Northeastern Cuisine

Thailand’s northeastern region (Isan) has some of the most famous Thai dishes that are loved by people around the world, which is why we can find northeastern food almost everywhere. However, the dishes’ flavors vary from region to region. For example, in the central area, northeastern food tastes more sweet and sour while it is more salty and spicy in the northeast. Wherever Isan food is made, there is absolutely no doubt that it would taste amazing. Moreover, another upside of this region’s food is its health benefits. Because almost all of its dishes have vegetable components and do not have extra fat or coconut milk in them, northeastern food is one of the healthiest choices in Thai cuisine.

When Thais think about northeastern food, we immediately think of sticky rice (khao niew), papaya salad (somtum), and grilled chicken (gai yang) because the region’s main exports are jasmine rice and sticky rice. Similar to people in the northern region, the isan people like to dip their sticky rice into sauce-like dishes, such as papaya salad, spicy minced meat salad (larb), spicy meat salad (goy), and spicy herb-based soup with fermented fish sauce (gaeng aom).

Possibly the most famous northeastern food is somtum or regionally known as tumbakhoong or tumsom. This dish is usually made with unripe papaya, but it can be made from an abundance of local ingredients, such as cow-peas, unripe bananas, banana blossoms, star gooseberries, nonis, cucumbers, pineapples, tamarinds, unripe mangoes, and etc. The most important ingredient in classic Isan somtum is fermented fish sauce (plara). Moreover, somtum is commonly eaten with gai yang that is marinated and charcoal-grilled in Thai black peppers, garlic, and sauce along with warm khao niew.
Larb is also another well known northeastern dish that is also very adaptable as it can be made with any kind of meat that is available to the person. For example, you can make larb using minced beef, pork, chicken, duck, or fish. The meat is then boiled so that it is cooked all the way through, and then mixed with toasted rice powder, shallots, spring onions, mint, chili, lime juice, fish sauce, and a dash of plara. Again, it is commonly eaten with fresh vegetables and sticky rice, and the best part is when you dip the ball of rice into the sauce.
Gaeng aom is a spicy herb-based soup that is a staple in northeastern houses. It is made by mashing some sort of meat ranging from beef to clams with chili, garlic, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, drill, and sweet basil in a pestle and mortar. After that, you boil all the components together with water and fermented fish sauce or plara to make a flavorful soup that is also eaten with sticky rice.
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