Isan food has long been an integral thread in the fabric of Thai cuisine. This distinctive region of the country consists of 20 provinces in the Northeast and is noted for its deep history and gastronomy. With an arid landscape and no direct access to the ocean, the food culture relies heavily on freshwater fish, local herbs and the inventive use of fermentation for preservation. Key flavours include saltiness from fermented fish, sourness of herbs; such as, tamarind, and spiciness from both fresh and dried chilli. Although typical Isan dishes like som tam (papaya salad), lap (minced meat salad) and kai yang (grilled chicken) are found throughout Thailand and known as country-style comfort food, the flavours and ingredients from this region are certainly having a moment in the fine-dining arena.
“Isan cuisine has been ‘unlocked’ recently,” says Chef Weerawat “Num” Triyasenawat, a native of Udon Thani and the chef and owner of Samuay & Sons restaurant. “Isan flavours are very rustic with an emphasis on fresh herbs. The dishes are so spicy but at the same time refreshing, and that’s what makes our food stand out.”
In the Northeastern dialect, Isan food is noted for its “nuea” taste, that loosely translates to ‘fully-rounded’ or ‘full-flavoured’. “To me, the nuea taste means umami,” Chef Num explains. “It comes from our fermentation techniques. Since we don’t have access to the sea, we preserve fish by making ‘nam pla ra’ (fermented fish) or ‘pla hang’ (dried fish).”
A Day of Eating in Udon Thani
Udon Thani is known as one of the most bustling commercial cities in Isan and serves as a connective hub between the provinces and neighbouring Lao PDR. Tourists flock here for religious festivities as the province is home to several significant temples including Wat Kham Chanot and the photogenic Wat Pa Phu Kon. History buffs will also want to visit the Ban Chiang Archaeological Site, where evidence of a 5,000-year-old Bronze Age civilisation can be found. During winter, Udon Thani is also famous for the Sea of Red Lotus in full bloom in Nong Han Kumphawapi.
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In the early morning, the traditional breakfast is a khai krata (pan egg), a dish of fried eggs and various toppings; such as, mu yo (white pork sausage), mu sap (minced pork) and kun chiang (sweet Chinese sausage). A favourite spot amongst locals is Khing Ocha. Here you can get the famed pan egg dishes along with other specialities like Kanom Pang Khao Chi, a bread roll with sausages very similar to the Vietnamese Bánh mì. Both dishes trace their origins back to the French colonisation of Vietnam and Lao PDR. though they have now taken on a distinctively Isan identity in their unique presentation and taste.
For lunch, experience the full-flavoured ‘nuea’ taste at Som Tam Che Kai. This well-known local spot is famous for its secret ‘nam pla ra’ or fermented fish sauce that pairs well with spicy papaya salad and fried fish. Other must-try dishes include lap mu (spicy minced pork), Isan-style herbal mushroom soup, and their signature grilled chicken, all of which go perfectly with steamed glutinous rice.
Finally, for a memorable culinary experience, we recommend Samuay & Sons for dinner. Chef Num and his brother Chef Joe are both Udon Thani natives. After honing their skills abroad, they returned to their hometown with a passion for Isan cuisine and supporting local suppliers. Samuay & Sons uses ingredients from organic farms in Khon Kaen, foragers from Sakon Nakhon, fishermen in Udon Thani, and various producers in the region to create a contemporary menu that puts an Isan perspective on modern Thai cuisine. Both the a la carte and tasting menus change seasonally (every four months). The recent menu features native Udon Thani Pla Yon (Yon Fish), a freshwater fish with a rich fatty texture that is akin to Japanese eel. The restaurant has spent over a year using the Yon fish to create a special fish sauce and pickled fish paste with local rice bran. The Yon fish itself will also be served grilled and glazed in fish sauce.
Before returning from your trip, pick up some tasty treats to bring home. Delicacies of Udon Thani include sai krok Isan (Northeastern-style sausage), naem nueang (Vietnamese grilled pork rolled in transparent rice paper with herbs and vegetables), mu sawan (fried sun-dried sweet sliced pork), and mu yo (white pork sausage).
There are various shops that sell these around the city, but a few that specialise in easily transportable souvenir foods are Siao Isan Souvenir Products, VT Nam Nueng and Suk Sombun Souvenir Products.
This article is brought to you by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
To know more about the Tourism Authority of Thailand, please visit https://www.tourismthailand.org/
TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILAND, UDON THANI OFFICE
16/5 Mukmontri Road , Tambon Makkheng, Amphoe Mueang, Udon Thani 41000
Telephone : +66 4232 5406-7
Email : Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
22/1 Si Sattha Road, Tambon Mak Khaeng, Amphoe Mueang, Udon Thani 41000
Tel.: +66 (0) 4 2343 481
Samuay & Sons
133 25 Phon Phisai Road, Tambon Mak Khaeng, Amphoe Mueang, Udon Thani 41000
Tel.: +66 (0) 9 9473 6464
Siao Isan Souvenir Products
Amphoe Mueang, Udon Thani 41000
Tel.: +66 (0) 8 1717 0556)
Som Tam Che Kai
230/28 Atsawa Mit Road, Amphoe Mueang, Udon Thani 41000
Tel.: +66 (0) 8 6239 2244
Suk Sombun Souvenir Products
296/48, Prachak Road, Tambon Mak Khaeng, Amphoe Mueang, Udon Thani 41000
Tel.: +66 (0) 4224 0898
VT Nam Nueng
345/1-3, Pho Si Road, Tambon Mak Khaeng, Amphoe Mueang, Udon Thani 41000
Tel.: +66 (0) 4234 7111