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Thai Street Food

Kasma Loha-unchit, Saturday, September 25th, 2010

Thai street food is definitely one of the highlights of a trip to Thailand.

Grilling Fish

Grilling fish at Nong Khai market

Every winter for the past sixteen years, I have been taking small groups of Americans traveling around my homeland. A tour guide I am not, but a friend in food I am, and we literally feast our way around the country. There are only so many times one can visit historical parks, museums and temples before losing interest, but I never tire of taking people on market walks and introducing them to the exceptional delicacies that are only available from street and market stalls.

Chive Dumplings

Chive Dumplings at Don Wai Market

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

On one trip comprised mainly of foodies, every time we made a stop, whether to visit an art gallery or a temple, a number of people in the group quickly disappeared as soon as they got out of the van. I know where to round them up, as they would invariably be found among street stalls, either watching food being cooked or sampling food. You’d think that I don’t feed them enough, but that’s in addition to the three big meals and countless snacks I provide every day. Some of them weren’t even very discrete, causing me worries of them getting sick. But courage they had and plenty of trust in the local herbal pills to overcome stomach problems.

Prepared Food To Go

Prepared street food

Because of the Thai penchant to please, many western tourists miss out on the finest of the country’s cuisine when they limit their food intake to restaurants. Establishments frequented by tourists automatically water down the Thai dishes served to fair-skinned Caucasians. Enough of them through the years have demonstrated that they cannot take the full range of exciting flavors Thais enjoy. Many restaurants translate only those dishes on their menus that they think foreigners like – those sweet, rich foods with little spice.

Roast Duck

Roast duck in Chinatown market

Without a good command of the language to communicate your desires, you can assure yourself of getting real Thai food by dining off the streets, where you are, more frequently than not, treated like everyone else. In the huge metropolis of Bangkok where traffic is horrendous, most working Thais have little time to cook. They purchase ready-made food from sidewalk vendors on their way to work and on their way home from work. Many of these sidewalk operations offer a wide selection of curries, soups, salads and desserts in huge pots and trays. From them, you may be able to get some fine, home-cooked food untempered for tourists.

Street Food Sweets

Street food sweets at Chatuchak

Note from Michael: Although many westerners claim the best food in Thailand is street food and although you can get fantastic food on the street, Kasma does maintain that the very best Thai food is to be had in excellent restaurants, if you know how to order. Two of our particular favorites are Reun Mai (in Krabi) and My Choice (in Bangkok). However, as Kasma mentions, there are some foods  found almost exclusively at street food (such as the chive dumplings in the second picture, above).

Check out information on Kasma’s trips to Thailand.

We have many more posts on street food:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, September 2010.

Mithapheap (was Sontepheap) Market in Oakland

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, August 6th, 2010

The Cambodian market formerly called Sontepheap is now called Mithapheap and is found in Oakland, on International Avenue at 14th Avenue, is a great Southeast Asian market.

(Note: this blog was updated on 12 June 2012 to reflect the name change from Sontepheap to Mithapheap Market.)

Mithapheap Market

The Mithapheap storefront

Oakland doesn’t have a Thai Town like L.A. Neither does it have any Thai market. Whenever I need the the hard-to-grow and hard-to-find fresh herbs and vegetables I am used to eating and cooking with back in Thailand, I head for Mithapheap (renamed from Sontepheap in early 2012). The store is small but packed with many interesting things. It is run by a friendly couple – Yun (short for Yunita) and Sam, – who both speak fluent English. Usually one of them is there behind the check-out stand and they are more than happy to help new customers find things in the store.

Plants

Plants for sale at Mithapheap

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

During the summer and early fall, when the weather is warm, Mithapheap is a great place to visit for people missing the exotic flavors they’ve experienced in Southeast Asia. Sam makes frequent trips to growers he knows in Modesto and brings back a truckload each time of fresh produce seldom seen in other Southeast Asian markets in the area, such as pea eggplants, winged beans, the beloved cha-om (which always sells out within a day or two!), lemon basil, holy basil, ivy gourd leaves (bai dtam leung in Thai) and the very nutritious drumstick tree leaves (moringa or marum, in Thai). The store also carries numerous frozen and bottled herbs and vegetables imported from Thailand, as well as precious items such as salted crab needed for making a delicious som dtam (green papaya salad), the bitter sadao (neem) flower buds that are so good with nahm bplah wahn sauce and grilled catfish, the yummy sun-dried mudfish (blah chon daed diow) and pilot fish (bplah salit daed diow), and one of my favorite ready to cook preserved fish – bplah som – a sour fish made similarly as sour sausages.

