Isaan Thai Food: 6 Northeastern Thai Dishes You Should Try

Isaan Thai food is renowned for its pungent sauces, spicy chilies, and unusual proteins. It isn’t often in the spotlight but it certainly has its own die-hard fans who will travel far for Isaan food made right. Here are several crowd-pleasing dishes that we’ve eaten and think even first-time visitors will enjoy.

A little background on Isaan Thai Food

Isaan is one of Thailand’s four regions (the other three are the Northern, Southern, and Central regions) and each has its own distinct cuisine. Here are a few regional characteristics of Isaan food in Thailand (or Northeastern Thai cuisine):

Isaan Map: One of Thailand's five regions
Map courtesy of Nation’s Online

  • It’s heavily influenced by the Laos cuisine and Khmer cuisine from Cambodia
  • Bplah rah (thick, opaque fermented fish sauce) is a signature element in Issan Thai food and has a distinctly different taste than nahm blah (thin, clear fish sauce)
  • Soups and curries have a clear broth base and do not often use coconut milk
  • Many types of meat are char-grilled or roasted; river prawns, snakehead fish, and catfish are popular seafood items
  • Dips are essential and made from pounded herbs and spices
  • Other proteins such as frogs, snakes, ant eggs, and insects are not uncommon
  • Much like Northern Thailand, the staple carbohydrate is the dense, pull-apart sticky rice (khao niaow).

If you find yourself traveling in Isaan, or stumble across an Isaan restaurant while in other parts of the country, give the following a try:

01  Laab ลาบ | Minced Meat Salad

How to Really Pronounce It
“lahp”
Note: ลาบ is often spelled l-a-r-b which is misleading because it does NOT rhyme with carb!

Classic Isaan Thai Food: Chicken Laab - Laab Gai

What to Look For
The telltale sign of laab is a plate of ground or finely diced pork (laab moo)  that’s been tossed with fresh mint leaves, scallions, lime juice, dried red chili, and ground toasted rice. It’s a colorful dish, with speckles of deep red and white, and light and dark greens thanks to fresh herbs and spices.

It is also made with chicken (laab gai), liver (laab dtup) and fish (laab blah), but vegetarians can find versions served with minced tofu or mushrooms. Some laab is very dark reddish-brown thanks to an extra dose of smoky chilies and a spoonful of blood. There are also raw versions, but it’s not for the faint of heart!

Pork and Liver Laab from Isaan, Thailand

What Laab Tastes Like
Laab, or ‘minced meat salad,’ tastes a lot better than it sounds! Firstly, there’s no lettuce and it’s served warm, so the ‘salad’ aspect is a bit confusing. It has a salty, smoky flavor thanks to the fish sauce and ground, smoked red chili peppers. The protein is diced small and is tender. The chopped bright green spring onions, small purple onions, and dark green mint make it pop. Lastly, the toasted, coarsely ground Jasmine rice adds an interesting textural component and nutty flavor.

Our absolute favorite version is laab blah tub tim grawp (ลาบปลาทับทิมกรอบ). It’s a whole tilapia fish that’s been filleted and cubed, deep fried, and then tossed in the chili-fish-sauce-lime juice-toasted-rice-mint dressing. It’s to die for!

How to Eat It
Laab is a very traditional Isaan dish with its original going back to Laos. It’s no surprise since Laos is the region’s western neighbor. Just eat it with a spoon, fork, and a side of rice!

02 Gaeng Naw Mai แกงหน่อไม้ใบย่านาง | Bamboo Shoot Curry

How to Really Pronounce It
“gaeng naw mai”

Isaan food in Thailand: Gaeng Naw Mai or Bamboo Curry Soup

What to Look For
Gaeng naw mai is a Laotian curry that’s made its way over the Thai border and into the Isaan. Its main ingredient is buttery-colored bamboo shoots but oyster mushrooms and cubes of orange pumpkin are often added, too. The curry part is a thin, cloudy broth (similar in consistency to soup) that has a distinct greenish-brownish hue because of a key ingredient: nahm bai yanahng (น้ำใบย่านาง) or yanang juice. This is a medicinal green leaf (tiliacora triandra) that’s been squeezed in or pounded with water to create an extract used in cooking.

What Gaeng Naw Mai Tastes Like
Gaeng naw mai is a mildly sour curry. The bamboo shoots have a uniquely earthy, lightly funky taste and the fermented fish sauce adds a distinct saltiness and pungency. It’s often made spicy with fresh Thai chilies. The yanang juice doesn’t impart much flavor but it does thicken the broth slightly and adds color.

How to Eat It
This is eaten like a soup. Ladle it into a bowl and eat with a spoon. Bon appétit!

03  Sai Grok Isaan ไส้กรอกอีสาน | Isaan Fermented Sausage

How to Really Pronounce It
“sigh grawk ee-sahn”

Sai Grok Isaan is a staple in Northeastern Thai Food

What to Look For
Sai grok Isaan comes in a few different shapes but it always packed in casings with an underlying peachy pink tone thanks to the raw, fermented pork within. If you’re wandering around outdoor foods stalls, you can always find it smoking on the grill. Look for a sausage that is either served on bamboo skewers (in the classic long sausage shape) or in smaller, snack-sized links of oblong spheres.

