• Thailand Travels: Snapshots from the Markets of Isaan

    I’ve spent the past week traveling through Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand, the agricultural heartland of the country. Few tourists make it up this way—Isaan is a long way from Bangkok and the tropical beaches to the west, and there’s little in the way of mainstream attractions in most of the industrial cities and Mekong border towns.

    But the region is a great place to experience a more traditional side of Thai culture—homestays are more common here than hotels—and the food is some of the most complex and intriguing in the whole country.

    The town of Nong Khai, in the northernmost province of Isaan, is best known as a gateway to Laos, which is visible across the Mekong River and accessible via the well-traveled Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Despite its proximity to Laos, the food in Nong Khai is uniquely influenced by the Vietnamese community that settled in the area following the Indochina war in 1950s. The morning market downtown has a huge array of Viet-flavored prepared foods—miniature banh mis, lacy banh xeos and freshly steamed rice flour rolls—mixed in with the bounty of local produce on offer. Here’s a look at some choice picks from the Nong Khai market.*

    * Major thanks to my Thai guide, Tip of Trikaya Tours. Apologies for any transliteration misspellings!

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  • Thailand Travels: A Noodle Dish from Chiang Khan You Need to Know About

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    I’ve spent a good portion of the past week camped out in Chiang Khan, a sweet, sleepy little town in northern Isaan’s Loei province, which borders Laos from across the Mekong River. Chiang Khan is a popular weekend getaway for Thai city-dwellers, famed for its traditional timber houses and the cute trinket-and-food-lined promenade that sets up along the river each night. There’s an abundance of coffeeshops here and plenty of street snacks impaled on sticks (meatballs, dried squid, barbecue chicken) to keep visitors happy.

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    But the real culinary powerhouse of Nong Khai is a diminutive woman named Chi, the namesake proprietor of Chi Kum Man Tong, a small restaurant on a side street that serves several varieties of northern Thailand’s beloved som tum (papaya salad) and a handful of noodle dishes. While noodles aren’t exactly hard to come by in Thailand, Chi makes a dish that’s virtually impossible to find out of Chiang Khan: dong daeng.

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    Essentially Thai spaetzle, dong daeng are thick, short fermented rice flour noodles extruded from a small metal press and boiled to-order. The noodles themselves are a variation of kahnom jeen, a type of fresh, skinny fermented rice noodle you’ll see all over Thailand.

    Chi, a Chaing Khan native, claims to have invented dong daeng—named after the “dancing” motion the noodles make as they cook—some ten years ago, adapting a family recipe that called for bite-sized noodle balls nicknamed “gai muah,” or “chicken heads.” When Chi’s shop started drawing crowds, it took her too long to make the gai muah to order, so she developed the tubular dong daeng instead, which are more efficient to make.

    After the noodles are boiled, they’re tossed, along with a handful of fresh mountain greens, into Isaan’s ubiquitous mortar and pestle and mixed with garlic, chilis, limes, fish sauce and crushed peanuts. The finished product, served room temperature, is a wonderland of flavor and texture: the thick, chewy noodles are offset with crisp-tender greens, and the slight sourness of the noodles dovetails neatly with the tangy juice from the tomatoes and limes.

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    To round out a bigger meal at Chi’s, she borrowed some charcoal grilled meats from the barbecue man who sets up shop across the street in the afternoon: gai yang, chicken pounded flat and painted with a sticky-sweet fish sauce-and-garlic sauce; and miang plaa, a whole Mekong fish stuffed with fresh herbs and coated in coarse salt before cooking.

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    Chi prepared a beautiful selection of accouterments for the fish, including a tray of fresh lettuce and a platter of fresh kahnom jeen and sliced shallots, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. The idea is to systematically eat the entire fish bite-by-bite, in individual lettuce wraps topped with a piece of each sliced accessory. It’s a lot of raw, strong flavors in a small package, but they work together beautifully, proof that even the simplest ingredients can come together as more than the sum of their parts.

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  • Thailand Travels: A Quick Guide to Northern Thai Street Food

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    You don’t see much Northern Thai food on takeout menus in America. Maybe it’s because the flavors of the mountainous, heavily forested region—bitter, spicy, delightfully funky—are harder to translate than the fried noodles and coconut milk curries popular further south.

    Maybe it’s because Northern Thais have a particular fondness for pig offal and blood, sometimes for breakfast. Maybe it’s because the staple of the Northern Thai diet, sticky rice, requires a labor-intensive process of steaming, turning and kneading before it’s ready.

    Portioning out a bushel of sticky rice at Thanin Market in Chiang Mai.

    Whatever the reason, it’s a pity that more people aren’t familiar with Northern Thai food, because it’s some of the most intriguing and satisfying in all of Thailand. Should you have the pleasure of finding yourself in Chiang Mai or its surrounding environs, keep an eye out for these dishes, all available from local markets and street vendors, that capture the taste and spirit of the region.

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  • Laos Travels: A Guide To Laotian Noodle Soups

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    Laotian food isn’t particularly well-known in the States. Many of the flavors are similar to those used in Northern Thai cuisine, but Lao fare tends to be more bitter, more earthy, and less spicy than the food of its neighbors. Still, there’s a lot to love, from the chopped meat salads known as laaps to the hearty meat-and-eggplant stew orlam.

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    Oodles of noodles on display at a market in Vientiene. Dried rice vermicelli at left, and three sizes of of rice-and-tapioca flour khao piak sen noodles, dusted with fresh flour, to the right.

    But the food you’ll encounter most often on the streets—in cities and one-street villages alike—are noodle soups, which are eaten mainly for breakfast and lunch. Noodle soups are their own galaxy here. The variety of noodles alone makes it possible to eat a different kind of noodle soup every day for a week without repeats, and the Lao love of condiments means that every table comes equipped with at least half a dozen different sauces/chilis/vinegars/pickled things to further customize your bowl. Here’s a look at some of the soups to seek out in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane.

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