Som Tam and Gai Yang – grilled chicken and salad Isaan style – became our go-to meal throughout out journey around the off-the-beaten-track Isaan region of northeastern Thailand.
Som Tam and Gai Yang – Isaan Style Grilled Chicken and Salad
Starving after our 4am start and a long morning spent clambering around the ruins of Prasat Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam taking photographs, we detoured via Korat for lunch before pushing on to Prasat Hin Phimai, 60km north of the city.
Our driver, Narawat, seemed intent on stopping at one of those shiny big service stations on the highway with several fast food outlets – for convenience more than anything. We guessed he was reluctant to get stuck in Korat’s gridlocked lunchtime traffic, and we completely understood why after getting stuck in Korat’s gridlocked lunchtime traffic an hour later.
We insisted on lunching at a local eatery in Korat that we might be able to include in the magazine story we were researching on road-tripping the Isaan. A service station meal doesn’t exactly make readers salivate.
Somewhat serendipitously we spotted a simple lunch place that was packed with tables of locals – office workers, school students, tradesmen, all types – with a woman out the front making non-stop som tam with her mortar and pestle, pounding one serving after another of the Isaan’s famously fiery green papaya salad.
The woman was meticulous in her preparation, constantly tasting the som tam to see if she had the balance just right. We had to taste some too.
Som tam is essentially a salad made with a mortar and pestle. ‘Som tam’ comes from the words for ‘sour’ and ‘to pound’, so while we’ve come to associate som tam with being a shredded green papaya salad, with long beans, tomatoes, a dressing of chilli, garlic,lime juice, fish sauce, and dried shrimps, and peanuts, any kind of crunchy vegetable could in theory replace the green papaya, as long as it’s pounded in a mortar.
We ordered a som tam, sticky rice for three, plus plates of the region’s equally well-loved gai yang or grilled chicken.
This style of chicken is easy to identify because the chicken is flattened out before being grilled, allowing for more even cooking. We would see these chooks sold at roadside stands during our whole journey throughout the region. It was hard not to stop at every stand.
The meal had me thinking about the chicken and salads of my children. As a kid growing up in Australia, a barbecued chicken and some salads was a picnic favourite. My mum or grandmothers would make some salads and we’d buy a roast chicken and bread once we hit the road. We’d spread out a picnic blanket in a park by the beach or throw a cloth over a table under the shade of a tree in a beautiful national park, and we were set.
As lovely as the memory of it was, the humble lettuce, tomato and onion salad, or even a potato salad, could never compare with a som tam. Crunchy, spicy-hot, sour, salty, and a little sweet, som tam is essentially Southeast Asia on a plate.
It also got us thinking about chicken in Western cooking. It’s a long-held notion amongst chefs that you only put chicken on the menu for the people who can never decide what to order. They’ll invariably go for chicken. Terence and I rarely ever order chicken in a restaurant. Except in Thailand.
For gai yang, which just means ‘grilled chicken’ in Thai, the chicken is laid out flat between bamboo skewers and usually marinated in fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, black pepper, garlic, lemongrass, and coriander root, and perhaps a little coconut milk, before being grilled over charcoal.
Som tam and gai yang are quintessentially Isaan although they’re now found all over Thailand. With a som tam maker on almost every street corner in the capital, you would assume they were Bangkok street food dishes.
Succulent and flavourful, the gai yang didn’t disappoint. Nor did the fresh, fiery som tam. And the whole meal, which fed the three of us very well, along with two big bottles of icy cold Singha beer, came to a whopping 450 Thai Baht. That’s around US$14/£9.
So did we write about the chicken and salad place in our magazine story? Um, no. But it certainly wasn’t a wasted meal. It’s in the Wa Pa area if you’re ever in Korat; there’s no sign, so just ask around. Or just stop when you spot one by the side of the road as you’re driving through the Isaan.