge to pick which dishes we wanted to showcase in this post. There are so many interesting items that we wanted to share with you.
Have you heard of any of these Isaan dishes? Which ones would you be most likely to try?