Mithapheap Market

Produce aisle inside Mithapheap Market

Moreover, the store sells many freshly made snacks similar to ones found in markets in Thailand, which I love to buy for my students to sample. Below are pictures taken during a recent visit to the store, showing a vast array of exotic Southeast Asian produce and other food items one can acquire there. But because some of the rarer items are sometimes hard to come by, if you are searching for something particular, call ahead and ask if they have it in stock before you make a trip there. It may be there one day but gone the next.

Yun and Jackfruit

Yun cutting a large jackfruit

If you are out that direction, there are two other markets worth visiting: the Lao International Market and Maykong Market. Both are smaller than Mithapheap and just two blocks further down on International Ave between 16th and 17th Aves. The latter is a tiny store, but sometimes I find very fresh herbs and produce there that are particular to Cambodian and Thai cooking.

From International Ave (which is the old East 14th Street), take a jog a street over to East 12th Street and head on to Sun Hop Fat at 5th Ave. Unlike the three small markets mentioned earlier, it is a supermarket-size Vietnamese store that we recommend to students because it carries a large number of fresh produce and packaged food products used in Thai cooking. It also has large freezers carrying a large variety of seafood products and frozen snacks from Southeast Asia.

(Note: I took all the pictures in this article except the first one.)


Sam Behind Counter

Sam at checkout counter

Produce

Produce for sale!

Sam (to left) and Yun (above right) are the owners of Mithapheap. The produce in the picture to the right includes, from front to back: galanga, turmeric, ginger, Thai eggplants, Thai chillies and home-made coarse-ground toasted rice in the shadows in the back.

Banana Blossoms

Banana blossoms, kaffir lime leaves

Vegetables

More hard-to-find vegetables

To the left we see banana blossoms (for salads and dips) and packaged kaffir lime leaves. to the right we see baby watermelon (used as a squash in some sour curries), bagged cha-om and bitter melon.

Winged Beans

Very fresh winged beans

Kaffir Lime Leaves

Kaffir lime leaves

Winged beans are a treat to find: Thais use them in wing bean salads, often of the yum (a type of spicy and sour salad) variety. Kaffir lime leaves, critical in many Thai dishes, are always a challenge to find in the U.S.

Holy Basil

Holy basil

Lemon Basil

Lemon basil

Holy basil is another hard-to-find Thai ingredient. It is used in many dishes, particularly dishes such as Spicy Basil Pork (Moo Pad Gkaprow) (see my recipe for Spicy Basil Chicken(Gkai Pad Gkaprow)). Some dishes, such as Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Stir-fry) just are not the same without holy basil. And Lemon Basil is a real find if you are making a soup such as Golden Pumpkin Coconut Soup with Lemon Basil (Gkaeng Liang Fak Tawng) that requires it.

Sawtooth Coriander

Sawtooth coriander

Ivy Gourd Vines

Ivy gourd vines

Two more hard-to-find items. Sawtooth coriander is a great accompaniment to the northeastern salads called lahb (or larb), such as my Northeastern-style Spicy Minced Chicken Salad (Lahb Gkai). Ivy gourd vine (pak dtam leung) is used in salads and stir-frys.

Curry Leaves

Curry leaves

Fresh Baby Corn

Fresh baby corn

Canned baby corn is just no substitute for recipes that call for baby corn!

Drumstick Tree

Drumstick tree (moringa)

Green Papaya

Green papaya

For more information on drumstick tree or moringa, see my blog Moringa (Marum). Green papaya is used to make Green Papaya Salad (Som Dtam).

Green Mangoes

Young tart green mangoes

Wild Pepper Leaves

Wild pepper leaves

Young green mango is used to make salads, such as my easy-to-make Sliced Tart Crisp Green Mango with Chillies and Salt (Mamuang Yam Prik Gkap Gkleua). Wild pepper leaves (bai cha plu), used to make Miang Kam (Tasty Leaf-Wrapped Tidbits), are often confused with betel leaves (in the next picture). (See my recent blog: Miang Kam uses Bai Cha Plu NOT Betel Leaf (Bai Plu).)

