Isaan food – 7 Must-try dishes

Known for its vibrant culture, northeastern Thailand or Isaan is also the place where some special Thai dishes can be tasted. Have a look to some of its most unique dishes.

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Thai cuisine and in particular Isaan food best expresse Thai people tastes: spicy, salty, sweet, bitter in a range of nuances that are always balanced together. A mixture of tastes with a particularly original and pleasant result in which the most varied products on earth are mixed with imagination and joyful colors.

However, next to what we could name the “official” Thai cuisine we would like to introduce you with a regional cuisine that is perhaps slightly less known but just as tasty and with its own peculiarities. Isaan food has strong Laotian influences and is the typical food of the 20 North-Eastern Thai provinces bordering with Laos.

Thailand’s North-East Region comprise 20 districts – Map courtesy of Nations Online

Among the region’s many delicacies there is a characteristic that makes them unique in the Thai gastronomic landscape; many of its dishes are eaten cold. Traditionally foods are prepared in the morning, then wrapped in banana leaves and consumed later on by farmers while working in the fields. Glutinous rice, for example, was once kept inside bamboo canes, in a very practical and scenographic way.

Khao Lam or sticky rice in bamboo stick

Since many Isaan dishes are fried or grilled, most people have outdoor kitchens. In many villages the cooking is done on the ground with the wood collected from the surrounding jungles and each dish is prepared according to strict rules. Eating in Isaan is one of the main pastime and it is very easy to come across large markets and sumptuous banquets even in the middle of the countryside. Every occasion is good to prepare a small banquet and maybe celebrate with some powerful Lao Khao or Yaa dong (strong rice liqueur).

Isaan food dishes

Isaan food is mainly based on rice consumption, especially sticky rice or glutinous rice which is a very common ingredient and it is accompanied by raw or sauteed vegetables, meat or fish. Although meat is easy to find, it is either river or lake fish that is absolutely more common especially in the poorer areas. Another peculiarity that makes Isaan food truly unique is the pungent flavor given by the use of sauces and compounds derived from fermented fish (commonly called Pla Raa ’).

Isaan food
Nam Prik Pla Raa – Fermented Fish sauce is a staple of Isaan food

Among the most well-known dishes that have originated in this region there are: Papaya salad, locally known as Som Tam. Please note that the version consumed in the north-east is different from the one eaten in the rest of Thailand mainly due to the addition of special seasonings such as Plaa Raa, strongly fermented fish that gives a sweet, acidulous and very pungent touch. In the North-eastern papaya salad you will often notice the presence of small rounded raw aubergines and fermented crab, which are signs of very strong Laotian cuisine influences.

Isaan food Som Tam Pic
Som Tam or Papaya Salad is one of the most internationally well known Thai food

Salads with meat are well-known and among these there are: “Larb Moo” made with minced pork and Nam Tok Moo (grilled pork slices). Glazed meats are marinated and sautéed in order to enhance the flavor and make it incredibly complex and lively.

Larb Moo, it’s a popular Isaan dish

Another dish particularly loved during banquets, parties and weddings are fish covered with salt, stuffed with herbs that are then grilled, called Pla Pao. Salt is used to maintain the natural fish moisture and enhance flavor.

Other typical Isaan foods are: “Gai yang” or roasted chicken that is definitely different in taste from what you may get in other Thai regions. It is eaten with sauces and herbs that enrich the flavors of a simple grilled chicken, making it complex and articulate. Sai krok Isaan or fermented pork sausage has a sweet and spicy flavor, rice or rice noodles are often mixed with meat, with the addition of fresh herbs and plenty of garlic.

Sai Krok Isaan
Sai Krok Isaan are pork sausages mixed with rice
Gai Tang Thai
Gai Yang or grilled chicken

In any case, the record for one of the strangest foods you can have the opportunity to taste once in Isaan is the country mouse. The “noo na” or field rat is a particular type of rat that has a vegetarian diet. You can taste it grilled or sautéed with all kinds of herbs. It is not a common food in the cities, but in rural areas dedicated to rice cultivation it is definitely a delicacy.

Noo Naa Rat
The glorious Noo Na or literally rice fields mouse a real countryside delicacy
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