A fiery-hot, vividly flavorful green papaya salad defines the cooking of the remote Isan region—spicy, bright, and pure
From Saveur, June/July 2003
It’s 100 degrees in Bangkok tonight, but I’m too preoccupied to care. I’m on Soi Rangnam, a side street known for hawker stalls and restaurants specializing in the dishes of Isan, Thailand’s rural northeastern region, on a mission of great importance. I’ve come in search of what I’ve been told is the city’s best som tum, or green papaya salad. The tip, which I received yesterday from Nid, a Bangkok friend, sounded like a snippet of dialogue from an espionage novel. “I don’t know the name of the place,” he said. “I don’t think it even has one. But it’s a stall just past the entrance to a park, and the woman who makes the som tum wears a red apron with orange trim.”
My love affair with som tum began years ago in Los Angeles, where I lived for a decade when I was an impoverished young screenwriter and where eating out almost always meant East Hollywood’s Thai Town, right near my home, with its 24-hour neon-bright promise of exotic curries, noodle soups, and, best of all, green papaya salad. Typically made of (but not limited to) shredded unripe papaya, garlic, cherry tomatoes, Asian yard-long beans, lime juice, and enough chiles to bring me to my knees, som tum was my favorite Southern California food: sunny, crisp, and always within my budget. Tonight, however, it’s not East Hollywood som tum I’m after. I’m looking for som tum from Isan, which, Nid tells me, is where the dish probably originated, later making its way to Bangkok with Isan immigrants. Som tum lao, as it’s known, is seasoned with pla ra (an unrefined fish sauce) or whole small salted crabs, and Nid assures me that it is significantly different from the central Thai version of som tum, which uses peanuts, dried shrimp, lots of sugar, and a more refined, clear fish sauce and tends to surface everywhere outside Isan, including the United States (and at McDonald’s in Thailand, where it’s known—no lie—as McSomtam).
After scrutinizing practically every vendor on Soi Rangnam, I locate the one in the orange-trimmed apron and place my order. What arrives in front of me a few minutes later—a small mound of papaya matchsticks partly submerged in murky, dark brown pla ra, spiked with more chiles and cloves of raw garlic than I dare count, and served with sticky rice—looks intimidating enough to make me want to catch the next plane home. Cautiously I dig in. I’m rewarded by a mesmerizing rush of hot, sour, salty flavors, the oral equivalent of an air raid siren.
I’m dumbstruck. Was the som tum I loved for all those years in LA a bland impostor? Are there other Isan dishes that might be just as eye-opening? I call Nid, hoping for further illumination. He picks up the phone quickly, as if half expecting my call, and offers a simple suggestion. “Why don’t you go to Isan and find out?” he asks.
A few days later, I’m on a flight into Khon Kaen, central Isan’s largest city. Below me lies a vast chessboard of arid rice paddies crosshatched with red dirt roads. Despite Isan’s six-month-long, virtually rainless dry season, when temperatures often soar over the 100-degree mark, agriculture—especially the growing of sticky (glutinous) rice, Isan’s favorite variety—is the fulcrum of life here. Evidently it’s been this way for quite some time: 5,000-year-old remnants of what may be the world’s oldest agricultural society have been discovered in the area, prompting archaeologists to speculate that Isan was a place of early human habitation on a par with that of the Tigris-Euphrates valley.
But time has not been kind to Isan. Today the region, which accounts for a third of Thailand’s territory, is the country’s poorest, least developed area. Numerous factors have contributed to this reality, foremost among them prolonged droughts that have for decades forced many of Isan’s farmers to seek work elsewhere, especially in Bangkok, where they commonly find jobs as construction workers, taxi drivers, and servants. Perhaps a greater problem is that Isan was once part of the ancient Khmer kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos, not the kingdom of the Thai. This separateness still resonates: ruins of Khmer religious monuments dot the Isan landscape; Isan natives generally have what are considered the physical features of Laotians (dark skin, stout builds), not those of the central Thai (fairer skin, lankier physiques); their music twangs to a unique, calliope beat; they speak a dialect almost indistinguishable from Lao; and Isan’s cuisine, considered by many to be the soul food of Thailand, is a direct extension of southern Laotian food, and is as different from the fragrant coconut milk curries of central Thai cooking as night is from day.