Areca Nut

Areca nut, betel leaves

Pickels

Home-made pickles

To the left are dried, sliced areca nuts and betel leaves for wrapping the nut and chewing as a stimulant. To the right are home-made pickles in the refrigerator at the market.

Sour Fish

Sour fish from Thailand

Sour Sausage

Sour Cambodian sausages

Here are two different types of fermented products. To the left is bplah som – sour fish from Thailand (found in the freezers). To the right are sour Cambodian meat sausages.

Sour Sausage

Sour Thai Sausage

Sweet Treats

Thai sweet treats

To the left is another type of sour sausage (naem) from northern Thailand. To the right are some refrigerated sweet treats (kanom wahn). (See Michael’s blog on Thai Sweet Snacks – Kanom Wahn.)

Yun

Yun behind counter

Ready-made Meals

Ready-made meals

To the left is Yun behind the counter with an assortment of fresh-made sweet snacks in front. The ready-made meals on the right include kanom jeen rice noodles with salads and curry sauce, and grilled spicy fish wrapped in banana leaves.

Mangosteen

Mangosteen and durian cakes

Shelved Jars

Shelves of various items

To the left are fresh mangosteens in net bags on top of cylindrical packages of durian cakes on the checkout counter. To the right are shelves packed with a large assortment of bottled herbs, vegetables and fruits, such as banana blossoms, tamarind leaves, young green peppercorns, cassia leaves, water mimosa, lotus stems, turmeric, galanga, star gooseberries and more.

Sticky Rice Steamers

Sticky rice steamers

Mortars and Pestles

Mortars and pestles

Here we see sticky rice steamer baskets in the cookware aisle. (See my recipes: Steamed White Sticky Rice (Kao Niow Neung) and Coconut-Flavored Sticky Rice with Mangoes (Kao Niow Ma-muang).) To the right are baked clay and large palm wood mortars and pestles for making green papaya salad. (See my blog on the Mortar & Pestle.)


Mithapheap Market
1400 International Blvd., #C
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 436-3826
Lao Market
1619 International Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94606
(510) 536-5888
 
May Kong
1613 International Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94606
(510) 261-7630
Sun Hop Fat 1 Supermarket
501 East 12th Street
Oakland, CA 94606
(510) 763-8888

See also:


All photos copyright 2010 Kasma Loha-unchit.

Miang Kam uses Bai Cha Plu NOT Betel Leaf (Bai Plu)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, July 25th, 2010

There seems to be much confusion and misinformation in western culinary publications and in the food pages of major newspapers about the alleged culinary use of betel leaf, called bai plu in Thai and Lao; bai = leaf, plu = name of the leaf. We do not use it in Thai cuisine and it’s wrong to say that it is the leaf used to wrap a common Thai snack called miang kam.

Betel Leaves

Betel leaves - bai plu

In most of Southeast Asia, the betel leaf is used largely for the chewing of areca nut (erroneously called “betel nut” by colonialists) and as a medicinal herb. It has a very intense taste – bitter, hot, and unpleasantly medicinal – and can numb the tongue. Such a strongly flavored leaf would be far from the leaf of choice among sensible cooks for wrapping the tasty tidbits in miang kam; It would only ruin the intricate balance of flavors of such a delightful Thai snack.

Bunch of Bai Cha Plu

A bunch of bai cha plu

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

The leaf used in wrapping miang kam is instead the “wild pepper leaf” – bai cha plu in Thai and Lao. Like the betel leaf, it is a member of the pepper genus (botanically, “Piper”) and. therefore, the two are related but far from being the same, just as lemons and oranges are different fruits though both are citrus. The botanical name of betel leaf is “Piper betel,” often spelled “Piper betle,” which gives it its common name, whereas the edible leaf with culinary uses is “Piper sarmentosum”. It would be more accurate to call the latter “wild pepper leaf” rather than “wild betel leaf” as it is sometimes called (again wrongly just as is the case with areca nut) since it has little to do with “betel” other than being in the same large “Piper” family with many other prominent relatives. Doing so only confuses aspiring cooks interested in learning to prepare Thai, Lao and Cambodian cuisines who end up buying the wrong leaf to use.

