The fiery Isaan food at Khon Kaen markets and the spicy northeastern cuisine in general is a highlight of a visit to Thailand’s Isaan region. So as the sun started to descend we made our way from the lakeside markets through the town centre, where the footpaths are crammed with food stalls, and the night markets were in full swing.
I was blown away by how many chillies were floating in the curries we saw at the market by the lake, so despite needing to get some work done back at our villa (like downloading a thousand photos I’d taken that day at Prasat Hin Phimai and Chonnabot), we couldn’t resist checking out the action.
There are a few Isaan dishes I love, dishes that you have to try if you visit the region, and they were all here for the savoring at Khon Kaen’s markets.
Probably the most recognised dish of the region and one that was ubiquitous in Khon Kaen is som tam, a spicy shredded papaya salad which the locals (but rarely visitors) enjoy with fermented crab or fermented fish paste called plaa-raa. Regardless of what version you go for, it’s the mix of chilli, fish sauce, lime, and sugar that makes this dish sing.
Not sure what it looks like? Listen out for the constant rhythm of a mortar and pestle that is frequently punctuated by silence as the cook dips in a finger to judge the heat levels and balance of flavours.
Almost as well recognised and amazingly fragrant is gai yang or spatchcocked chicken, splayed open to enable even cooking then grilled over a charcoal BBQ.
Served with nam jim jaew, a very hot chilli-based dipping sauce, gai yang is the antithesis of a plainer European-style roasted chicken because of the smokiness of the meat, the fact that it’s usually juicy because the cooking time is even due to the flattening of the chicken, and a dipping sauce that’s out of this world.
When you hear the sound of a cleaver in the market it probably means another order of ko mu yang or grilled pork neck is about to go out to the tables. This marinated pork dish should hopefully have a crispy exterior (from the palm sugar in the marinade) and a smoky flavour.
We like to stick with nam jim jaew as a dipping sauce for the pork although many opt for nam chim chaeo, a sweeter dipping sauce. Either way, this is a great dish to eat with som tam.
The next thing that will catch your eye are the famous bright red Isaan sausages – sai krok Isaan – that are unlike any sausage you’ll ever try. Sometimes they’re spherical-shaped, sometimes they’re in a long length of plump sausage links.
While we know a couple of vendors in Bangkok who do them very well, these sour fermented sausages are often disappointing in the capital. There, vendors take shortcuts when making them, from using too much rice or even putting rice noodles into the mix, to shortcutting what should be at least a 48 hour fermentation.
In Khon Kaen, though, the sausages are delicious – the kaffir lime leaves, saltiness, sourness, and heat levels are heaven in a hog casing. You’ll see these served with chillis, sliced ginger and cabbage.
What you’re unlikely to see being tossed in a wok at the market is another generic version of pad Thai, the ubiquitous noodle dish that’s so beloved by visitors to Bangkok. It will more likely be laab moo, a spicy pork mince salad with the unique crunch of khaw kua, toasted rice powder.
When cooks see that a foreigner is ordering it, you’ll probably get one quarter of the amount of birds eye chilies the locals get, though even then it will bring tears to your eyes. And if you see a vendor doing a duck (ped) version of it, order it. You won’t regret it.
One of the best ways to kill off the heat from these dishes is with sticky rice – a must-have for a true Isaan meal. Do as the locals do and take the sticky rice between your fingers and dip it into the fiery sauces at the table. They really like it hot here.