Upon my arrival at Khon Kaen airport, I meet my companions for the next few days: translator Chalarine Phuengnoi and our soft-spoken driver, Ban Toeng, an Isan native who is based in Bangkok but is frequently called for jobs in his home region. An hour later I’m introduced to Saowanit Borriboon, a cooking teacher with a beauty-parlor hairdo and a sweet smile, in her classroom at Khon Kaen Vocational College, where she has offered to make lunch for us. As Borriboon pounds a huge handful of dried red chiles in a stone mortar, she describes the fundamentals of Isan’s cuisine: raw salads and clear soups and stews, all of which are usually seasoned with pla ra and an astronomical number of bird’s-eye chiles. “Our cooking is closely linked with our environment,” she continues. “We are a poor place, with poor soil, and we’ve been trained to eat what we can, when we can. We eat wild shoots and green papayas gathered from the forest, crabs gathered from the streams, and pla ra, preserved in salt and rice flour so it will last all year long.”
Borriboon also informs me that the Isan diet often depends on such insects as queen ants and water beetles for protein. Lest I walk away with the impression that food here has more in common with Fear Factor than with the Food Network, Borriboon quickly clarifies that the culinary customs of Isan serve another vital purpose. “Our cooking is meant to function as medicine,” she says. “Most Isan dishes are designed to cool the body and clean toxins from it. That’s why we use almost no fat and so much chile, lemongrass, and garlic.” Borriboon’s lunch—laab pla duk, a grilled catfish salad fortified with ground, toasted raw rice and eaten with sticky rice and raw vegetables (including yard-long beans and small eggplants); gaeng om gai, a hearty chicken and vegetable soup with handfuls of fresh herbs; and mook kai mod daeng, a grilled banana leaf parcel filled with lemongrass, chiles, and ivory-colored ant eggs (similar in size and texture to caviar and surprisingly unscary to eat)—conjures a cool breeze on a stifling summer day. “Aroy?” Borriboon asks, using the Thai word for delicious. “Aroy,” I confirm with a smile.
For som tum lao, though, Borriboon recommends that we pay a visit to Riam Rimbueng Restaurant, owned by Ream Somrub, a friend of hers, and known for its particularly good rendition of the dish. Phuengnoi, Ban Toeng, and I stop there, and Somrub leads me out back to the open-air kitchen. In Thailand, she tells me, the practice with som tum lao is to customize it. “Go ahead, be picky,” she insists. So, for my order I specify six chiles, four sliced yard-long beans, three cloves of garlic (which are left unpeeled), one lime, and only a smidgen of pla ra and watch as one of her cooks lightly pounds it all with shredded green papaya in a large wooden mortar. It tastes even cleaner and fresher than the one I had in Bangkok, and I know I’m eating the real thing at last.
The next morning Phuengnoi, Toeng, and I are driving up the Friendship Highway, a charmless four-lane road financed by the U.S. government and used during the Vietnam War as a supply route to American bases located in Isan and at the Laotian border. Of late, though, the highway’s name has become less disingenuous. Also called Mittapap Road, it now serves as the northeast’s own unofficial (and very long) Restaurant Row, with various towns along its trajectory offering a range of Isan culinary specialties. Nakhon Ratchasima in the south is famous for its laab, the Isan salad of minced meat, poultry, or fish, like the one Borriboon made for us with catfish. The night market in Khon Kaen is considered the best place to sample saikrok Isan, a mild pork sausage grilled and eaten with chiles, peanuts, galangal, and ginger. And north of Khon Kaen, the village of Khao Suan Kwang, where we’re now headed, is praised far and wide for its gai yahng, Isan-style grilled chicken.
