Isan is the northeast province of Thailand, bordering Laos and Cambodia. Isan Thai cuisine is a unique blend of Laotian and Thai influences, and you’ll find that Isan meals are typically spicy and usually incorporate sticky rice.
Pla ra is fermented fish sauce, generally made from freshwater fish mixed with rice bran and salt. Pla ra undergoes a fermentation period between three months and a year, and is often noted for its pungent aroma The sauce frequently takes the place of traditional fish sauce in many popular Isan dishes.
Popular Dishes in Isan
Some of the most popular dishes in northeastern Thai cuisine include:
- Gai yang: Grilled chicken marinated in fish sauce, coriander, turmeric, garlic, salt, pepper and sugar. Variations of the marinade are common, many incorporating additional ingredients like vinegar, chilies and lemongrass. Gai yang originated in Laos.
- Mu ping: Barbeque pork on a skewer, prepared with garlic, peppercorn, fish sauce, sugar, coriander and soy sauce.
- Nam jaew: Dipping sauce, made from dried red chilies, onions, coriander, galangal, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, tamarind and shrimp paste. Nam jaew is very spicy, and is frequently served with dishes like mu ping and gai yang.
- Nam tok: Beef or pork cooked rare, and served in a salad marinated with fish sauce, onions, lime juice, coriander, chili peppers, mint leaves and tamarind. Nam tok is often complimented with sticky rice and vegetables.
- Som tam: Papaya salad, made of shredded papaya, garlic, green chili peppers, cherry tomatoes, long beans, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar. Som tam pu has black crab, peanuts and shrimp.
- Suea rong hai: Grilled beef brisket marinated with fish sauce, lime juice and soy sauce, served with vegetables and various dipping sauces.
- Tom saep: Fish soup made from freshwater fish, onions, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chili peppers, coriander, galangal, mushrooms, fish sauce, sugar, pepper and lime juice.
Variations of these dishes can be found outside the Northeast of Thailand, but they are generally sweeter and less spicy.
If your appetite calls for a milder set of spices, you’ll find that central Thai cooking incorporates many of the same ingredients as Isan cuisine, yet distinguishes itself with less overall spiciness and more sweet flavors.