Flavours of Thailand: A Taste of Issan

A wok, a mortar and pestle, a Dao and a few spare utensils – that’s all the Issan needed to make a feast.

Fiery, gritty, honest, simple and yet complex — this is the essence of the Issan people. You can hear it in their music, the Mor Lam; songs of love, loss and homes left behind. You can see it in their architecture. Most of all, you can taste it in their food.

The Issan region occupies 20 provinces in the North-East of Thailand, a landmass that is about half the size of Germany. Their language and culture are very similar to the neighbouring Laos, minus the French and Vietnamese influences. The economy, and consequently, the food, has been agrarian until the recent past.

You could find Issan food with ease on street corners of the Central Sukhumvit, Bangkok. Sour Issan Sausage(Sai Krok Isaan), stuffed with thinly sliced ginger and fermented pork, hang from rods on street-side carts. Head to more brick and mortar joints to get a taste of the Jim Jum. The Jim Jum is a fiery hotpot, and the broth is made with shallots, lemongrass, chilli, garlic and sweet basil. The rest of its ingredients are left to the customer. Throw in noodles, meat, a few choice vegetables and you get one of the most fulfilling meals of your entire existence. It goes without saying that for an authentic Issan food experience, travel to the region is required.

A recurring character in the story of Issan food is the ‘Dao’, a charcoal-fire stove on which most of the meals are prepared. Rapid modernization in the Issan region is seeing a decline in its use, but there was a time when an Issan woman dry roasting chilis and rice powder (the most basic elements of Issan food) on a Dao was the commonest of sights. A wok, a mortar and pestle, a Dao and a few spare utensils — that’s all the Issan needed to make a feast.

The seasonal migrations of the Issan have led to the spread of the cuisine right across the country. Regional variations of the cuisine have developed, possibly in the interest of sparing people the eye-watering heat of the Issan palate. The result is that several Issan dishes have now become completely synonymous with Thai cuisine. Chief among them is the Yum Pla Duk Fu.

The Yum Pla Duk Fu, fried and fluffed catfish dish served on a bed of raw mango salad, is every beer drinker’s dream dish. Leela Punyaratabandhu on her blog, SheSimmers, describes the traditional preparation of this dish:

“A wild-caught catfish (smaller and leaner than its farm-raised counterparts) would be roasted or grilled whole, then have its flesh fluffed into tiny cotton-like flakes. Next, both the fish flakes and the fish carcass — head, tale, spine bone and all — would be deep-fried until crispy and golden brown.

To plate, the crispy fish carcass would go on a bed of lettuce. Next, the fish meat, which has formed one fluffy, crispy, elongated web of tiny flakes in the fryer, would be placed on the fish carcass in the same place whence it came. Then a simple green mango salad would go on top of the fish flakes. The garnish of fresh cucumber and tomato slices would be added to the sides. Finally, the dish would be served in the manner that seeks to restore the former appearance of the catfish who died for the dish.

The name and the — literally — the face of Pla Duk were once indispensable in this particular fish salad.”

Today, the dish takes on many different forms. For one, the head is rarely used in its preparation. Outside of Issan, catfish has been substituted for cheaper, more freely available fish. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but restaurants have been known to use mass-produced fish flakes as a substitute. To any food enthusiast worth their salt, this is sacrilege. However, all you can do is take a bite, trust that the food gods are with you that day, and hope to be transported to paradise(preferably with a few gallons of beer).

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About the illustrator: Sarojini Dantapalli is an architect and food enthusiast based in Hyderabad. As one can see, she is also adept at turning illustrations of food into works of art.

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