Isaan Food & Must Try Dishes

Written by Team Expique
Published: February 14, 2021

When talking about Thai cuisine, Isaan food or North-eastern Thai food is one of the most widely eaten regional variations. Across Thailand you can find Isaan restaurants and street vendors on every corner. Som Tum (papaya salad) is most renowned dish of the region, but there are so many more mouthwatering Isaan dishes that are much loved by locals.

Typical Isaan Dishes

Introduction to Isaan Food

Isaan food heavily influenced by Laos cuisine and Khmer cuisine from Cambodia. It has a unique characteristic that all the dishes mostly consist of herbs and spices as well as fermented ingredients. As the weather there is typically very hot and humid, so food preservation and fermentation are necessary.   

The key characteristics of Isaan food are dry, spicy, and use a lot of Pla Ra (fermented fish) – although many vendors will let you omit Pla Ra. This makes it salty – as have fermented fish, and spicy – as use both fresh and dried chillies. Moreover, sticky rice is much loved there and is an iconic food of the region. Grilled or barbecued meats and fish also often feature.

Isaan is one of the poorest and most rural areas in Thailand and many low paid workers move to find work in major cities across Thailand. This is one of the reasons why Isaan food is so integrated into Thai eating habits, regardless of where you are. All over the country you find amazing Isaan food!

Here is the list of Isaan dishes you should give a try:

Som Tum – Thai Papaya Salad (ส้มตำ)

Som Tum - Thai Papaya Salad (ส้มตำ). The most famous of all Isaan food.

This is the first dish that most people think of when they think if Isaan Food! The world-famous Thai papaya salad, som tam as it’s known locally, has too many variations to name in this list (although you can find a good som tum list here), so we’ll just tell you about the main ones for now.

Som Tum Thai is the most recognizable and is made by pounding freshly shredded green papaya with palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, tomatoes, green beans and peanuts. Other versions include pla ra, a fermented fish sauce, pickled crabs and even fresh fruit! Som tam is a sweet, sour and super spicy salad that is a must-try for anyone serious about eating Thai food.

Laab – Minced Meat Salad with Herbs (ลาบ)

Laab - Minced Meat Salad with Herbs (ลาบ)

While Thais call Laab a salad, it’s a salad like no other. Minced meat, be it pork, chicken, beef or duck is cooked in its own juices and mixed with dried chilli flakes, fragrant toasted rice powder, lime juice, fish sauce and an array of Thai herbs to create the ultimate spicy meat lovers salad. You’ll find laab on every Isan menu in the kingdom.

Nam Tok – Grilled Meat Salad with Herbs (น้ำตก)

Nam Tok - Grilled Meat Salad with Herbs (น้ำตก)

Nam Tok is identical in every way to Laab except for the fact it’s prepared with grilled meat (pork or beef) instead of minced meat. The name translates to waterfall in Thai and the dish is said to get its name from the sound of the meat juices hitting the hot coals resembling the crashing water of a waterfall.

Gai Yang – Grilled Chicken (ไก่ย่าง)

Gai Yai or grilled Chicken is Isaan comfort food!

Gai yang could possibly be the best grilled chicken in the world, and who doesn’t like grilled chicken? You’ll find it either grilled over coals in pieces or if you’re at a serious gai yang joint, slowly roasting in a line of whole chicken on a rotisserie. The flavour is simple – soy, garlic, coriander root and white pepper but the results are amazing. Try it with the sweet, tart, spicy dipping sauce that is nam jim jaew.

Kor Moo Yang – Grilled Pork Neck (คอหมูย่าง)

Kor Moo Yang - Grilled Pork Neck (คอหมูย่าง). Maybe the fattiest and tastiest of all isaan food!

Kor Moo Yang is synonymous with Isaan food! In fact, we are not sure you’re allowed into an Isaan restaurant if you’re not going to order it! Pork neck is marinated in oyster sauce, fish sauce, and palm sugar before being grilled to perfection over hot coals. The result is a deliciously soft and fatty steak that’s cut into thin slices and must be served with sticky rice Jim Jaew dipping sauce and an ice-cold beverage.

