Isaan Food – What You Need to Know

An Introduction to Issan Food

Isaan-style Thai food, also known as Isaan food, hails from the northeastern part of Thailand, specifically the region known as Isaan. It stands out as a distinct regional cuisine, separate from the more familiar central Thai cuisine, offering a unique culinary experience shaped by the region’s culture, climate, and agricultural practices.

What is Isaan Food?

One of the defining characteristics of Isaan-style Thai food is its spiciness. It’s renowned for its bold and fiery flavours, prominently featuring chilli peppers in many of its dishes. If you have a penchant for spicy food, Isaan cuisine is sure to satisfy your taste buds with its intense heat and complex flavour profiles.

Sticky rice, locally known as “Khao Niew,” plays a central role in Isaan cuisine. It’s often served in small bamboo baskets and serves as both a staple and an essential utensil. Diners use sticky rice to scoop up and enjoy the various dishes, adding a delightful and unique texture to every meal.

Grilled meats, particularly marinated and skewered chicken, pork, or beef, are a common sight in Isaan cuisine. These grilled delights are often served with a selection of dipping sauces, contributing to the vibrant street food culture that characterizes the region’s culinary scene.

Fermented ingredients are a significant component of Isaan food, with “pla ra” or fermented fish sauce being a notable example. This fermented sauce is used to season dishes and contributes a unique Isaan flavour.

The use of local herbs and vegetables, some of which are foraged from the region’s lush forests and fertile fields also adds to the unique flavour. These fresh and indigenous ingredients play a crucial role in enhancing the diversity and complexity of Isaan dishes.

The cuisine of Isaan has been influenced by its proximity to neighbouring countries, particularly Laos and Cambodia. These influences are evident in dishes like sticky rice, variations of larb, and the use of local herbs and spices, which are popular in both neighbouring countries.

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 Cambodia also bordering it. These two countries have had a strong culinary influence on Isaan food. Laos 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

Som Tum (Green Papaya Salad)

Som Tum is a quintessential Isaan dish, celebrated for its delightful combination of flavours and textures. This spicy salad is crafted from shredded green papaya, a zesty mix of lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and chilli peppers. The blend of sweet, sour, spicy, and salty flavours is a hallmark of this dish. Som Tum often includes additional ingredients like tomatoes, green beans, and peanuts, adding layers of crunch and complexity to the dish.

Larb (Laap)

Larb is a flavorful Isaan minced meat salad that captures the essence of the region’s cuisine. Ground meat, whether chicken, pork, or beef, is cooked with a medley of aromatic herbs and spices, and then dressed with lime juice and fish sauce. A key element is the toasted rice powder, which imparts a nutty flavour and a pleasing crunch. Fresh herbs like mint and cilantro add a burst of freshness, making Larb a tantalizing blend of textures and tastes.

Sticky Rice (Khao Niew)

sticky rice is eaten with all Isaan Food

Sticky rice, known as “Khao Niew,” is the cornerstone of Isaan meals. This glutinous rice is steamed to perfection and served in small bamboo baskets. Its unique texture and slightly sweet flavour make it the ideal accompaniment to the region’s bold and spicy dishes. Sticky rice is not just a side dish but also an essential utensil, as diners use it to scoop up and savour the other elements of their meal.

Kai Yang (Grilled Chicken)

Gai Yang- A popular Isaan Food

Kai Yang is a beloved Isaan dish that showcases the art of marinating and grilling chicken to perfection. The chicken is typically seasoned with a mixture of herbs, garlic, and spices, then grilled over charcoal, imparting a smoky and aromatic flavour. It’s often served with a selection of dipping sauces that elevate the dish to a culinary masterpiece.

Sai Krok Isaan (Isaan Sausage)

Isaan Sausage

Sai Krok Isaan is a uniquely flavorful fermented sausage made from ground pork, garlic, and sticky rice. The mixture is packed into casings and left to ferment, resulting in a distinct sour and slightly spicy taste. It’s a beloved Isaan snack and is often enjoyed with fresh herbs and vegetables.

Isaan Food May Not Be For Everyone!

Strange Isaan Food - Deep Fried Insects

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!

The region’s adventurous approach to food includes the consumption of insects, frogs, and even the use of red ants as a seasoning in certain dishes. For those unaccustomed to these unique culinary experiences, it’s advisable to exercise caution when exploring the Isaan food scene.

In Isaan, various types of edible insects are considered delicacies and are often enjoyed as snacks or incorporated into dishes. These insects can range from crispy crickets and grasshoppers to protein-rich mealworms and bamboo worms. While they are a good source of nutrition and add a crunchy texture to dishes, their consumption can be an acquired taste for those unfamiliar with entomophagy, the practice of eating insects.

Frogs are another protein source commonly featured in Isaan cuisine. These amphibians are prepared in various ways, from deep-frying to grilling. The tender meat of frogs has a flavour reminiscent of chicken or fish and is appreciated for its versatility in Isaan dishes. However, some diners may hesitate to try frog meat due to its unconventional nature.

For travellers venturing through this vibrant part of Thailand, it’s advisable to approach the menu with an open mind and a sense of culinary adventure. If you have reservations about trying these unconventional ingredients, don’t hesitate to ask the restaurant staff or locals for recommendations on more familiar dishes that align with your taste preferences.

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