Top 10 Delicious Isan Cuisine You Will Definitely Love
Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand, is arguably the most underrated region in the country in terms of tourism. However, its delicious cuisine dominates the Thai dining scene. You can find most of the region’s food across the country, whether at restaurants or street food stalls. On the border with Laos, the cuisine of Isan has strong Laotian influences. The dishes consist of many herbs and spices, so they tend to be hot and tasty.
Below we have compiled 10 delicious Isan dishes that you must try while in Thailand.
1. Som Tum (Papaya Salad)
Som tum, or papaya salad, is perhaps the first food that comes to mind when people think of Isan food. There are many versions of this papaya salad, but the dish usually includes slices of fresh green papaya, lime, fish sauce, peanuts, garlic, palm sugar, and chili. The dish has a perfect blend of sweet, salty, spicy and tangy. You can usually choose the level of spiciness that suits your taste, from non-spicy to very spicy. Thais eat som tum at any time of the day, whether for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even as a snack. It is generally enjoyed with sticky rice or rice noodles.
2. Gai Yang (grilled chicken)
Grilled chicken might be a simple, standard dish, but it’s an Isan staple that you must try. What makes this dish unique is the marinating process and the cooking style. The meat is usually marinated in a simple sauce consisting of lemon juice, sugar, garlic, cilantro root, black pepper, fish sauce, and gravy. Then the chicken is slowly cooked on a charcoal grill. Thanks to the marinade, the gai yang is bursting with flavor. Plus, the charcoal grill infuses an appetizing smoky taste. The dish is often eaten with a sweet and sour tamarind sauce, which makes it even more delicious and will have you coming back for more. It’s easy to find this grilled chicken in northeastern Thailand, as almost every street vendor and store in Isan has the dish on their menu.
3. Laab (Minced Meat Salad)
Although Thais consider laab (or larb) to be a salad, it is actually more akin to spicy meat than a salad. The meat (pork, beef, chicken or duck) is minced and then cooked in its own juice. Vegans and vegetarians can use mushrooms as a substitute for ground meat. Then the minced meat is mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, toasted rice powder, chili flakes and mint leaves. The result is a salty and smoky flavor perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner. There are raw versions of laab too, but it’s not for the faint of heart!
4. Nam Tok (grilled meat salad)
Nam Tok is very similar to Laab. However, instead of minced meat, it uses grilled meat as the main ingredient. There are two variations of nam tok: Nam to moo (grilled pork salad) and nam tok neua (grilled beef salad). Like larb, Nam tok’s sauce is made with lime juice, fish sauce, mint leaves, fresh green onions, and dried ground chili peppers. Fun fact, nam tok means waterfall in Thai. Legend has it that it is named Nam tok because of the sound of meat juices hitting the hot coals, which resembles water crashing into a waterfall.
5. Tom Saap (sweet and sour soup)
Tom saap is the northeastern version of the famous Tom Yum soup. The broth-based soup is quite simple. It consists of pork bones (usually the ribs), galangal, fish sauce, fresh lime juice, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and lots of fresh chili peppers. Wild mushrooms can be used in place of pork bones to make the vegetarian version of this hearty dish. Tom saap has all the components of Thai taste – sour, spicy, salty and tasty. Plus, it’s light, tasty, and satisfying.
6. Sai Krok Isan (Isan sausage)
Sai Krok Isan is probably one of the most common street foods you’ll find in Thailand. This delicious fermented sausage is made with pork and rice. It is prepared in small balls, seasoned with garlic and salt, and cooked on a grill. The process of fermenting and cooking the sausage gives it a smoky and tangy taste. Street vendors usually serve sai krok Isan with fresh chili, sliced ââginger, and raw cabbage on the side. One of the most delicious ways to enjoy sausages is to roll them in a cabbage leaf with fresh chili peppers and sliced ââginger.
7. Jim Jum (Thai hot pot)
Jim Jum is the Thai version of the Chinese hot pot. It consists of Thai infused broth, herbs, local vegetables, your choice of meat, and glass noodles. In addition, a few cups of different sauces are served on the side. The aromatic and tasty broth is served in a small clay pot, where you can soak and cook the other ingredients. Slowly cook your own food while enjoying a few beers with friends – it’s fantastic!
8. Kor Moo Yang (grilled pork neck)
If you like pork, the kor moo yang or grilled pork neck is a must-try. The main ingredient in this delicious dish is pork neck marinated in fish sauce, palm sugar and oyster sauce. The pork neck slices are then barbecued to perfection over hot charcoal. The result is the smoothest pork neck slices that melt in your mouth. Savor the delicious grilled pork neck with sticky rice and a dip for a tasty and incredibly filling meal.
9. Gaeng Om (Isan Curry)
Gaeng om, or simply called om, is a type of Isan curry. Although it is considered a curry, don’t expect to get a thick and creamy soup, as the soup is usually made of freshly mashed paste without any coconut cream. The basic paste consists of lemongrass, shallots, chili, lemon basil and cilantro. There are several meat options to choose from, including pork, chicken, catfish, frog, and pond snail. The selection of vegetables used generally differs for each meat used.
10. Gaeng Naw Mai (bamboo shoot curry)
Gaeng naw mai is actually a Laotian curry, but it has made its way into Isan and steals everyone’s hearts with its funky taste. The main ingredient in this dish is bamboo shoots, which are pre-boiled to reduce the bitter taste. In some cases, mushrooms and orange pumpkins are added to the dish. Like the gaeng om, the curry part of the gaeng naw mai is thin and soft because it does not contain coconut cream. Curry has a distinct greenish-brown color as it consists of yanang juice, a medicinal green leaf pounded in water that doesn’t really add flavor to the dish. Besides bamboo shoots and yanang juice, gaeng naw may also contain fermented fish sauce and fresh Thai chili peppers. As a result, it tastes a bit sour, earthy, and pungent.
These dishes are just a few of the amazing dishes that originate from Isan. While there are other delicious Isan dishes to try, we think the dishes we’ve listed are a good starting point to introduce you to the cuisine of the region. So which dish are you most excited to try?
If you are looking for more delicious Thai food to try, be sure to read our articles on the most popular Northern Thai dishes and Thai food that you absolutely must try.
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