Tom Saap – Spicy Isaan Pork Soup (ต้มแซบ)

Tom Saap - Spicy Isan Pork Soup (ต้มแซบ)

Tom Saap is a simple pork soup based Thai soup hailing from the country’s north-eastern Isaan region. Made from pork bones (usually ribs) lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, fresh lime juice, fish sauce, and lots of fresh chilies, this soup is everything a Thai dish should be – spicy, sour, salty, and utterly delicious.

Tum Kai Mot Daeng – Red Ant Egg Salad (ตำไข่มดแดง)

Tum Kai Mot Daeng - Red Ant Egg Salad (ตำไข่มดแดง)

Tum Kai Mot Daeng is a salad made from the eggs of large red ants! Combined with fresh Thai herbs, it is most commonly eaten across Northeastern Thailand. Red Ant eggs are soft and juicy with a slightly sour lime-like taste. Ant eggs are only in season February to June, making them somewhat of a Thai delicacy.

Sai Krok Isan – Isaan Sausage (ไส้กรอกอีสาน)

Sai Krok Isan - Isan Sausage (ไส้กรอกอีสาน)

Sai krok Isaan is a fermented sausage originating in the Isaan province of Thailand. It is made using pork and sticky rice and is a popular street snack around Bangkok. It’s eaten with small green bird’s eye chilis, raw cabbage, and sliced ginger, which all help to cut the richness of the sausage’s high-fat content. Usually you get a choice of sour or not so sour.

Jim Jum – Thai Hot Pot (จิ้มจุ่ม)

Jim Jum – Thai Hot Pot (จิ้มจุ่ม)

Jim Jum basically means “dipping”, and is also well known as Jaew Horn in Isaan. It is a hot pot with staple ingredients like meats, squids, and prawns – you can order a mix of it. It comes with a little clay pot full of broth, loads of herbs and fresh vegetables, glass noodles (woon sen), and a few cups of sauces.

You sit down with a few beers and slowly cooking your own food. You will be burst with the broth as it is incredibly aromatic and tasteful!

Mok Huak – Steamed Tadpoles with Fermented Fish Sauce (หมกฮวก)

Mok Huak – Steamed Tadpoles with Fermented Fish Sauce (หมกฮวก)

“Huak” is Isaan dialect and means tadpole. Yes, we are recommending you eat a tadpole! It is one of the exotic cuisines in Isaan region (where eating animals like snakes, birds, rice-filed rats, and etc. is actually common there).

“Mok” refers to the process of steam cooking in a banana leaf. Mok Huak is mixed up of tadpoles, herbs, chilis, lemongrass, seasonings, dill, and sweet basil. It is then wrapped in banana leaf on steamed on a charcoal stove. Normally served with fermented fish sauce (Pla Ra in Thai) and sticky rice.

This is a favourite dish for some locals and can find only during rainy season. If you have not eaten frog before, such tadpoles taste just like boneless chicken!

Gaeng Om – Hot and Spicy Dill Soup with Meats (แกงอ่อม)

Gaeng Om – Hot and Spicy Herb Soup with Meats (แกงอ่อม)

One of the most favourite Isaan dishess. It is not really a soup as we do not really sip it like that, and it is not really a curry as more broth… it’s just Om.

It has an herbal flavour as consists of several herbs and spices like dill, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, shallots, and chilies. Normally it contains pork (but can be chicken, beef, and fish as well) and seasoned with pla ra (fermented fish sauce). Usually eaten with rice and along with other Isaan dishes like Laab, Som Tum, Nam Tok.  

Gaeng Kua Hed Thob/Phor (แกงคั่วเห็ดถอบ)

Gaeng Kua Hed Thob/Phor (แกงคั่วเห็ดถอบ)

A northern Thai curry cooked with mini mushroom balls called Hed Thob/Phor (Puffball mushrooms) comes out only during the rainy season and only found in a forest. They mix together such mushrooms and herbs like Cha Plu and Cha Om, combined with spicy curry and then boiled in coconut milk and some fermented bamboo shoots. The rich curry flavor goes well with little mushrooms that will pop in your mouth when you bite them.

Is Isaan Food the Best Regional Cuisine in Thaiand?

This is a tough call, but it is certainly popular. There is so much diversity of Thai food and each region is different. To find out more you may be interested in the following articles

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