Our favourite Isaan tours would be tailored for foodies and food lovers with exciting eating options and unlimited opportunities for food exploration. Home to many of Thailand’s iconic dishes Isaan is where they are found at their best with fiery salads, barbecued meats and the accompanying staple of sticky rice. Eating is authentic in Isaan using traditional cooking methods and with no blanding for tourist tastes. This is real Thai food. The Isaan region is also known for its more obscure and ‘extreme’ eats, deep fried insects, and the annual ant egg salad festival, among the many of them. There is something for every palate and we know where to find the best of it. If you fail to find the enthusiasm for local staples, the standard Thai menu is easy to to track down throughout (and there’s a KFC for moments of desperation). Below are just some of the options for food tours in Isaan and Isaan tours will always include an authentic Thai cooking experience (and more extensive cooking classes can be tailored on request).
Carved wood interiors, revolving fans, a rural location next to lakes or maybe rice paddies. Describe one restaurant in Isaan and you’ve often described them all. The restaurant I am describing is the high-end option in Isaan, where menus offer an extensive list of not only Isaan favourites but cuisines from all over Thailand. These restaurants will also double as nightlife in many cases and in the evening hours will come to life with local banter, live music (Thai country and rock) and host groups of local Thais to share big bottles of local beer, rums and whiskys. These restaurants are the expensive eating option in Isaan but remain relatively cheap and 500 Baht will almost guarantee to feed the table. In Nang Rong the Tawan Ngam (or Beautiful Sun) restaurant is our preferred stop for food tours in Isaan, an outdoor restaurant and entertainment complex set on the banks of a lotus flower lake.
For authentic Isaan food it is hard to look past the cheap street food barbecues found dotted throughout rural roadsides. These roadside grills often line main roads of rural towns and are regularly used by through traffic on their way to the larger cities. Som Tam (unripe papaya salad) will be the common staple here pounded in large mortar and pestles with fiery signature Thai flavours. The local Isaan variation is known as “Som Tam Pla Ra” which uses a stronger, pickled fish sauce (Pla Ra) and packs more heat than the better known ‘Som Tam Thai’ found better on tourist menus of Thailand. To complete the table add some sticky rice, snacks of greens and more than not a marinated barbecued chicken (Kai Yang).
As with every town, in every country, Isaan has its own institutions in local eating. In Nang Rong we follow some of the local favourites from generations old shop houses to the new flavour-of-the-month restaurants. Favourites in Nang Rong include a one-dish-only eatery selling a simple but delicious fried noodle dish (Pad Mee Fai Daeng), or my personal obsession the Tom Yum Noodle Soup stand (Kuey Teow Tom Yum) found in a town centre shop front. For a more ‘contemporary’ local experience there is a new themed beach hut restaurant stilted on the edge of a lake where food is served by boat (a touch tacky but the food is hard to beat).
Street food is everywhere in Isaan, from early mornings to late nights, and at almost every roadside there will be snacks to eat on-the-go. There are seemingly endless variations of street food and all again cooked authentically. Early mornings is our preferred time for street food exploration when popular breakfast bites of Moo Ping (pork skewers), Kai Yang (grilled chicken) and various sweet snacks are served to join the breakfast table. Sticky rice is again prominent in street food, not only as a nibble on the side, but commonly prepared in desserts. Khao Lam would be a popular example in Isaan where sticky rice is mixed with coconut milk and sweet beans before cooking inside bamboo stalks over flaming charcoals.
Fresh and wet markets often run central to the local communities sharing all sorts of fresh produce farmed from surrounding areas. This varies from the unique fresh fruits of Thailand to the more obscure Isaan eats such as frog skins or betel nut. The more exciting market experiences come at the weekend with the night markets (Sunday in Nang Rong) and this is often the excitement of the week for many rural folk. Night markets focus more on cooked foods, rather than groceries, and while clothes and trinket shopping is also common at these markets, the majority of stalls will be filled with food. These markets also make great viewing for authentic cooking techniques from the deep frying of insects to the from-scratch making of rice noodles (Khanom Jeen).
The Thai barbecue is a favourite with the younger generations in Isaan, a hands-on eating experience where meats and soups are cooked over a charcoal flamed skillet. The top of the grill is used to barbecue meats while the surrounding edge boils a soup of veg, noodles, meats and egg. Once cooked through the soups and meats are mixed with a tangy chilli dip (nam jim), and are generally washed done with drinks and rural banter. Moo Krata is better found in evening hours (rarely before 5pm) and can be ordered for delivery as meats, ingredients and even cooking stoves are delivered to family homes in the area.
This fiery Thai hot pot is another hands-on eating experience which originates from the Isaan area. This uniquely Thai hot pot comes with a signature infused broth of shallot, lemongrass, chilli, garlic and sweet basil. Similar to Moo Krata it is up to eaters to pick and prepare their own choice of meats, veg and other ingredients and boil them in the central cooking pot. The soup is then served with a side bowl of chilli sauce (Nam Jim) to mix. The Thai hot pot is another popular evening feast with both restaurant and delivery options.