10 Isaan food you need to try at least once

PHOTO: Gai Yang

The northeastern region of Thailand, Isaan, is perhaps one of the most underrated regions in the country in terms of tourism. Nevertheless, Isaan 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, Isaan food has strong Laotian influences. The dishes tend to be spicy and flavorful because they contain a lot of herbs and spices.

Below, we’ve compiled 10 delicious Isaan food you have to try while you’re in Thailand.

10 Isaan food you must try once

1. Som Tum (Papaya Salad)

Isan food to try
PHOTO: Som Tum Metha Rattanasampan from Pixabay.

Som tum, or papaya salad, is perhaps the first food that comes to mind when people think of Isaan 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.

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2. Laab (Minced Meat Salad)

Isan food to try
PHOTO: Laab by bns09 from Pixabay.

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!

3. Gai Yang (Grilled Chicken)

Isan food to try
PHOTO: Gai Yang by rawpixel.com from freepik.

Grilled chicken might be a simple and standard dish, but it’s a staple Isaan 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 Isaan street vendor and store offers the dish on their menu.

4. Tom Saap (Hot and Sour Soup)

Isan food to try
PHOTO: Tom Saap by Nattawat from iStock.

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.

5. Nam Tok (Grilled Meat Salad)

Isan food to try
PHOTO: Nam Tok by ieang from iStock.

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.

6. Sai Krok Isaan (Isaan Sausage)

Isan food to try
PHOTO: Sai Krok Isan by Vee Satayamas from Wikimedia Commons.

Sai Krok Isaan 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 Isaan 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. Gaeng Om (Isaan Curry)

10 Isaan food you need to try at least once | News by Thaiger
PHOTO: Gaeng Om from foodof.com.

Gaeng om, or simply called om, is a type of Isaan 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 differs for each meat used.

8. Kor Moo Yang (Grilled Pork Neck)

10 Isaan food you need to try at least once | News by Thaiger
PHOTO: Kor Moo Yang from stockfood.

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. Jim Jum (Thai Hot Pot)

10 Isaan food you need to try at least once | News by Thaiger
PHOTO: Jim Jum by bonchan from iStock.

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!

10. Koi (Tartare)

10 Isaan food you need to try at least once | News by Thaiger
PHOTO : Kirk K from Flickr

Koi is a dish that poses a challenge for travellers who dare try it. This dish is found in areas such as Laos and Isaan itself and consists of raw meat that is cut into small pieces and mixed with ground roasted rice, and chilli powder while seasoned with fish sauce and lime juice which will denature the meat by acidity.

The meat for this tartare can be anything of your choosing such as shrimp, beef, water buffalo, and even ant larvae. There has been use of fish as well but it is riskier as it was found to be responsible for giving people flatworms. As long as you find a trusted establishment, Koi is a dish that you will definitely need to try especially paired with Khao Niao, sticky rice.

These are just a few of the amazing foods that come from Isaan. While there are other delicious Isaan 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?

If you’re looking for more delicious Thai food to try, be sure to read our articles on delicious Thai breakfast.

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Cita Catellya

Cita Catellya is a journalist and writer who covers a range of topics from medical and property to leisure and tourism. Her career began as a copywriter 5 years ago, where she worked with several brands in Indonesia to help them increase their online presence. Cita writes in both English and her native Bahasa Indonesia

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