Published on Monday, May 5, 2008

Isaan on my mind - The crossroads of Thailand's northeast

I am travelling along the sticky rice trail towards the epicentre of Thailand's vast northeastern region of Isaan. Here, all trails lead to Khon Kaen, the provincial hub. This is a land as equally delineated by its geography and language as by its culinary heritage. While Thais in other parts of the kingdom relish plain steamed rice, in the North and Northeast, glutinous grain is the preferred "daily bread."

As a cookbook author, and also as a tour organizer of gastronomic trips to Thailand, I am regularly queried over why I choose Isaan. "What is so special," they ask, “about Khon Kaen?” Why should tourists go to a part of Thailand that rarely makes the press instead of the more popular northern city of Chiang Mai, or the surf and sand of Pattaya, Phuket and Koh Samui?

The simple answer is like some easy melodic refrain: "Isaan on my mind." Its charm quickly grows on you. 

Isaan is an area relatively untouched — and unspoiled — by foreign tourism. Khon Kaen is really at the crossroads of travel here — with both excellent highways and a new airport — making this city of some 300,000 the hub of Thailand's vast Northeast.

As a Westerner regularly travelling to this part of the world, I can also put forward a selfish reason for visiting. Khon Kaen hosts Isaan's only five-star international hotel, the Sofitel Raja Orchid. And while I personally strive to "challenge" my tour groups by day — taking in humble hawker stalls and traditional medicine practitioners alike — by night we aim to give our members the luxury comforts of home. The staff at the Raja Orchid are attentive, and the beds come with top quality cotton sheets and pillows stuffed with proper down. The breakfast buffet is extravagant and sumptuous, and the lobby is a meeting place that serves as the hub of local social activity.

Another reason I choose Khon Kaen: There is something especially gentle about the Isaan spirit, and the warm, hospitable smiles of the locals. They win me over every time, and bring me back repeatedly.

To truly savour Khon Kaen, one must also discover the region — not least through its cookery. Isaan means so many different things to a wide variety of experts. It rather depends on who you chat with. Ask an etymologist, and he or she will explain that the word "Isaan" derives from the Sanskrit for "Northeast," with Shiva as its presiding deity.

Enquire with a historian, and a path will be traced from Ban Chiang's pottery artefacts — which predate even Mesopotamia — to Indian Dvaravati influences that held sway before the ancient Khmers, who would control the region up until the 13th century. Then you will hear of the magical sounding, faraway kingdom of Lao Lin Xang under the tutelage of Fa Ngum. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, colonial occupation of neighbouring Laos and Cambodia resulted in French influence over significant tracts of Thailand. In the 20th century, the region was fully incorporated politically, culturally and linguistically into Siam and Thailand proper.

Much of Isaan is a Lao-speaking region with its own discernible dialect. Indeed, more people here speak a Thai-Lao hybrid than in Laos itself. There are some 21 million people in Isaan compared with only 6 million in all of sparsely populated Laos on the other side of the Mekong. The region's mix allows for a host of ethnic Vietnamese and Tae Chiew Chinese, and perhaps some two-million Khmer of Cambodian extract. The area is a true melting pot, and its impact oozes effortlessly into culinary creations far beyond its own borders.

Likewise, solicit a sociologist and you will hear of the great spirit of Isaan folk. These are the people Kampoon Boontawee praises in his book A Child of the Northeast, for whom "virtue is synonymous with honesty, kindness, hospitality, cheerfulness, industry, generosity and courage."

By contrast, travel agents advertise Isaan as a land just waiting to be discovered by the 14 million tourists who visit Thailand each year. Recent promotional campaigns tout Isaan as the gateway to the Mekong, and tourist infrastructure is growing to keep pace. Interestingly, Isaan home-stay packages are a new trend that allow tourists to spend time in a traditional farm house outside Khon Kaen and experience the local day-to-day existence.

Paleontologists meanwhile enthuse about the local dinosaurs. The region's world-class museums specialize in giant fossil finds. In fact, replica dinosaurs are not only Khon Kaen's mascot but also a visitor’s first sight when driving out of the airport. In 1970, fossils were discovered in Phu Kum Khao, which led to the opening of Phu Wiang National Park and its dinosaur museum some 90 kilometres from Khon Kaen. After new discoveries in Sahatsakhan district in neighbouring Kalasin province, the new Sirindhorn Museum opened in April 2007 and now boasts Southeast Asia's largest collection of fossils.

Traditional medical practitioners will no doubt recommend Ban Khok Sa-Nga village, a bare hour north of Khon Kaen. It first earned renown for its cultivation of medicinal herbs, but is now more popular as a tour bus stop with a 20-minute "snake-boxing" show during which local villages literally box, kiss and suck a cobra's head on stage. Not for the faint hearted!

