So This Is It?
A Crash Course in Authenticity in Thailand’s Isaan Region
We pull into Udon Thani, one of the four major cities in Thailand’s Isaan region, at 5:30am on an overnight bus. I’ve been traveling with a friend of mine with almost no itinerary. It’s May, one of the hottest months of the year and the beginning of rainy season. The air is palpably hot, so thick I can almost take a fist of it. We peel ourselves off the pink polyester seats and it feels like we’re spat out, from a bumpy night of little sleep, into an empty shopping mall in the center of downtown.
We’re here in search of authentic Isaan food, the funky and fiery cuisine of Northeast Thailand. Primarily, we’re after kai yaang: spit-roasted chicken stuffed with cilantro stems and lemongrass. We first tasted kai yaang at SP Chicken, a restaurant in Chiang Mai, where it was so addictively tender and aromatic that we changed our travel plans to find the source of it.
I look around at what feels like a surprisingly bleak city center. I read that Isaan is largely untouched by tourists; I romanticized that to mean a lush, green landscape dotted with small villages, rice paddies, and free-roaming chickens. But we hadn’t done our research – Udon Thani is one of Thailand’s poorest cities. It’s also famous for attracting older, white men in search of Thai brides: 11,000 foreign men have married Thai women and settled across the region. At our hostel, we find groups of white men pouring into the lobby and over to the Irish bar across the street, which we later learn is nicknamed “Foreign Son-In-Law Street”.
We walk through town looking for breakfast. Instead of food stalls and coffee shops we find storefronts full of cheap plastic commodities and pallets of half-hatched eggs. The streets are littered with cabbage skins, fish stomachs, and wet newspaper. The streets are grey, dirty, and dilapidated.
I realize that the vast number of food stalls in other parts of the country is a direct result of tourist traffic. There’s wealth there and more demand. The smell of fish guts and pigeon shit is getting to me. It’s the first time in my two weeks in Thailand that I feel that the American in me is calling out for something sanitized: some fresh vegetables, a black coffee. I feel like a fraud, desperate to get off the beaten path and then bummed to see it doesn’t meet my expectations. It must be the feeling of going to America for the first time and finding yourself in an industrial part of Cincinnati – so this is it?
The Isaan is fairly comparable to something like the Midwest. It’s an agricultural and industrial region, but in some ways the most authentic – like how the Midwest or the Bible Belt is the most “authentic” America.
Isaan’s famous dishes are essentially Thai barbecue: coal-fired meats with sweet and fiery sauces to dip into, and cold, spicy salads. Their staple starch is sticky rice; so sticky you can use it as an edible spoon to soak up sauces. And all of it tastes better with Chang or Leo beer, the equivalent of Budweiser, poured over ice. It’s interactive, unabashed food.
In Isaan we discover the food is even funkier, more rustic, and fiery than what we tasted in Chiang Mai. The stench of pla ra, Isaan’s fermented freshwater fish sauce, is everywhere, and more pungent than I could possibly describe. The markets, ripe with salted fish in various stages of fermentation, are overflowing with bowls of shrimp pastes, live eels, and the skeletons of local white fish, air-drying on long wire racks.
At a restaurant in Khon Kaen, the province right below Udon Thani, we finally find kai yaang in an awkwardly located restaurant far from the center of town. We take a tuk tuk to get there, holding our hands over our mouths to keep from breathing in exhaust fumes. The restaurant is large and nearly empty, and no one speaks a lick of English. There’s a man out front, butchering fresh chickens and throwing them on the fire, rotating them with long chopsticks, and basting them in shallot oil.
We do our best to order food, giggling with the waitress, trying to use Google Translate through a very poor connection. We end up with a table full of things we’d never tasted, herbs we’d never heard of, a spicy, super funky papaya salad made with fermented baby crabs, and fried tilapia with roasted cloves of garlic. The chicken is tough -– the birds were active, we could taste it, and it has barely any breast meat. But it’s equally delicious and succulent as the one that brought us here. The meat is topped with crispy lemongrass and garlic and served with a slightly sour tamarind sauce with toasted rice powder. We’re completely lost in translation, sweating profusely, gnawing on chicken bones, our fingers sticky, the table messied with piles of one-ply napkins, the stench of pla ra soaking into our skin – and that, after all, is exactly why we came to Isaan.
THIS STORY IS FROM BOXY ISSUE 3 | CURIOSITY. TO READ A FULL Q&A INTERVIEW, AVAILABLE HERE.