What can I say about a cuisine which is already wildly popular throughout world? That it is indeed awesome, packed with a punch and is surprisingly easy to cook. I am a huge fan of Thai food and given my recent gourmet craze, it is not surprising that I should opt for a Thai cooking class during my Bangkok layover. Cooking is being lot of fun right now and while I cannot pretend that I learn a lot at the culinary classes, simply pottering around with exotic spices, blends and vegetables provide me with an all sensory nirvana.
My morning class at Maliwan Cooking School had given me all that and it had come along with excellent local fresh market photo moments. I had also received an eloquent class participation certificate and for a person who sets eggplants on fire, while trying to grill them, it had been a very proud achievement. The highlight however, had been the visit to the morning wet market and it had been an overwhelming experience of sights, sounds and aromas. South East Asian wet markets are not for queasy stomachs and although my visit had been timed during the Thai vegetarian month, from skinned frogs, baby eels, odorous roots and pig blood, the cornucopia on sale had been tremendously exotic.
Thai cuisine is famous for its fresh, fragrant crunchiness and their curries are beautifully velvety. The green curry is perhaps one of Thailand’s most popular dishes and their mango with sticky rice is to die for. I also love Paad Thai and my favourite is the fiery Isan cuisine from Northern Thailand. Thailand is a delightfully blessed country and endless coastline to misty hills, the Thai diversity is reflected in its cuisine. Several foreign influences have left deep impressions on Thai cuisine and it is indeed a celebration of texture, flavour and fragrance. My reasons for loving Isan cuisine are plentiful and I love its dark horse approach. While for most people in the world, Thai food starts and ends with tom yum soup, mango with sticky rice and paad thai, Isan food proves just how complex and diverse Thailand’s cuisine can be.
The largest of Thailand’s regions, Isan is bordered by the great Mekong river, Laos and misty hills. While more closely related to Laos from linguistic and cultural points of views, Isan is also one of Thailand’s poorest regions but the headstrong province has never let it dilute its regional pride. Their uniqueness can be felt in every single genre and Isan cuisine is famous for breaking away from regular Thai fare. Crisp, fresh salads or “tams” form the backbone of Isan food and it is heavily based on grilled meats and sticky rice. My best memories of Isan food is from a local restaurant at Khorat (in Isan) and it had been a fiery affair.
The meal had been served from a local buffet, catering to mostly blue collared workers and it had included some exotic eats. Although, the extreme ones like lizards, grasshoppers, silkworms, crickets and dung beetles had not been on the menu that day, frogs and dried, heavily odorous fish had been a part of the buffet. Larb and Nam Tok had been sumptuous side dishes along with cute wicker baskets filled with soft, clumpy sticky rice. Larb is a typical Isan dish made with stir fried ground pork (often with slivers of pig liver), shallots, coriander and mint leaves. Nam Tok had been its chewy version tossed with grilled pork, salty fish sauce, lime juice and crunchy roasted rice. Isan is a big fan of grills and fries and every evening, the province (and rest of Isan food loving regions of Thailand) get enveloped with aromatic, sizzling smoke of barbecuing meat.
Moo Ping (skewers of marinated grilled pork served on the stick with dipping sauce), Gai Yang (chicken grilled on small charcoal stove), Kor Moo Yang (grilled pork neck), grilled Pla Pao (whole gutted salted fish stuffed with pandanus leaves and lemongrass) are most popular Isan quick eats and they make great road trip snacks. Of all the regional dishes, my favourite is Som Tam Khorat and although found all over Thailand, Isan gives it a very unique twist. Made from thin, shredded green papaya, spicy Som Tam Khorat had been tossed with green beans, tomatoes, peanuts, lime, dried shrimp, garlic, chili peppers, fish sauce (pla ra) and palm sugar. The ingredients had been rhythmically pounded together in a stone mortar with a pestle and mine had included small salted crabs. Often green mangoes, dried fish, baby eggplants and live squirming frogs are also mixed into this tangy, sweet and spicy “tam”, thus making this an extreme salad.
Easily distinguishable by bright red cherry tomatoes, my Isan green papaya salad had been fiery, stinky and delicious. Another famous Isan tam is bamboo salad and although, its pungent ingredients had made my eyes water, I had loved its crunchy wholesome texture. Isan loves its fishes and catfish, snakehead, tilapia etc are generously used in its thin fiery soups. They are another Isan staple and the region’s soups contain vegetables, herbs, noodles, chunks of fish, balls of ground pork, or a mixture of all. What makes Isan food so wildly popular among Thais and experimental about foreigners, is its rampant use of exotic ingredients. Pig’s blood, offal, entrails, smelly dried fish, insects etc are commonly used and they impart a special flavour to the dishes. Even, its cured meats are pretty exotic and Isan sausages are very popular all over Thailand.
Named after the region from where it originates, Isan sausage or sai crok is one of Thailand’s favourite street foods. Known for its unique sour taste, Isan sausages are made by fermenting pork and sticky rice. The mixture is then stuffed into casings, which are again fermented for a few days before being cooked and served. The result is a garlicky, sour taste and this evening snack is served with Galam (cabbage), sliced ginger, fresh chilies, lime and peanuts. The best way to enjoy an Isan sausage is to roll it in the cabbage leaf, dip in the sauces, pop in your mouth and enjoy the juicy burst of flavour. Juiciness of Thai dishes are unique and in spite of being mostly watery in consistency, they are the perfect crisp blend of spices, herbs, vegetables and meats. The secret lies in the use of a vast variety of textures of its ingredients and Thai food is a very herb dependent cuisine.
While most of the herbs are not found in the Western countries, they are quite common all across Asia and my morning market visit with Maliwan Cooking School had brought me face to face with some familiar ones. The market had been near the popular backpacker’s hangout of Khao San road and people, smells and baskets of produce had spilled onto the sidewalks. Street food vendors had grilled, fried, tossed and pounded busily and mouth watering aroma of steaming pork buns had filtered through the sunlight. Small time farmers had stooped on the side walks with cane baskets filled with lime, bright coloured chilies, flowers and an incredible variety of herbs. Kaffir lime, Thai lime, galangal, lemongrass, spearmint, pandanus leaves, cilantro, ginger, garlic, turmeric, wild ginger, coriander roots and all kinds of basil had scented the market vividly.
The sunlit depths of the busy produce market had held more scented secrets and I had quickly learned the difference between holy and Thai basil. Morning glory had twined enticingly, feathery acacia had glistened and mimosa had shied at touch. Pennywort, rice paddy herbs, banana flowers, bamboo shoots, coconut roots etc had created spots of edible colour and satiny smooth banana leaves had bounced off sunshine from its surface. The experience had been nothing short of food heaven and the market had been a photographer’s paradise. Lead by Maliwan’s trainer and chef, Jen our little group had meandered in and out of different shops, past baskets of sardines and drums of coagulated pig’s blood. We had shopped, learned, photographed and the morning had been like a teaser of the gastronomical delight, which was expected to follow. By the time our exhausted bunch had returned to school, we had been happy, excited and eager to start cooking.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE