Where Is Isaan?
The north-eastern region of Thailand is known as Isaan and as you would expect, the food of the region is known as Isaan food. Most of Isaan is situated on a high plateau divided by the Phu Phan mountains with Laos and Combodia also bordering it. These two countries have had a strong culinary influence on Isaan food. Lao in particular as many Isaan people fled Laos in the 1970s after the communist uprising.
It’s often said there are more Lao people in Issan than there are in Laos! How true this is though, I don’t know.
Isaan was one of the first areas in Thailand and Asia to grow rice. Jasmine rice is cultivated over much of Issan but in recent years rainfall has become unreliable, making life hard for the local farmers.
Popular Isaan Food
Sticky rice is much more popular in Isaan than the rest of Thailand. As much of the area is a lot poorer than the rest of Thailand and as such, Isaan food reflects this. Just like in the rest of Thailand, rice is the most important part of the meal. Dishes which are served with the rice are small in quantity but extremely pungent in flavour. Isaan food usually relies on unfermented fish sauce and chilli for the main seasoning.
Grilled chicken (Kai Yang –ไก่ย่าง) can be found all over Isaan. The chicken is usually rubbed with garlic, fish sauce, coriander and black pepper, before being flattened and pinned onto a bamboo skewer. Laap is another really popular Isaan food. It’s a minced meat salad with lime juice, fish sauce, lemon grass, chillies and roasted rice. It’s often made with chicken but duck, buffalo and fish can also used to make laap.
Som tam (ส้มตำ) has to be the most popular Isaan food though. It’s not just popular in Isaan though, it’s popular in every part of Thailand. Som tam is a green papaya salad made with chillies, peanuts, cherry tomatoes and dried shrimp. It’s made by pounding everything together in a pestle and mortar and is eaten with sticky rice.
Some things in Isaan cuisine may not be for everyone though! Insects and frogs are often eaten in Isaan and red ants are used as a seasoning in some dishes. If you’re travelling around this part of Thailand check the menu carefully before ordering!