Spicy Thai delight at Khao Yai

(Top to bottom) Fried Chicken with Thai chilli. Simple enough, but still great;Crunchy Tam Tua, similar to the Papaya Salad but with long beans as the main ingredient; and Som Tam combines the four main tastes of Thai cuisine. Pictures: Courtesy of Win Suttidet

Sunday, February 12, 2012

WHEN I travel, there's one thing that I would never miss trying going on a culinary adventure. The food isn't just something to fill up your stomach and give you energy for your travelling activities, they say a lot about the culture of the country you're visiting.

All this while, Thai food, to me, has always just been ... Thai food, that sour and spicy goodness. I learned that there are different types of Thai food, depending on geography and history. I recently had a taste of Isan (Northeastern Thai) cuisine, which has a strong Lao influence from its neighbours.

Isan food is well-known for being spicy and savoury, featuring some fresh herbs and spices to give it that flavourful taste. Isan cuisine is not so well known outside, but is really popular within Thailand.

My local friends spoiled me to a weekend getaway at the Khao Yai Greenery Resort, where I got to try some popular Isan cuisine. The food at the resort was quite overpriced, to be honest but I guess we're paying for the atmosphere. Isan food can be found easily anywhere in Thailand for much cheaper.

Best thing about Isan food is that it's really easy to prepare. Here's a simple guide to some of the most popular Isan food in Thailand that I've tried:

Som Tam (Papaya Salad)

This is perhaps the most renowned of all Isan food. Som Tam, also known as "Papaya Salad", is influenced by a traditional Lao dish, Tam map hoong, which is prepared in a similar way.

This popular Northeastern Thai dish is made of grated unripened papaya, with peanuts, long beans and dried shrimp. Sometimes, salted black crabs are added as well; might I add that the salted black crab is an acquired taste. I'm not too big of a fan of it.

Som Tam combines the four main tastes of Thai cuisine: sour from the lime, spicy from the chillies, salty from fish sauce and some sweetness from palm sugar. Mix them all together and you get this tangy explosion in your mouth that keeps you coming back for more.

Som Tam comes in many different versions. I also tried the crunchy Tam Tua, whose main ingredient is long beans instead of unripened papaya. Love the crunch, but I'd still prefer the original Som Tam.

Larb Gai (Spicy Thai Chicken Salad)

There's so many kinds of salads in Isan culture. It doesn't include dumping canned fruits in a bowl and mix them with melted Vanilla ice cream, like the way we do it in Brunei.

Larb Gai has got to be one of my absolute favourite Isan dish. This dish is popular all throughout Thailand and Laos.

Larb Gai is made from minced chicken, chopped spring onion, chopped mint leaves, shallots, ground Thai chilli, lime juice and of course, fish sauce. It's extremely spicy, but that can easily be fixed if you're not good with spices.The lime juice and the mint leaves in Larb Gai make an exotic and zingy combination. Plus a teeny bit of coriander to add to the aroma.

When eating Larb Gai, I like to enjoy the taste of the mix of the sweet, spicy and sour juice from the mix of all the ingredients, before I gulp it all down.

Fried Chicken with Thai Chilli

The name speaks for itself. You find fried chicken in every culture. In Thailand, however, the chicken is deep fried together with lemon grass, fusing together the intriguing, zingy perfume of the lemon grass with the tender chicken meat. Dip it into the sweet Thai chilli sauce, and you get ... delectable goodness tickling your taste buds.

And in this food fest, I learned something else. The food that Thais serve to foreigners, and the food that they have themselves are different, in terms of spice.

The ones that Thais serve to foreigners, which are spicy but bearable; and the ones that they eat themselves, which are burning hot. So spicy, that I was tearing up a little while eating ... for a moment, it felt like I had Angelina Jolie lips. It was quite a culinary experience. I still wonder now, how Thais could handle all that spice.

The views expressed by the author are her own and do not reflect the views of The Brunei Times.

The Brunei Times

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