An interior designer will say that Isaan's textiles matter most, and the village of Chonnabot, about a 50-minute drive south of Khon Kaen, excels in the region's ikat-style weaving, known as mudmee. Here silk strands are designed and tie-died before they are actually woven back into a pattern. My personal favourites are by Khun Surimontree, whose designs regularly win gold at Khon Kaen's annual Silk Festival in December. A typical scene — as opposed to the repeated geometric designs more commonly seen — can take a year or longer to weave as little as one metre.

Query an architect, and he'll describe Isaan's Khmer ruins, many of which are comparable to those found in Cambodia itself. The closest to Khon Kaen are Ku Prapha Chai, a simple restoration rich in atmosphere. There is also Peuai Noi, a 12th-century temple rich in carved lintels, but still relatively small compared to Isaan's archaeological jewels of Phimai and Phanom Rung — both of which lie much further south from Khon Kaen. 

Globetrotting Gourmet Fresco lovers will want to visit Wat Baan Laan with its vibrant blue hues. Wat Sra Bua Kaeow temple meanwhile contains 19th-century paintings of military and daily life, as well as tales of the Lord Buddha, heaven and hell. 
Khon Kaen 
So what does Isaan really mean? Well, if you talk to a foodie like me you'll hear an audible “Ahhhh.” This is truly a region to wax lyrical about.

It is a rare cuisine that tastes dynamically different at each sitting. Yet I never tire of the Isaan diet, and seize each and every meal as an education in new flavours, tastes and dishes. In Khon Kaen, local food rises to rarefied levels. Quite simply, this is the primary reason I come with tour groups. I especially savour the al fresco lakeside eateries of Bung Kaen Nakhon, filled nightly with locals supping on some of Thailand's most deliciously classic dishes, from salt-coated grilled fish to garlic imbued sai krok Isaan (sausage), and som tam, a green papaya salad, plus ubiquitous sticky rice. 
In Thai, aroy means delicious. Its Isaan dialect counterpart sap implies a multitude of flavours, particularly the characteristic mixture of sour and spicy. For example, the national dish phad Thai — stir-fried noodles — is always aroy. By contrast, tart and spicy regional som tam is archetypically sap.

But this is only the beginning of the Northeast's continuous feast. There's a local proverb to the effect that Isaan's spirit is reflected in its khao niao (sticky rice), laab (minced meat salad), som tam (green papaya salad), pla raa (fermented fish), and finally its mor lam — a country festival variety show-cum-songfest. Four of the five concern food, and of course the mor lam events themselves are filled with food and drink stalls.

I literally drool when thinking of the region's deceptively simple meat marinades, the succulent seua rong hai (literally "the tiger cries") of grilled sirloin, and nam tok ("dripping tender"), as well as grilled chicken, pork and fish. They go hand in hand with Isaan's tart salads, often sold from the same hawker carts. Better yet, som tam, the green papaya salad known locally as tam mak hung, is now reinterpreted by trendy Isaan chefs into a myriad of variants, from a true fruit medley with grapes and apples, to more austere forms made solely of carrot, jicama (yam bean) or even daikon radish — but all saturated in a dressing of fish sauce and chili, and copious quantities of fresh lime.
Then there is kai yang — so popular there is even a nursery rhyme about how it burns over the grill. I truly crave this sizzling fowl, marinated overnight in a simple baste of fish sauce, garlic, salt and pepper, and best made from young local chickens. Several Khon Kaen streetside restaurants offer the dish, with Kai Yang Rabeab regularly topping the charts. My personal favourite is about thirty minutes south in Baan Phai (pronounced Pai), half way to the silk town of Chonnabot. Here at Mae Pong Sri, the owner charges nearly double the price elsewhere — but still has locals clamouring for more.

But if there is one specific dish that for me summarizes Isaan, it has got to be laap. The recipe features ground or minced meat, and is as much a salad as an actual entree or starter. Add lime, mint, coriander leaf, cilantro and lemon grass, and you have close to the ideal laab moo — the pork variant. Locals grind toasted sticky rice to lightly bind and add crunch, and prepare the same with ground beef, chicken, turkey, chopped fish, even offal or mixed meats. The dish is full of spice, rich in diversity, and deceptively complex — like Isaan itself. And my favourite: laap dip. In my book, this is a better steak tartare than France's Raymond Oliver or Britain's Jamie Oliver, could ever whip up! 

By Robert Carmack (Robert Carmack is author of Thai Cooking, from Periplus, which has been translated into several languages and national editions. He and partner Morrison Polkinghorne originated the 2008 Isaan Food Festival masterclass in Khon Kaen. Robert writes the quarterly tgtgNewsletter for his website and organizes and hosts gastronomic tours to Southeast Asia through

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