Fermented pork sausage is a popular type of Isaan Thai food

What Sai Grok Isaan Tastes Like
Also called Isaan sour sausage, it’s smoky and packed with a tangy flavor. It’s seasoned with salt and lots of garlic. Most recipes add cooked rice (other variations use glass noodles, too) but it shouldn’t be so much that it distracts or dilutes the fermented pork flavor. Biting into it and you’ll get a smooth, almost buttery sausage due to its high-fat content.

Some people might be turned off by the thought of eating fermented port. However, salami and chorizo are made in a similar way and many have eaten those items without giving their process a second thought!

How to Eat It
Sai grok Isaan can be a meal on its own or a snack. Between bites, nibble on the accompanying slices of ginger, chopped raw cabbage, and (if you dare) prik kee noo chilis.

04  Tom Saep ต้มแซ่บ | Hot and Sour Soup

How to Really Pronounce It
“dtohm saep”

Hot and Sour Pork Soup from Isaan

What to Look For
A clear soup with lots of dark herbs and chunks of meaty bones. The vegetarian version may have farmed or wild mushrooms to make it hearty. It’s served in the ubiquitous “hot pot” bowl made of clay or stainless steel with a mini food burner underneath.

Hot and Sour Mushroom Soup from Isaan, Thailand

What Tom Saep Tastes Like
It’s a sour and spicy clear soup that’s similar to tom yum soup. It’s light and clean but savory and satisfying. The fresh chilies in the broth create a slow burn that will have you searching for tissues after a few bites. The broth has a classic ‘Thai’ flavor thanks to the holy trinity of Thai flavors: basil, lemongrass (which doesn’t take like lemon), and kaffir lime leaves (which don’t taste like lime).

How to Eat It
Tom saep is served family style in a large clay or metal pot from which everyone scoops a portion from into a small soup bowl. Be prepared to dodge the kaffir lime leaves and pieces of lemongrass within the broth. These herbs are there for flavor but aren’t meant to be eaten! The protein is cooked right on the bone, like pork ribs. so it requires a bit of effort to get to the edible bits.

05  Som Tum Thai ส้มตำไทย | Papaya Salad

How to Really Pronounce It
“sohm dtum tie”

"Pok Pok" is the sound of making som tum Thai in a mortar and pestle

What to Look For
This colorful dish is easy to spot – just look for a plate piled high with very light green (nearly white) shreds of raw, unripe papaya. It’s usually dotted with bright red cherry tomatoes, tan peanuts, dark green yardlong beans, and bright orange dried shrimp.

Some people like to add in bpoo bplah rah (pickled blue crab and fermented fish sauce) or kai khem (salted egg). There are also variations of this dish where the main ingredient isn’t unripe papaya but kernelled corn, shredded carrot, diced cucumber, or lotus stems instead. Som tum can be found all over Thailand.

There are also variations of this dish where the main ingredient isn’t unripe papaya but kernelled corn, shredded carrot, diced cucumber, or lotus stems instead. Som tum can be found all over Thailand.

Som Tum Bpoo Bplah Rah: Papaya salad with fermented crab and fish sauce

What Som Tum Thai Tastes Like
Som tum is the perfect example of how Thai food expertly combines sweet (cane sugar), salty (fish sauce), tangy (lime juice) and spicy (chilies) flavors all in one bite!

It’s fresh and crunchy because all the veggies are raw. It has a kick of flavor thanks to the garlic and fish sauce, and this is one of those dishes that no one bats an eye if you ask for it fiery hot. We like it so much we’ve dedicated an entire post to som tum.

How to Eat It
Som tum can be eaten on its own but it’s common to eat it with sticky rice. Pinch off a small portion of sticky and work it into a small one- inch ball. Flatten one side with your thumb and use it to pinch up the papaya salad. Mop up the sauce with it, too.

An alternative is to buy a little baggy of kanom jeen (thin fermented rice noodles) and mix it into the som tum. A perfect lunch for us is pairing som tum with sticky rice and grilled chicken.

Speaking of grilled chicken…

06  Gai Yang ไก่ย่าง | Grilled Chicken

How to Really Pronounce It
“gai yahng”

Gai Yang (Isaan style grilled chicken)

What to Look For
Grilled chicken is just grilled chicken right? Wrong. The kind found in Isaan has a distinct flavor thanks to its marinade and cooking style. Look for small whole chickens that are butterflied open (with or without bamboo spits) and are slowly cooking over a charcoal grill. You know you have the right kind if you can spot what looks like little fibers coating the chicken.

What Isaan-style Grilled Chicken Tastes Like
There’s a lot of flavor thanks to the marinade. It’s made of garlic, coriander root, lemongrass, black peppercorn, fish sauce and soy sauce that’s been pounded together into a paste and then slathered onto the chicken. The charcoal grill infuses an undeniably smoky taste. The icing on the cake is the sweet and sour tamarind sauce.

Classic Isaan Thai food: Gai Yang

How to Eat It
The chicken is cooked whole but it’s usually chopped into roughly 10 or 12 pieces with a big ol’ meat cleaver and served on a platter. Pick the grilled meat off the bones and dip the morsels in the accompanying sauce. Be sure to enjoy steamy hot sticky rice along with it, too.

Believe it or not, it was a challenge to pick which dishes we wanted to showcase in this post. There are so many interesting items that we wanted to share with you.

Have you heard of any of these Isaan dishes? Which ones would you be most likely to try? 

Isaan Thai Food

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