Artikel Bangkok Post: Culinary caper to Isan

**Thailand’s northeast is the source of some of the most original and popular dishes served up at table around the country **

Published: 9/07/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Horizons

Northeast Thailand is characterised by a landscape largely barren, extreme weather and hardy people. It is also reputed for some of the most popular food served up at tables around the country, and a hospitality that’s warm and endearing to tourists visiting this region also known as Isan.

However, not many people travel here because of the general perception that it is arid and its tourists attractions scattered too far apart. For an understanding of this less travelled part of Thailand and to explore its culnary delights, we recently visited Khon Kaen, the region’s educational and technology hub.

Starting at the Hong Moon Muang City Museum, we dug up a wealth of information about its history and the lifestyle of its people.

Although Khon Kaen’s fame as a trading point dates back to the reign of King Rama I more than two centuries ago, it wasn’t until Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat declared it the administrative centre of the Northeast in the 1960s that it achieved prominence.

Student guides escort visitors around the museum, built like a tunnel and divided into five sections, each uniquely designed and adorned with wax models depicting the style of life in the old days, replicas of artifacts and so forth, sure to stir up your curiosity.

The tour commences with an introduction to the topography of Khon Kaen. Exhibits showcased include human and dinosaur remains, clay pottery, historical objects, a replica of community life in Khon Kaen in the last century, and another showing merchants from China, India, Vietnam and France trading goods in the province.

Later that afternoon we made our way to Noan Sawan, a backwater village in Ubolratana district, for a demonstration of the fabled pla ra (fermented fish) of Isan, and how it is made. On hand was Khun Mae Liam, 60, who has been making pla ra for 20 years, and so successful has she been that the money she made selling it enabled her to put her children through school, single-handedly.

Abhorred for its overpowering smell - Mae Liam’s pla ra , however, is less pungent, due largely to use of iodised salt and improved hygiene and fermentation process.

Her success prompted the rest of the village to follow suit. Today Noan Sawan is believed to be the largest pla ra making community in the province. The bulk of the fish are caught from the nearby Ubolratana Dam, which is also their source of electricity and water to irrigate farms.

The making process seems pretty straight-forward. Freshly caught fish - about a month old - are scrubbed clean and kneaded with iodised salt and after seasoning preserved in earthen jars for a period of six months to a year.

These days pla ra is sold in dry and watery form, and for outsiders it is best to eat in cooked form, although most northeasterners prefer it raw: “Having it raw is not as hazardous as people make it out to be. In fact, we find it more delicious raw than cooked. It appeals to our palate,” she said.

Later we sampled a string of restaurants serving up both authentic northeastern and fusion fare, the latter influenced to a large extent by neighboring Laos. As in Laos, glutinous rice or khao niew is a staple of northeast people, eaten with dishes such as som tam (papaya salad), kai yang (grilled chicken) and nam tok/larb moo (spicy pork) to name a few.

Jim joom, a northeastern style hotpot, is a popular for its strong herb-based taste. Since meat is scarce, villagers use freshwater fish and shrimp as their principal source of protein, cooking them using herbs and spices, sometimes after fermenting them. Dishes prepared from lizards, frogs and fried insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms and beetles are appetisers native to northeastern provinces.

Noted Thai food columnist Kanokpan Hetrakul had this to say about northeastern cuisine: “It’s a beautiful partnership between the different flavours that most of the other cuisines don’t offer. It has a unique blend of herbs that makes it healthy and equally delicious if eaten in the right amount. However, do go easy on the khao niew. Even the creepy crawlies that are part of the northeastern diet are full of protein.”

If you wish for more information on the TAT’s Check-in I-san tours call the TAT call centre at 1672 or 02-652-777.

One among a string of exhibits at the Hong Moon Muang City Museum in Khon Kaen town.

Chinese traders have played a vital role in economic development of the Northeast.

An assortment of ‘saikrog Isan’ sausages made from beef and pork.

Khun Mae Liam shares her years of experience making ‘pla ra’ fermented fish with visitors.

Mouthwatering ‘som tam kai yang’ is a must-try for anybody visiting Khon Kaen.

Bron: Bangkok Post /