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A flat thumb of land snuggling Laos and the Mekong River in the north and east and Cambodia in the south, the dry plains of Isarn are Thailand’s least visited. Yet its food, a cuisine complex on the palate while being super simple to prepare and characterised by zesty salads and grilled meats heady in fermented fish sauce and sometimes tear-jerking levels of spice, is often lauded as the country’s best.
Here are a few of Isarn’s favourite eats.
KAWNIAOW - Sticky rice
The staple diet of Isarn is sticky rice- otherwise known as kawniaow. Dubbed “glutinous rice” for its glue like nature, but not because it actually contains gluten, sticky rice has been growing in Isarn for more than 1200 years. Cooked in a bamboo steamer and served in a woven basket, it is eaten by slightly kneading a small ball of rice between fingers to form a “spoon” to scoop up dishes or dip into sauces and pastes. Not just for eating with a meal, sticky rice is also used for desserts, as ground meal for giving body and “nuttiness” to dishes, mashed to thicken, to make rice wine and as a fermentation agent for sausages.
SAI GROK - Sour sausage
Is there a more delectable sausage in the world? These juicy rolls cooked over smoky coals get their special, slightly sour flavour from meat slightly fermented with sticky rice, garlic, kaffir lime leaf, coriander leaves and galangal. Bursting with fat and herbaceous flavours, sai grok are best eaten in small portions with a dollop of sticky rice and a whole bird eye chili. Take a bite of the chili and a bite of the sausage; the fat in the sausage will lighten the heat of the chili, leaving in its wake a mild astringent flavour that adds yet another level of sausage-liciousness.
SOM TAM - Spicy papaya salad
Isarn’s most famous dish is perhaps its most simple: Unripe green papaya shredded with a knife to produce thick strings is pounded in a mortar and pestle with green string beans, small local tomatoes, lime, dried shrimps, whole garlic cloves, chili, fish sauce and palm sugar, then sprinkled with toasted peanuts. Crunchy, slightly sweet, salty, tangy, and often, excruciatingly spicy, som tam is one of Thailand’s most addictive dishes. Variations abound, including substituting the papaya with eggplant, green banana, carrot or green mango, though few variations pack the same punch as the original.
GAI YANG - Grilled chicken
This classical Thai street food dish is often spotted being cooked on small charcoal grill by the side of the road. To make gai yang, chicken, cut along the breast bone, is marinated with pounded coriander roots, garlic and peppercorns for a few hours before harnessed with bamboo sticks and cooked over hot coals for 20 minutes and teamed with a sweet chilli sauce. While gai yang is the undisputable every-day favourite, it’s its close cousin, gai tod, which represents the epitome in Thai chicken. Here, chicken is deep fried, or roasted then fried, with its skin, which turns crispy and sweet. Then smothered with deep fried garlic chips and a spicy barbecue style sauce, gai tod is many delicious things: Diet food it is not.
LAARP - Mince and herb salad
Regarded as the national dish of Laos, larp is also native to Isarn, which was part of Laos until the Franco-Siamese War of 1893. Essentially minced chicken, beef, pork or duck cooked and tossed with a handful of fresh chopped herbs, especially mint, toasted and ground sticky rice, and a mixture of lime juice and fish sauce, it is once again a simple dish, but which maintains the most wonderful balance of texture and flavour. In some regions, larp is made from raw river fish that has been marinated in lemon juice to partially cook it, although the presence of river flukes in Thailand and Laos mean it is not recommended. Larp’s charming affiliate, nam tok - meaning waterfall - is the same dish but made with sliced meat that has been grilled over charcoal to give it a slightly smoky edge.