Plu or “betel” is a woody evergreen vine that prefers growing on high ground since it dislikes wet soils, whereas cha plu is a herbaceous creeper that naturally grows along streams in lowland forests, preferring damp soils. This difference already sets the two plants a world apart. Besides, I believe the origins of the two differ – “betel” is native to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, whereas cha plu‘s home is the tropical heartland of Southeast Asia. The reason for the confusion between the two, aside from the improper naming by western sources, stems from the similar shape and color of the leaves and the difficulty of telling which is which from a distance. Both have large, glossy, deep green, heart-shaped leaves. But when the two are placed side by side, the differences are apparent. bai plu is much larger, thicker, tougher and more leathery with a smoother appearance, while bai cha plu is thinner, more tender and has much more veining in-between the main vertical lines giving it a crinkly appearance (see pictures below for comparison).

Bai Cha Plu

Bai cha plu

Bai Plu - Betel Leaf

Bai plu - betel leaf

Sweet Potato Leaf

A type of sweet potato leaf

(This is a leaf of a type of sweet potato – don’t mistake it for bai cha plu!)

Because of their similar appearance, even some Thais can confuse one for the other if shown just one leaf. For this reason and the way it is cultivated and harvested, bai plu or betel leaf is almost always sold as single leaves, occasionally bundled together with a strip of the outer covering of banana stem. In fresh, open-air marketplaces in Thailand, it is usually found in the “smoke shop” – i.e., the stall that sells fresh or dried areca nuts and tobacco. Seldom is it ever found among vegetables at fresh produce stalls. Bai cha plu, on the other hand, is always sold still attached to a stem in the company of several other leaves and is sold in bunches alongside other vegetables (see picture, below, of vegetable stall in Sukhothai market).

Vegetable Vendor

Vendor, bai cha plu to right

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the two leaves are sold in a similar fashion as above. Betel leaves can be found in single leaves in a large bag, usually near dried areca nuts (yes, there are Southeast Asian immigrants here who still chew them as a stimulant) or the checkout stand and you can buy one or as many leaves as you wish, while “wild pepper leaves” are sold still attached to stems (usually the terminal ends of young vines) and most often, already packaged in plastic bags. At $7 to $20 a pound, depending on availability, it’s hard to confuse it with a common and much cheaper summer vegetable (a kind of sweet potato leaves – see picture, above) which comes in large bunches with similar-shaped but thinner, smaller and non-shiny leaves at 99 cents a pound.

Miang Kam For Sale

Packaged Miang Kam sets

The Thai name cha plu is a recognizable one to Lao and Cambodian shopkeepers, so you can ask them to verify whether you are buying the right leaves. In the East (San Francisco) Bay where I live, I have no trouble finding cha plu in three Oakland stores during the warmer months of the year – Sontepheap on International Blvd. and 14th Ave, Sun Hop Fat on East 12th Street at 5th Ave, and occasionally bulk at the Laos International Market on International between 16th and 17th Aves. During the winter and early spring when the weather is still quite cold, this tropical vegetable may be hard to come by and has to be shipped in from Hawaii.

Yum Sadet Salad

Yum sadet salad

Bai cha plu has become so closely associated with Miang Kam that among Thais it is frequently given the nickname bai miang (bai = leaf), although another tasty, large and fairly thick, oblong leaf called bai tonglang is also used for this snack. The latter, however, is now rarely available as fewer growers cultivate it. Besides Miang Kam, cha plu accompanies many kinds of spicy salads as a wrapper since its size, resilience and peppery flavor make it a good leaf for this purpose. Among them is the delicious and fiery hot yum sadet pictured here from Reun Mai restaurant in Krabi – a mixture of shrimp, fried cashews, fried dried cuttlefish, chopped ginger, lemon grass, Thai chillies, chopped lime with peel, shredded green mango and other ingredients that combine perfectly to set off the fuse for a big explosion of flavor in the mouth, the bai cha plu adding both flavor and texture.

Miang Takrai

Miang Takrai, Sudapon restaurant

Another salad pictured here – Miang Takrai (Lemongrass Miang) – comes from the charming Sudapon restaurant in Trang – a sweet-and-sour combination of myriad chopped ingredients and featuring thinly sliced lemon grass and sweet shredded dried pork. There are other miang’s, too, that sometimes use bai cha plu as one of the leaves for wrapping, such as the miang bplah tu shown below from one of my classes, consisting of a tossed salad of finely shredded cooked “bplah tu” (a favorite, small mackerel plentiful in the Gulf of Thailand), slivered ginger, sliced lemon grass, sawtooth coriander, green onions, and a hot-and-sour dressing made with chopped Thai chillies and lime juice, to be wrapped in a leaf (either bai cha plu or lettuce) along with toasted shredded coconut, roasted peanuts and cilantro. Indeed a delicious combination! and a complete meal in itself served chilled on a hot summer day!

