5 IDEAL MUST TRY DISHES & WHERE TO TRY THEM
Isaan, the vast, often overlooked North Eastern region of Thailand, is said to be where the soul of the country resides. Defined by flat but arid farming land, it’s also Thailand’s poorest region. But what it lacks in wealth it more than makes up for in cultural capital; the superb ‘molam’ music of the region and Isaan’s beloved cuisine dominate the country from north to south, east to west. We’re here to talk about the latter.
In Isaan’s thriving, forward thinking city Udon Thani, there’s plenty to get stuck into. Here’s our favourites; what to eat in Udon Thani, Thailand, our 5 IDEAL must try dishes and where to try them.
SOM TAM PLA RA, GAI YANG & KHAO NIAO
Pounded papaya salad with grilled chicken and sticky rice
Routinely named as the world’s best salad, som tam is one of the best recognised dishes in the Thai food canon and eaten all over the country in different forms, guises and levels of pungency. Green papaya, although not essential to qualify as a som tam, is usually the basis of the dish, along with a spicy, sweet, salty and sour dressing. To be pounded to order, this sharp, assertive dish is beloved of the whole nation; you’ll find it in every town and roadside stop you come across.
Isaan, it is said, is where som tam originated, making the journey over the border from neighbouring Laos. The renditions which hail from the Northeast of Thailand (Isaan) or Laos are several notches more pungent than typical Som Tam versions in Bangkok. Using minimal sugar, uncompromisingly spice levels and just being insanely delicious, this version is defined, above all else, by the addition of fermented fish sauce (nam pla ra). A rougher, hand cut shred of papaya, the addition of some rice paddy crab, some apple aubergines…and you’ve got yourself Som Tam Pla Ra. The Isaan ‘Holy Trinity’, of this salad, grilled chicken and sticky rice, is perhaps the most perfect, complementary trio you’ll find. When in Rome, as they say…
Eat at: Som Tam Je Kai
Address: 230/28 Atsawa Mit Road, Amphoe Mueang, Udon Thani 41000
Salt crusted fish, grilled over charcoal
If you’ve ever visited a food market in Thailand, you’ll have seen salt crusted fish, speared with lemongrass stalks, rotating gently over a barely burning grill. The fish used is usually freshwater tilapia, the salt crust (to be peeled back along with the skin before eating) lightly seasoning the flesh whilst creating the perfect atmosphere for steaming. The result? Beautifully tender fish which pairs beautifully with that som tam salad we got a bit carried away with back there.
In Udon Thani, the city’s finest version comes a little different. At Miang Pla Pao, you can order the fish and the som tam salad, sure, but you’re also served a vast array of finely cut toppings, a basket of herbs, lettuce for wrapping and sauces for dipping. All you have to do is settle into one of the restaurant’s bamboo huts, order a cold beer and assemble your own wrap. And then do it again. And again. Bliss!
Eat at: Miang Pla Pao
Address: Thanon Phibun, Soi Phibun 2, Udon Thani
© Photo by missbossy on Flickr
Speciality beef of the Isaan region
Isaan is slowly but surely garnering a reputation for producing some excellent, premium beef, with restaurants in Bangkok now sourcing ‘wagyu’, grain-fed beef from cattle raised in Khon Kaen (another area of Isaan). In Udon Thani, there’s plenty of opportunity to sample the excellent beef of the region. Keep your eye out for the excellent Mam sausage (a spicy, fermented beef number) which hails from down the road but can be found at some roadside joints in the city.
Or, head to Laab Nuad, in the city centre next to the Kuwatil Mosque. This place specialises in beef, and does it extremely well. Order the tom saeb spicy soup and nahm dtok salad (where the beef is thinly sliced and served raw, before it’s piled high with herbs and a bathed in a smoky dressing) to savour Isaan’s superb beef.
Alternatively, if you’re up for a proper sit down meal, wine, courses and all, then Samuay and Sons is an Udon Thani restaurant making serious waves in the culinary world. Chef Num works with Isaan producers, farmers, fishermen and more to concoct modern yet respectful takes on the culinary tradition of the region. The result is magic.
Eat at: Laab Nuad or Samuay & Sons
Address: Laab Nuad –35/1 Thanon Chomchuen, Mak Khaeng, Udon Thani, 41000, Thailand
Address: Samuay & Sons –133 25 ถนน Phon Phisai, Tambon Mak Khaeng, Mueang Udon Thani District, Udon Thani 41000, Thailand
Spicy, raw minced duck salad
The ubiquitous spicy minced meat salad ‘laap’ is everywhere in Isaan, and is most commonly served cooked, with a sharp, salty dressing from lime and fish sauce, and finished with smoky notes from roasted chilli and rice. But one of the finest duck laap salads on the planet is found here in Udon Thani, and it’s totally different. For one, it’s not seen any heat (except Udon Thani room temperature, of course). What’s more, it’s given depth and colour from duck blood and bile, and made even less accessible with some local astringent, bitter herbs. If that doesn’t sound like your sort of thing, then no worries; there’s plenty of places serving the cooked version capably. But trust us, this one is worth seeking out.
You won’t find this version in many places in the Kingdom. In fact, you’ll struggle to find it in Udon Thani either; it’s tucked away just off Sampanthamit Road, between the Pannarai Hotel and the perennially seedy Udon Day and Night. There’s no English name, menu or signage here, but endeavour with your search and you’ll be richly rewarded.
Eat at: ลาบเป็ดป้าแต๋ว@ นครอุดรธานี
Address: 20/6 สัมพันธมิตร, Mak Khaeng Sub-district, Mueang Udon Thani District, Udon Thani 41000, Thailand
Vietnamese sausage, grilled and wrapped
Thailand’s North East shares a border with Lao and a lot of history with Vietnam. In fact, Ho Chi Minh spent time just outside of Udon Thani in the late 1920s, using the surrounding jungles to train soldiers and inspire the significant Vietnamese population of Isaan to fight for their country resisting French occupation. There’s a great museum – the Ho Chi Minh Historical Site – just 10km out of Udon Thani, where Uncle Ho lived during this time; well worth a visit.
Anyway, the historic links between Vietnam and Isaan mean there’s some great Vietnamese food in the region. In Udon Thani, nem nuong is hugely popular and downright delicious, too. This is grilled Vietnamese pork sausage (not to be confused with Thai naem, which is arguably even more tasty), served with the obligatory herbs, lettuce and ‘betel’ leaf for wrapping, as well as a whole host of toppings and dipping sauces. A real, roll-your-sleeves-up and get stuck in affair, this.
Eat at: VT Nam Neung
Address: 345/1-3, Pho Si Road, Tambon Mak Khaeng, Amphoe Mueang, Udon Thani 41000