The Best of Thailand's Isan Cuisine

Isan Laab
Isan Laab | © T.Tseng/Flickr
Iona Proebst

Thailand’s Northeastern Isan cuisine is known to be wild and adventurous and can put off even the most discerning traveller when innards and bugs are served on your plate. Don’t worry, we’ve compiled a list of Isan’s more palatable dishes which are characterized by their mouthwatering hot, salty and spicy flavours.

Sticky Rice

Sticky rice is the staple of all meals in Isan and is generally preferred over the usual jasmine rice in Northeastern Thailand. Sticky rice is served in a small bamboo steamer or in a bag and is eaten by hand to dip into things or mop up at the end of a meal.

Laab (Spicy Salad)

Laab is a spicy salad with meat or mushroom and mint, which originates from Isan. Laab comes in a variety of styles including chicken, pork, duck and mushroom. It is not recommended for those who can’t handle spice as it tends to come with a kick.

Nam Tok Moo (Grilled Pork Salad)

Similar to Laab, Nam Tok Moo is a pork salad but rather than minced pork it is prepared with grilled pork. Nam Tok Moo still has all the similar delicious components to Laab but it is just a little chewier. You can also order this dish with beef, Nam Tok Neua which literally translates to “waterfall.”

Somtam Korat (Papaya Salad)

Somtam Thai is arguably one of Thailand’s most popular dishes which originates in Isan province. In a mortar and pestle, unripe papaya is pounded with palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, chillies and peanuts. Somtam Korat differs to Somtam Thai in that it comes infused with lashings of stinky pickled fish sauce.

Making Somtam

Kor Moo Yang (Grilled Pork Neck)

Likely one of Isan’s most famous dishes is Kor Moo Yang, pork neck marinated in a sticky sauce and barbecued. It is served with one of Isan’s favourite dips, Nam Jim Jaew, a hot, sour and tangy mouthwatering flavoursome bowl of chilli, shallots, tamarind, palm sugar, fresh mint and fish sauce.

Kai Yang (Grilled Chicken)

Kai Yang is another all-time popular staple food from Isan. This delicious grilled chicken can be found in every food market and is served throughout the day and night. The slow-grilled chicken is often brushed with marinade or stuffed with garlic and is served with lashings of Nam Jim Jaew.

Grilled chicken

Pla Pao (Grilled Fish)

Pla Pao is a grilled fish that is stuffed with pandanus leaves, lemon grass and is coated in flour and salt before being slowly grilled over charcoals. Pla Pao is served with a hot and tangy green sauce which is made from fish sauce, lime and green chillies.

Sai Krok Isan (Isan Sausages)

Sai Krok Isan is a tasty street food named after the region in Northeastern Thailand where it originates from. The Isan sausage has a distinct sour taste which comes from the fermented pork and sticky rice ingredients. Isan sausage is usually served with fresh cabbage, slices of ginger and fresh chillies.

Isan sausage

Jim Jum (Thai Hot Pot)

A little fierier than its Chinese counterpart, the Thai hot pot or Jim Jum hails from Isan and includes distinct Thai flavours of shallots, lemongrass, chilli, garlic and sweet basil in the broth. Jim Jum provides diners with a customizable experience where you literally throw in whatever meat, vegetables or noodles you fancy. Jim Jum is a fun communal dining experience that can easily last a few hours.

Moo Dad Diew (Marinated Pork)

Moo Dad Diew is a Thai version of pork Jerky which is ideally paired with a cold beer. The pork is marinated in dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, pepper and palm sugar and oftentimes sesame seeds and then left to marinate in the sun before being grilled. Moo Dad Diew is served with Nam Jim Jaew.

Thai jerky

Tom Saap (Hot and Sour Soup)

Tom Saap (which literally translates to “tasty soup”) is Isan’s version of Tom Yum. This bowl of steaming goodness is sweet, sour, salty and hot and includes chunks of pork ribs, mushrooms and tomatoes. In Isan, both wild foods and using up most of the animal are popular so don’t be surprised if you find innards in your Tom Saap.

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