Miang Plah Too

Miang Bplah Tu

Bai cha plu is also shredded up as one of the vegetables in southern Thailand’s well-loved rice salad (kao yum) and cooked in whole leaves as a vegetable in pungent curries with chicken, shrimp or snails, where the leaves impart a distinctive flavor and aroma. cha plu is loaded with antioxidants and recent research indicates that it is protective against several kinds of cancer, including cancer of the lungs throat, stomach, intestines and bladder. It is rich in beta-carotenes, which the body can convert into valuable vitamin A if eaten along with good fats needed to store and transport this fat-soluble vitamin. In the case of a curry, the coconut milk provides the necessary fat. bai cha plu, however, does contain a fair amount of oxalates, which need to be offset by eating it with sufficient protein such as the seafood or other meats in a curry, and by drinking lots of water to flush out the oxalates from the body.

Betel Nut Sets

Betel nut sets with rolled betel leaves

As for betel leaf, I know of no culinary use for this strong-tasting leaf with known stimulant qualities. Some sources here in the Bay Area say the Vietnamese use it for wrapping meats for grilling, but when I ask recent immigrants from Vietnam, I am told the leaf used for this purpose is not the betel leaf, but the “wild pepper leaf”. They all tell me that betel leaf is only used for the chewing of areca nut and for medicinal purposes and that it is much too strong and stimulating for consuming as a vegetable. In fact, a Cambodian friend told me recently that he once ate a betel leaf and it kept him frazzled most of the day!

In wrapping areca nut for chewing, the betel leaf is not ingested, but spitted out. Betel leaf is a stimulant and so is areca nut, but the stimulant property of both is absorbed through the blood vessels lining the inside of the mouth and not through the digestive tract. Although it has many medicinal benefits and is used in age-old Ayurvedic medicine in India, the unusually higher rate of oral cancer among people who chew “betel nut” has led some scientists to speculate that the betel leaf might possibly be the culprit. In the absence of further studies to prove or disprove this suspicion, it would be prudent to be cautious and avoid eating the betel leaf as a substitute for the nutritious “bai chaplu”. There’s no telling whether it might contribute to the risk of other cancers if it is ingested.

Miang Kam

<em>Miang Kam</em> bite on bai cha plu

In a Thai-language book about 108 myriad Thai vegetables (the number 108 is often used to describe plentiful abundance in varieties), the author is quick to point out that the flavorful bai cha plu with all its wonderful nutritional properties, “often feels horribly slighted” by people who erroneously identify it as betel leaf. Somehow in the West, culinary personalities, like the colonialists before them, are confused. Just as the areca nut has been “slighted” for centuries by being called “betel nut”, the “wild pepper leaf” is likewise being misunderstood as if it is the “betel” leaf. Why is it that the West has such a romanticized notion of the word “betel”?


Of further interest:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2010.

Don Wai Market

Michael Babcock, Saturday, January 16th, 2010

One of our favorite markets in Thailand is Talat Don Wai – Don Wai Market – in in the Sam Phran district of Nakhon Pathom on the banks of the Nakhon Chaisi river.

Dried Fish

Dried Fish

The market remains largely undiscovered by westerners, although it’s a popular market for Thai tourists; usually when we visit at least one Thai tour group comes through. It’s It’s actually very close to Bangkok – about a 30 to 40 minute drive for us, most of the time. I have no idea how to get there by public transportation, although a Bangkok Post article says that there’s a BTS station slated for Bang Khae, apparently quite close. It’s associated with a temple, I believe of the same name, and located directly next to it, right on the river.

Mussels and shrimp, ready to eat

Mussels and shrimp, ready to eat

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

We visit at least once every year; we always bring Kasma’s mom along (which means I don’t get to take too many pictures, as I wheel her mom along in a wheel chair). I like that everything here is geared for Thai people; I’ve seldom seen another westerner here.

The market is noteworthy for a number of things. There’s a very good selection of dried fish and all kinds of prepared seafood, both fish, crustacean and mollusk: one of these consists of smaller, whole fish floating in a dark sauce called tom khem.

Cooking ducks

Cooking ducks

You’ll see a lot of duck here; from roast duck to a Chinese-style duck stew called ped phalo. On our visits we always eat at a restaurant on a deck by the river that sells great duck noodles; and we always get a serving of the fried fish cakes (tawd man) that’s found sizzling in the wok on the entryway in.

As you enter the market from the parking lot, you go through a section with fresh produce, some very good-looking fresh fruit. We’ve bought pomelo (som-oh) here as well as jack-fruit. You then enter a section that has dried fish, prepared food and vendors making various Thai kanom (snacks) right there. We always get some delectable kanom paeng jee (grilled coconut cakes). There’s a vendor in this section that has great bplah som (fermented fish) that we take home and fry up crispy.

Grilled coconut cakesGrilled coconut cakes

The next section has lots of dried fruits, snacks of various kinds, coconuts of various kinds, including some species that are considered medicinal, and  also a stall with lots (and I do mean LOTS) of stewed ducks. One year we came here around New Year’s and even with the huge pots they have, there were very few ducks left.

At the end of this section there’s the path to the restaurant we like – when we’ve gone there’s always been a young woman out front frying up the fish cakes.

I won’t say much more: I’ll let some photographs from our visits here give some sense of the color and variety, although there’s so much more to see than I can include here.The best thing to do is to go there yourself. Make sure you’re hungry because you will definitely be tempted! Be sure to click on the pictures to see a larger version.

Ready-to-eat food

Ready-to-eat food

More delicious cooked food

More delicious cooked food

These pictures show some of the delectable already-cooked food available at Don Wai. You never really need to cook in Thailand – there’s always something delicious available.

Crabs

Crabs

Fish Dish

Fish Dish

Seafood is one of the highlights of the market. On the left are some very fresh crabs. The left picture is of a ready-to-eat fish called tom khem.

Chilli Sauces

Chilli Sauces

Young Coconut

Young Coconut

There’s a well-kept secret in Thai cooking – nahm prik; on the left is a woman selling these pre-made chilli pastes (both wet and dry) that can transform simple ingredients into a one-dish meal. And no Thai market is complete without young coconut, a refreshing drink at all times.

Restaurant Sign

Restaurant Sign

Making fish cakes

Making fish cakes

Whenever we visit Don Wai market we eat duck noodles at this riverside restaurant. You’ll recognize it by the sign (it’s to the right, riverside, as you stroll the aisles) and also by the huge wok out front, usually with someone frying up delicious fish cakes.

Duck Noodles

Duck Noodles

A plate of fish cakes

A plate of fish cakes

These photos show what we often have for lunch at the riverside restaurant.

Sweets

Sweets

There are a wide variety of sweets (kanom wahn) available at Don Wai, as at all Thai markets. (See Michael’s blog on Thai sweet snacks.) They range from Thai coconut treats to Chinese sweets such as these.


Readers of this blog know that we love to visit markets in Thailand. We’ve blogged already on two of our favorites:


Written by Michael Babcock, January 2010

Isahn (Isaan) Impressions

Michael Babcock, Saturday, December 5th, 2009

I’ve only travelled extensively to Isahn (or Isaan) – Northeastern Thailand – one time. Here are some thoughts and impressions.

Grilled sticky rice in Loei

Grilled sticky rice in Loei

Kasma will be in Khon Kaen in Northern Thailand on the day this is published. She’s leading one of her small-group trips to Thailand to Isahn (Northeastern Thailand); this is the first time she’s led the Isahn trip since 1998. How I wish I were on it!

In December 2004, Kasma and I took an exploration trip up there along with our driver, Sun; at the time she was thinking of doing another NE trip and wanted to see how things had changed since her previous trip in 1998. I had travelled quite extensively in other parts of Thailand with Kasma so was curious to see what Isahn was like, particularly since you meet people from the northeast all over Thailand.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Kanom jeen noodles in Korat

Kanom jeen noodles in Korat

Isahn is one of the poorer regions in Thailand. That’s one reason you meet so many people from there throughout Thailand – they have to leave their homes to make a living. Just one example is the woman who sells kanom krok (grilled coconut rice-cakes) at Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo) on weekends. (I’ve written about her in Siripon, Maker of Kanom Krok.) She has come to Bangkok with her husband to sell street food and send money home while their children are raised by the grandparents.

Serving green papaya salad

Serving green papaya salad

When we travelled there in December 2004, it seemed much less tropical than the rest of Thailand. Much of the land has been deforested so it is certainly not as lush as the south and central regions.

As always, anywhere in Thailand, some of my most vivid memories are of the markets and the food. Every town seemed to have a bustling, lively market, often with some things I don’t notice elsewhere (such as grilled sticky rice on a stick, rats). One of my favorite memories was eating kanom jeen at a market in Korat. Kanom jeen are a type of fermented rice noodle, eaten all over Thailand but especially popular in the northeast. You’ll find a vendor in nearly every market – you can choose from any number of different toppings to put on the noodles.

BBQ chicken in Loei

BBQ chicken in Loei

Another lasting impression is just how very spicy-hot Isahn people can eat. Although I couldn’t eat very hot at all when I first met Kasma, over the years I’ve learned to enjoy food that I think is very spicy. At an early stop on our trip, we were ordering Green Papaya Salad (Som Dtam), one of the best know dishes from Isahn, and the vendor asked if I could eat spicy. Kasma said I could and told him to make it “regular.” Well, their regular is off my spice scale! Their regular is incendiary! Som dtam and barbecued chicken (gai yang) were two of our staples throughout Isahn.

This trip was also the first time I ate bplah som – sour fish. It’s fish that is mixed with salt, garlic and cooked rice and then left out to ferment (sour). After a few days, it’s fried up crispy and has a delightful, sour flavor that’s hard to describe.

Detail at Khmer ruin

Detail at Khmer ruin

During our trip we visited a number of Khmer-style ruins. Throughout history, much of the area has gone back and forth between the Khmer of Cambodia and Thailand. The ruins are reminiscent of Angkor Wat, although much smaller; on the other hand, we had many of the ruins nearly to ourselves. On this trip, we did not visit Phimai, perhaps the best known of the Khmer ruins in Thailand, or Phanom Wan, both in Korat. We did visit are Prasit Puay Noi in Khon Kaen and several ruins is Surin province: Prasat Hin Wat Sa Kamphaeng Yai and Prasat Sikhoraphum.

Mukdahan Rock Formation

Mukdahan Rock Formation

One more interesting feature in the north east would be the unusual rock formations. Many of them feature rocks perched on the tops of other rocks in quite improbable positions. Phu Phra Baht Historical Park in Nong Khai. In Mukdahan there’s Phu Pha Theup National Park, a hilly, rocky plateau with fabulous mushroom-shaped rock formations. There’s also Sao Chaliang in Khong Jiam. We spent many hours wandering around these natural areas.

Ceramic boat in Ubon Ratchathani

Ceramic boat in Ubon Ratchathani

Of course there are numerous temples. Isahn, more than the rest of Thailand, remains more traditional Buddhist. Young men here are more likely to ordain at some point in their lives, a traditional practice once followed throughout Thailand. The temples range from more traditional ones, to forest monasteries (Wat Pah Pong, established by Ajahn Chah, is found in Ubon Ratchathani province) to less traditional, such as the temple built entirely from ceramics – Wat Bahn Na Meuang in Ubon Ratchathani.

Weaving Village near Galasin

Weaving Village near Galasin

Then there’s the weaving. Traditionally, nearly every village had an area where the women would get together to weave, cotton or silk. Although much of the weaving activity has disappeared there are still many outstanding weaving stops in the north east, from Mukdhadan to Khong Kaen to the Thasawang co-op silk village in Surin. For more on weaving in the NE, see Kasma’s blog entry:

Making spring roll wrappers

Making spring roll wrappers

There was so much more. Fabulous dragons at temples; hieroglyphics that are thousands of years old; a factory where they make gongs (we got to watch the tuning process, which involved a lot of banging!); watching them make spring roll wrappers at Sri Chieng Mai in Nong Kai.

Such a rich region! Suggestions for travel: if you go on your own, do your research before you go so you know where to go. One possibility is to use the itinerary for Kasma’s NE trip as a starting point – she’s already scouted out many of the best places. Plan to drive: either renting a car on your own or renting a car with a driver – it’s a big region and you’ll log a lot of kilometers getting from place to place.

Checking the tone of a gong

Checking the tone of a gong

Although we don’t have another trip to the NE planned, Kasma will probably do another one at some point. If you would like to be contacted when we do schedule a trip, please contact Kasma.

I’ve barely scratched the surface. For more, check out:


Written by Michael Babcock, December 2009.

