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Isaan Cooking

I am adding a few of my favourite posts from my previous tonyinthailand blog. Lots of these to come, so keep an eye open for them.

The rice harvest has started in Isaan. The vivid photogenic greens of the paddy fields have been replaced with the soft yellows and browns of rice at the time it is ready to be harvested. A lot of stages and work go into that packet of rice you put into the shopping trolley.

The change of colour in the landscape of rural Isaan.

My focus today is not the growing of rice, but one of the important rituals behind the harvest – food! On smaller farms, like the one the family own, rice harvesting is done by hand. With small fields divided by low earth walls it is impractical to use mechanical harvesters, The family also feel that you get a better yield from hand harvesting. Whatever the reasoning, today 13 people were out in the heat slowly but steadily moving down the fields, cutting the stalks about halfway up and laying them in neat rows behind them for collection later.

This is a good-natured activity with plenty of chat and laughter.

A way to go.

Part of the deal for these workers is that lunch is provided, and it has to be substantial as they build up quite an appetite. I thought it would be interesting to show you what’s involved in feeding a bunch of Isaan farmworkers and what the resulting feast looks like.

Firstly real Isaan food is nothing like what you have ordered from your local Thai takeaway on a Friday night. It is mostly a rough, unsophisticated food designed to be quickly assembled with whatever is freshly available from the markets, the farm and what’s growing at the side of the road. A lot of it uses animal parts that we throw away, and very little is wasted. These are people who have a history of pretty basic farming life, with neither the time, energy or money to develop a sophisticated range of recipes. It is only more recently Isaan has started to enjoy higher incomes, but their natural instinct on the food side of things is to stick with what they know best.

I am no expert, but if I had to generalise the flavour of Isaan food, “sour” and “hot” would pretty well cover it. For westerners like me more used to the softer and sweeter tastes of Thai food from “home” I find Isaan food to mostly be outside my comfort levels! However, for many, including my brother and my sister-in-law, some Isaan food is at the top of their dinner menu. Sam, my sister-in-law, even asked Gaun, my wife, to send a kilo of her special chilli paste to Sydney, and it has been in constant use ever since.

I am in no way putting down Isaan food here, and you’ll see what’s great about it as you read further.

All the cooking for the lunch was done at the family farmhouse on the edge of the rice fields. I have mentioned in previous posts that the term farmhouse is a little optimistic for what is an open tin shed, but it acts as the central point for the farm and also as my brother and sister-in-law’s bedroom at night.

The farmhouse in greener times.

It is here that a large meal for 16 people is efficiently produced only using two wood fired stoves. The main chefs for the last two days have been Yuan, Gaun’s younger sister, and Apple, a niece. Gaun got involved in a minor way today, as you’ll see.

The menu was a hearty beef soup, Laab or Larb Moo, which is actually a pork dish, a papaya salad, fresh vegetables both cooked and raw, sticky rice of course and sweet papaya.

The kitchen stoves.

Apple showing off the main ingredient for yesterday’s lunch – fried dried fish.

I thought the best way to have you over for lunch today would be to walk you through the preparation of the Laab Moo in photos. It is a classic Isaan dish, simple and quick to make. This version used four different parts of the pig. Minced pork, the mincing is done by finely chopping the meat here, the skin, liver and some other internal organ – kidney? Vegetarians, please skip the next bit :-)

Maybe someone can enlighten me as to what the part of the pig Apple is holding in her hand. I think kidney. Liver at the bottom.

Pork skin boiled and then thinly sliced.

The combination of the four meats.

The secret ingredient to Isaan cooking and Thai cooking in general actually – super freshness.

These vegetables have just been picked from the family farm…….

………and these being displayed by Yuan.

……….and these spring onions.

All chopped ready to be added to the meat.

Plenty of what in Thai is called manaw or lemon/lime juice. Essential for Mojito cocktails too! This is the sour part being added.

Almost 3/4 of a bottle of fish sauce. Gaun getting into the action.

Dried chilli gives the kick.

And it’s not a pinch, either. Three of these spoonfuls went into the pot.

Ground dry sticky rice, an ingredient I hadn’t seen before.

Salt and the chopped vegetables were now added, everything stirred together and simmered. Sugar is often added, but not in this case.

The farang taste test. I could only manage a small portion later for lunch, but yummy.

Gaun then moved onto the papaya salad made from finely chopping unripe papaya growing everywhere in Isaan at the moment. You can’t get them in the markets because everyone has a tree or three.

Gaun preparing the papaya salad. Chop lots of shallow cuts into the surface and then peel off the thin strips.

This is what you end up with. Along with sticky rice, a staple dish on the table.

The essential ingredient to any papaya salad, heaps of freshly crushed small green and red chillies with more lemon juice.

The final addition to the papaya salad is what Thais called “fish dead long time!” and that’s exactly what it is. A commercial fish sauce pales into tasteless insignificance next to this concoction. It is the output of fish fermented for at least 12 months. Best used in open spaces!

Warning – at these levels this is a serious health hazard for unsuspecting farang. Loved by many, though. My brother is provided with a small towel whenever it is included on the dinner menu.

The beef soup, which I didn’t see being prepared.

Fresh vegetables being lightly boiled.

Sweet papaya is super cheap or free and widely available now too. Delicious.

The end result. A happy bunch of farmworkers tucking into an Isaan feast.

The little baskets contain sticky rice. Many people bring their own to a meal.

A smorgasbord. Spring onions being eaten raw.

I hope you have enjoyed this post. It was my first attempt at the cooking side of Thai life when I wrote it back in 2014, and one of the small stories that gives an insight to living a real life here.



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