Thailand’s regional foods are rich and diverse and generally speaking follows the season and what is available from the highly arable land. While it is the food in central Thailand — such as pad krapao, green curry, and perennial favorite pad thai — that has won hearts all over the world, the country’s northeast region, also known as Isan, offers some very unique foods that few foreigners, and in some cases, even Thais outside of Isan, has never heard of, let alone tasted.
Distinctly different than the cuisine of central Thailand and sharing more similarities with its Lao counterparts, Isan’s cuisine is known for its spiciness and the use of sticky rice as a meal accompaniment.
While som tam (green papaya salad), larb (minced meat salad), and nam tok (meat salad) are perhaps the region’s best known culinary exports, other dishes will likely never get a global audience. On a recent visit to Thailand’s northeastern plains, we came across some of the region’s lesser known dishes. Bon appétit!
Mod daeng, a local delicacy, is red ant larvae, just before it turns into a full grown ant. They are crispy and slightly sweet, and, with a bit of imagination, could easily pass for a bar snack.
Luk gob, or baby frog is another regional specialty. They can be eaten in a soup, or steamed in banana leaf with herbs. The taste is quite unoffensive, they tend to taste of whatever they have been cooked in, and the texture is soft without any bones or cartilage.
Mang kaeng is a very pleasant looking creature that is common for Sakon Nakon province. The bug has a very distinct almost flowery smell and an earthy flavour. It is eaten as a snack or together with sticky rice and jaew.
In Isan a common dish is steamed vegetables and sticky rice with jeaw dip.
There are many forms of jeaw, or nam prik, as the spicy dip is also referred to, some are vegetarian, some are made with baby frogs, insects, fish, or other kinds of protein.
Not just confined to the Philippines where it is known as balut, Isan also has its own version of the half matured chicken still in its shell. Commonly steamed, the eggs has a sour, slightly aquired smell.
Insects play a very prominent role in the diet in northeastern Thailand. Cheap, versatile and abundant — not to mention better for the environment than for example pork, chicken or beef — they are a good source of protein.
Grilled frogs at a market in Sakon Nakon.
Gaeng nor mai is a sour soup made with young bamboo shoot and a very pungent, fermented fish sauce also known as pla raa. The soup can be made with various types of protein, in this case kai mod daeng, a local delicacy of red ant eggs which taste slightly sweet and have a bit of a crunch to them.
Moo yor is a special pork sausage popular throughout Isan. It originates from Vietnam and China and has a mild, slightly peppery taste. It is steamed in banana leaves and eaten in salads or on its own.
A typical Isan meal, the way it has spread across Thailand and even becoming popular outside of the country. Sticky rice served with larb, a minced meat salad, som tam, the ubiquitous green papaya salad, vegetables and herbs.