Delights of Thai Street Food

Kasma Loha-unchit, Saturday, June 13th, 2009

“Thailand is one big open-air kitchen!” exclaimed a friend and cooking student as he summed up his impression of a country so overflowing with an abundance of street and market foods. Indeed, for the curious and the adventurous food-loving traveler, the festive ambience and irresistible sights and scents of foods of all description, cooking to perfection along the sidewalks and in bustling open-air bazaars – and even on wooden boats paddling around canals – stand out among the most lasting memories.

Southern-fried Chicken

Southern-fried Chicken

Feasting one’s way around Thailand is a very easy thing to do, even for someone on a shoestring budget. The only requirements are an adventurous spirit, courage to disregard health authorities back home and a good sense of judgment to make wise selections from among an overwhelming number of vendors and hawkers. 

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Foods hot off the grill, frying pan or steamer, wrapped and roasted in leaves, cooked to order in boiling hot broths, or tossed in woks surrounded by leaping flames, are surely safe to eat. Plenty of garlic and chilies serve as natural antiseptics and, when you do get the occasional run and tummy ache, drink plenty of refreshing coconut juice and munch on the creamy flesh of fresh coconuts, which work wonders in returning your GI tract to normal. 

Snacks in Banana Leaves

Snacks in Banana Leaves

Your rewards are heavenly delicious morsels enough to make you sweat with pleasure and a dose of soulful appreciation when the exchange is consummated with a smile of content. For nothing can endear you more to the people of this land than your willingness to try and your ability to partake of the same foods they do.

Besides, sitting on rickety stools at worn-out tables, shaded by brightly colored tarps or oversized parasols, immerses you in the very heart of everyday Thai culture. It’s a great setting to people-watch, to mingle and rub shoulders with natives from all walks of life and, perhaps, to strike up a friendship of a lifetime. At the same time, you are entertained by dramatic cooks and may even gain a precious cooking lesson at no extra charge. The invigorating atmosphere, the piping hot food exuberant with flavors, the mouth-watering aromas and much more, add up to an exotic experience you won’t likely forget for a long time to come.

Street Food Tables

Street Food Tables

Indeed, on one of the travel groups I led through my homeland, seventy-five meals and countless snacks later, one woman insisted that the most memorable dining experience in her life would have to be the extended breakfast we had at one of the rural floating markets. 

That meal started off while we were being paddled around in a small wooden boat, gliding from one boat vendor to another, sampling sweet and savory coconut rice hotcakes, fried bananas, grilled pork on skewers, grilled coconut pancakes, pan-fried mussel cake and leaf-wrapped and taro-stuffed sticky rice roasted over charcoal. Those were just the appetizers for this early morning nibbling affair. 

Grilled Coconut Pancakes

Grilled Coconut Pancakes

Later, we sat on low wooden stools on the steps of the boat landing, slurping on hand-held bowls of hot-and-sour noodles, while watching the noodle maker in the wooden row boat churn out effortlessly one bowl after another of delicious noodles. In the background, colorful boats hawking fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables and a tempting array of other snacks paddled by endlessly to complete the picture.

Just as if all that wasn’t enough, later the same morning, we stopped by another town with a wonderful open-air marketplace. Stalls upon stalls offered up, among other things, sensational sticky rice roasted in bamboo, lusciously sweet jackfruit, crispy grilled pork chips, spicy fried fish cakes with cucumber relish, exceptional pork-stuffed dumplings, superb duck soup noodles, tasty grilled turmeric chicken, perfect golden ears of charcoal-roasted corn and marvelously nutty fried grasshoppers. She only wished she had a stomach large enough to sample them all! 

Making "Boat" Noodles

Making "Boat" Noodles

Though the numerous meals we had at many fine restaurants were exquisite and beyond comparison, it was the delightful experience of eating our way along the streets, canals and marketplaces of Thailand that stood out the most and was preserved in more than its share of colorful photographs – of both the extraordinary food and the smiling faces of the Thai people. 

Grilling Sticky Rice

Grilling Sticky Rice

 So, on your next trip to Thailand, don’t just curiously walk by the countless street and market stalls without succumbing to sweet temptation. After all, Thailand does have cleanliness standards higher than many other developing countries. Use your discretion, be a true gastronomic soldier always ready to eat and have an experience of a lifetime!

Our website has some articles on street food. Check out One Soi’s Street Food Scene and Thai Fast Food: Crowded Sidewalks and Waterways.


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2009.