We approach Khao Suan Kwang, a ramshackle place of cinderblock buildings and countless gas stations, and within seconds a mob of hawkers descends, offering the take-away variety of gai yahng-whole butterflied grilled chickens splayed on long bamboo skewers. However, we have our sights set on what is reputed to be the king of Khao Suan Kwang’s gai yahng joints: the 29-year-old Gai Yahng Wanna, which boasts an air-conditioned room. I’ve tasted more gai yahng than I can recall (it’s a standard at nearly every Thai restaurant in the United States), most of which has been irritatingly sweet. But Gai Yahng Wanna’s version—marinated in white pepper, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and coriander root, then grilled and served with a fiery lime-mint dipping sauce—is a study in the eloquence of meat cooked over open flame. I top it off with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from a friendly pushcart vendor out in front.
Our next stop is the night market in Nong Khon Kwan, a suburb of Udon Thani and 30 miles up the Friendship Highway, so we can pay our respects to its many som tum lao vendors. As Phuengnoi and I stroll through the market—which opens at dusk to bypass the furnace-like heat of afternoon—we admire the artfully displayed produce, including green papayas, three kinds of garlic, and voluptuous heaps of herbs. The last, Phuengnoi explains, include various basils, mint, cilantro, and, surprisingly, dill. “Dill is used in many Isan dishes, like soups and steamed savories,” she explains. Of the ten or so som tum hawkers we’ve spotted, a mother-and-daughter team surrounded by a crowd of customers catches our fancy. We order a double-size som tum lao, with extra yard-long beans, limes, and garlic, and from a neighboring stall purchase another local specialty, pla chon paow, whole freshwater tilapia stuffed with basil and lemongrass, crusted with salt, and grilled. The food, which we eat with our fingers in our air-conditioned car along with freshly steamed sticky rice, is primal and delicious. The som tum lao is even more vibrant and intense than the one I ate in Khon Kaen, with large chunks of lime and both green chiles and red ones. I have reached som tum nirvana.
When I was a little kid, I used to fantasize about being able to eat everything in my suburban backyard, every edible weed and leaf I could get my hands on. It seemed to me the simplest and purest way to get nourishment. It’s a memory that comes back to me as I stand in the outdoor kitchen of our driver Toeng’s family home, in the rice-farming village of Kham Muang, 125 miles southeast of Nong Khon Kwan, where we’ve been invited to have lunch. As I gaze at the just-gathered wild ingredients—bamboo shoots, a heap of fragrant forest mushrooms, shiny, dark-green kaffir lime leaves, ant eggs—that will go into our meal, it also strikes me that the people of Isan may have eaten in just such a fashion thousands of years ago, when they were first giving life a go in this harsh but soulful land. Toeng, now 33, has lived in Bangkok since his early 20s, first for school and then to help support his family. It isn’t often that he is able to make it back home. And returning is always bittersweet: sweet because when he comes here it feels so good, and bitter because his time in Isan is always too short. “Bangkok is a difficult place to live,” says Toeng, as we watch his aunt, Aree Doakkaem, and his father, Sukun Saengbuthra, prepare our meal. “I stay there for work, not pleasure.”
In Kham Muang there are evidently countless pleasures, especially relaxed, quiet afternoons like this one, with eight members of Ban Toeng’s family lounging on an elevated bamboo mat in the shade of an old mango tree, eating lunch—which today is laab kai mod daeng, a laab made of ant eggs, mint, and lime juice; gaeng om hed, a wild-mushroom curry; sup naw mai, a deliciously tart bamboo shoot salad; two different chile and pla ra dipping sauces; a platter of raw and blanched vegetables; and a large basket of chewy, glossy sticky rice, which we gather into bite-size balls and plunge directly into the food, as there are no plates (only soup bowls) in this communal style of eating.
“I’m going to come back someday,” Toeng says between bites. “When I have enough money, I want to open a shop here.” We savor the thought over this lunch, which is hot and bright, cool and raw, pragmatic and rustic, abundant and gracious. It is the essence of Isan.
Copyright © James Oseland, 2011. All rights reserved.