Isaan (variably Isan or Issan) refers to the region and culture of northeast Thailand, the area bordering Laos. Mass migration of Isaan people to cities such as Bangkok and further afield have meant the spread of the Isaan cuisine, too. And how lucky we are for that: Isaan cuisine is a wonderful thing, hinging on the balance between sweet, sour, salty, savoury and spicy tastes, with freshness and texture at the fore. Most Thai restaurants in Auckland will feature at least a few Isaan-influenced dishes on the menu, and there are a few specialists in the field. Here's my pick of five Isaan dishes to get your taste buds doing a happy dance:
SOMTUM PHU PLARAH
Saan changed the face of Thai cuisine when it opened two years ago. Resolutely aiming to put the authenticity back into the description "authentic", Chef Wichian (Lek) Trirattanavatin's menu is centres on both Northern (Lanna) and Isaan cuisines and recipes and techniques learned from his grandmothers. Somtum is perhaps the most ubiquitous Isaan dish, a combination of shredded green papaya, green beans, tomatoes, garlic, chillies, pounded with a tangy dressing and served with the Isaan staple sticky rice (khao niao). In this version, phu plarah (fermented blue crabs) are added to the mix -- and Lek encourages diners to get in there and suck out the juices to get the full experience.
GAI YARNG WICHIAN
I've chosen a second dish from saan because they're the only restaurant offering this classic street food -- marinated grilled chicken thigh - cooked in the traditional way. At saan it's grilled over eucalyptus and longan charcoal, the flames encouraged with a bamboo fan. The marinade varies depending on the preferences of the cook, and can include garlic, white pepper, palm sugar, ground coriander, lemongrass and fish sauce. Found all over Thailand, served up from streetcarts along with somtum and sticky rice, it's the quintessential Isaan meal enjoyed at any time of day - just follow the aromatic wafts of grilling chicken to get your fix.
Chopped pork, pork skin and glutinous rice are robustly seasoned with garlic and chilli then fermented in ceramic pots to make the Isaan sausage naem - traditionally not sold in casings but wrapped in banana leaves, and eaten raw (although the fermentation is a kind of "cooking"). The flavour is quite pungent; it's sour and spicy. At E-Sarn in Albert St's Food Alley, the sausage meat is tossed through shredded vegetables and served with fresh herbs, chunks of raw cabbage and a basket of sticky rice. Yum refers to tossed salad-like preparation, they're big on the Isaan repertoire and on E-Sarn's extentive Isaan-focused menu.
AT ZAP 2
Nam tok, a salad with grilled strips of meat, may be made with chicken, pork or beef, but it's beef that Zap 2 co-owner Payao (Yao) Chomkhunthod reckons is best. Yao should know, she has proudly owned and operated Thai restaurants in Auckland for the past 22 years. Her restaurant Zap 2 features some of the dishes Yao learned to cook from her mum - she was born in a small village and grew up in the Isaan capital Udon Thani. A good nam tok should feature beef that has been slapped quickly on a super-hot grill, redolent with smoky flavours, and served quickly so that it hasn't soaked in the salad dressing too long. Mopped up with sticky rice of course.
There are several stalls at the Avondale Sunday Markets offering freshly made Isaan Thai snacks and sweets. This stall, closer to the Ash St entrance end of the market, sells pork and chicken crackling, soi krok (Isaan sausage), beef balls to use for noodle soup, and punnets of a dish called plalasup - which you won't find anywhere else in Auckland. It's minced raw fish, spiked heartily with fish sauce, red chilli, lemongrass and kaffir lime. It's very fiery and fishy and makes a great snack with sticky rice and raw cabbage leaves.
One of my favourite stalls at the Avondale Market boasts a table groaning with snacks and sweets, mostly Isaan specialties made by the Isaan-Thai-Laotian couple who run the stall. They sell packs of their freshly made sausages which are a must-try, loads of coconut-rich desserts, and the most fabulous dumplings - tapioca starch skins filled with a sweet-salty peanut mix. And their version of the ubiquitous minced-meat salad larb is brilliant. They make theirs with roughly chopped, rather than fine-minced, chicken, which makes for a better texture, and the chilli load is pretty hefty too. Grab a punnet and some sticky rice and head somewhere for a heat-packed picnic.