Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand, is possibly the most underrated region in the country in terms of tourism. However, its delicious cuisine dominates the Thai culinary scene. You can find most of the region’s dishes across the country, whether in restaurants or street food stalls. Bordering with Laos, Isan food has strong Laotian influences. The dishes consist of many herbs and spices, so they tend to be hot and flavourful.
Below, we’ve compiled 10 delicious Isan food you have to try while you’re 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 generally includes fresh green papaya slices, lime, fish sauce, peanuts, garlic, palm sugar, and chilli. The dish has a perfect mixture of sweet, salty, spicy, and tangy. You can usually choose the level of spiciness to match your taste, from not spicy to extra spicy. Thai people eat som tum any time of day, whether for breakfast, lunch, dinner or even as a snack. It’s usually enjoyed with sticky rice or rice noodles.
2. Gai Yang (Grilled Chicken)
Grilled chicken might be a simple and standard dish, but it’s a staple Isan food you need to try. What makes this dish unique is the marination process and cooking style. The meat is usually marinated in a simple sauce that consists of lemon juice, sugar, garlic, coriander root, black peppercorn, fish sauce, and sauce. Then, the chicken is cooked slowly over a charcoal grill. Thanks to the marinade, gai yang is bursting with flavour. In addition, the charcoal grill infuses an appetizing smoky taste. The dish is often eaten with sweet and sour tamarind sauce, making it even more delicious and will have you coming back for more. It’s easy to find this grilled chicken in Northeast Thailand since almost every Isan street vendor and store offers the dish on their menu.
3. Laab (Minced Meat Salad)
Although Thai people consider laab (or larb) a salad, it’s actually closer to spiced meat than a salad. The meat (pork, beef, chicken, or duck) is minced then cooked in its own juices. Vegans and vegetarians can use mushrooms to substitute minced meat. Then, the minced meat is mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, toasted rice powder, chilli flakes, and mint leaves. The result is a salty and smoky flavour perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. There are also uncooked versions of laab, 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 its main ingredient. There are two variations of nam tok: Nam to moo (grilled pork salad) and nam tok neua (grilled beef salad). Like larb, the sauce of Nam tok is made of lime juice, fish sauce, mint leaves, fresh green onions, and ground dried chillies. Fun fact, nam tok means waterfall in Thai. Legend has it that it’s named Nam tok from the sound of the meat juices hitting the hot coals, which resembles a waterfall’s crashing water.
5. Tom Saap (Hot and Sour Soup)
Tom saap is the northeastern version of the world-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 plenty of fresh chillies. Wild mushrooms can be used instead of pork bones to make the vegetarian version of this hearty dish. Tom saap has every component of Thai taste – sour, spicy, salty, and flavourful. In addition, it’s light, savoury, and satisfying.
6. Sai Krok Isan (Isan Sausage)
Sai Krok Isan is possibly one of the most common street foods you’ll find in Thailand. This scrumptious fermented sausage is made of pork meat and rice. It’s prepared in small balls, seasoned with garlic and salt, and cooked on a grill. The fermentation and cooking process of the sausage causes it to taste smoky and tangy. Street food vendors usually serve sai krok Isan with fresh chilli, sliced ginger, and raw cabbage on the side. One of the most delicious ways to enjoy the sausages is to roll them in a cabbage leaf together with fresh chillies and sliced ginger.
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 meat of choice, and glass noodles. In addition, a few cups of different sauces are served on the side. The aromatic and tasteful broth is served in a little clay pot, where you can dip 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, kor moo yang or grilled pork neck is definitely a must try. The main ingredient of this delicious dish is pork neck marinated in fish sauce, palm sugar, and oyster sauce. The slices of pork neck are then barbecued to perfection over hot charcoal. The result is the softest slices of pork neck that melt away in your mouth. Enjoy the delicious grilled pork neck with sticky rice and dipping sauce 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’s considered a curry, don’t expect to get a thick and creamy soup because the soup is usually made of freshly-pounced paste without coconut cream. The base paste consists of lemongrass, shallots, chilli, lemon basils, and cilantro. There are several meat options to choose from, including pork, chicken, catfish, frog, and pond snail. The selection of vegetables used usually differ for each meat used.
10. Gaeng Naw Mai (Bamboo Shoot Curry)
Gaeng naw mai is actually a Laotian curry, but it’s made its way into Isan and steals everyone’s heart with its funky taste. The main ingredient of this dish is bamboo shoots, which is boiled beforehand to reduce the bitter taste. In some cases, mushrooms and orange pumpkins are added to the dish. Like gaeng om, the curry part of gaeng naw mai is thin and soupy since it doesn’t contain any coconut cream. The curry has a distinct greenish-brown colour because it consists of yanang juice, a medicinal green leaf pounded in water that doesn’t really add any flavour to the dish. Besides bamboo shoots and yanang juice, gaeng naw may also contain fermented fish sauce and fresh Thai chillies. As a result, it tastes a bit sour, earthy, and pungent.
These dishes are only a few of the incredible dishes that originate from Isan. While there are other delicious Isan food to try, we think the dishes we’ve listed are a good starting point to introduce yourself to the region’s cuisine. So, which dish are you most excited to try?
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