EDITOR’S NOTE: Traveleater Josh Shephard of The Lost Passport has been living in Thailand for the past five years. Here he shares with us his 10 favorite Isan foods that you have to try in Bangkok.
Isan is the central eastern area of Thailand, which western travelers rarely visit. Cities like Nakhon Ratchasima, Roiet, Udon Thani, Leoi, and Sakhon Nakhon are just a few of many in the region. This region makes up roughly 30% of Thailand by land area, and is home to millions of people.
With up to 25% of Bangkok’s population originating from Isan (approximately 2.5 million people), you can expect a huge range of tasty food from this Thai subculture.
Isan food originates from this eastern region of Thailand. The dishes are more similar to those from Laos than the other regions in Thailand such as Bangkok, the south or the north. There are less curries, more grilled meats, and spicy salads on the menu.
Isan food is recognizable in Bangkok as the street food vendors who grill chicken over a smokey charcoal barbecue. Temporary stools and tables surround the street stalls, where locals dig into tasty food on the street side.
Many westerners approach street food in Bangkok with caution on their first visit. However, after trying a few of the following dishes, they return time after time.
Here we show you 10 Isan Thai dishes that you have to try in Bangkok.
ISAN THAI FOOD QUICK LINKS
If you’re visiting Bangkok and want to really learn about Thai cuisine, then you may be interested in joining a food tour or taking a cooking class.
BANGKOK TRAVEL GUIDE
If you’re planning a trip to Bangkok, then be sure to check out our detailed Bangkok travel guide. It’ll have all the information you need – like when to go, which markets to visit, what and where to eat, etc. – to help you plan your trip.
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10 ISAN DISHES TO TRY IN BANGKOK
1. Papaya Salad (Somtum)
Somtum is a salad made from shredded green papaya. It is the most well-known Isan dish, and available at just about all Isan restaurants. This simple dish has a range of variants where it is mixed with one or more of the following ingredients; salted egg, rice paddy crab, or fermented anchovy. Somtum can range from not spicy, to super spicy, generally measured in the number of chills added. Choose your level wisely.
2. Pork Larb
Pork Larb is commonly called spicy pork salad, though it is closer to a spiced mincemeat than a salad. Prepared traditionally, a pork steak is diced into a fine mincemeat. This mince is cooked with spices, chili, lime, shallots, and fish sauce to make a dish with full on flavor.
3. Pork Namtok
Pork Namtok is similar to Pork Larb in flavor but generally a bit spicier. The word Namtok in Thai means waterfall, which likens to the amount of sweat that will continue pouring off your forehead as you eat it. Pork Namtok is not minced like Larb, instead the meat is cut into thin slices and stir-fried with spices.
4. Catfish Larb
Similar to Pork Larb, this dish uses Catfish instead. If you have never tried catfish, then Bangkok is the place to do so. Catfish Larb has an entirely different flavor and texture than Pork Larb. The meat is soft and melts away in your mouth as you eat it. Be careful of the small bones, it is easy to swallow one and get it lodged in your throat.
5. Sundried Beef
Sundried beef may sound and look a little questionable in its preparation method, however it is one dish you can’t knock until you’ve tried it. Thin strips of raw beef are left out to dry in the sun, typically under a hot piece of metal. Once dry, the meat is fried. The result is a tasty beef dish with a chewy but brittle texture. The best comparison is it being halfway to jerky, but not quite.
6. Deep Fried Pork Larb (Larb Moo Tot)
In my opinion, Larb Moo Tot is the ultimate Isan Thai dish, when cooked right. Take the pork Larb and turn it into small spicy meatballs. The meatballs are then deep-fried until a crispy shell develops on the outside but still juicy on the inside. Larb Moo Tot is best enjoyed with a spicy fish sauce for dipping, also referred to as Num Jim.
7. Sticky Rice
Sticky rice may be popular with Mango, but this is not the only way to eat it. Sticky Rice is the perfect condiment to any Isan food.
Different stores cook sticky rice in slightly different ways; some places make it drier, others make it moist so that sticks to your fingers more as you eat it. Whichever way you like your sticky rice, it is important to eat by hand. Eating sticky rice with cutlery is like drinking a good wine from a beer glass, it just does not go.
8. Grilled Chicken (Gai Yang)
Grilled chicken may seem like a fairly standard dish, however it is one of the fundamental Isan foods. Almost every Isan street vendor or store offers grilled chicken on the menu. Before you even see the chicken, you can smell it from the smoke that rises in the air off the charcoal barbecue. Buy a quarter or half a chicken and enjoy it with some Num Jim dipping sauce.
9. Tom Sap
Tom Sap is the eastern style version of the popular Tom Yum Soup. This is a full flavor soup with loads of herbs and a touch of tomato. The soup is quite often served as a vegetarian dish, or with chicken legs or chicken feet.
10. Grilled Pork Neck (Kor Moo Yang)
If you were going to grill any piece of pork then the neck is by far the best part. Grilled Pork Neck is simply what its name states. It is the softest slices of pork you will ever eat, just melting away in your mouth. Enjoy the Grilled Pork Neck with Num Jim dipping sauce.
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Photos by Josh Shephard