8theWorld Dinner #2: An Issan Retreat in Bangkok

Buoyed by the success of the first 8theWorld.com dinner in Manila, I quickly organized another one in Bangkok. This proved to be harder than I first thought. In Manila, Manam was the ideal choice for a dinner because their menu hit a wide swath across Filipino cuisine. In Bangkok, I looked for a restaurant that represented the whole of Thai cuisine. I tried to find one that wasn’t too touristy because I wanted foods that were ‘out-there’ as well those dishes well known outside Thailand. I looked at dozens of choices, only to find that their menus were too narrow or focused on a single type of dish like noodles or seafood, or a specific region in Thailand.

A Thai colleague suggested that I narrow my focus to one region and in a clear case of boosterism suggested Isaan food, because she is from Isaan. It was a great idea. I was already a big fan of som tam (green papaya salad) and laab (a salad of meat and pulverized toasted rice). I was curious about the rest of what Issan had for offer, and a large dinner party seemed like the best way to go.

My colleague sent back a suggested menu; blanched cockles, stir-fried morning glory with crispy pork, Thai hot pot, deep-fried chicken. The only item on the list that I thought was ‘out-there’ was sweet vegetable soup with ant eggs. I asked her to try again, but more ‘out-there.’ And that’s how bugs, or more specifically deep-fried pupa, ended up on the table.

Five new friends joined me for this dinner. All but one were from outside Thailand, and most of us were game enough to try the pupa.

Issan food can be pungent and intense. Even mild dishes such as the grilled tilapia or grilled chicken were accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce.

I was impressed with Baan E-Sarn Mungyos, our restaurant. Located on a quiet Soi near Phrom Phong BTS, the restaurant had a rustic feel, with heavy lacquered wooden chairs and exposed wooden beams. The crowd was a mix of Thai people, some dining with westerners, and quite a few Japanese tourists. One of my guests was from Isaan, and she was impressed with the authenticity of dishes and ingredients. I was delighted with the prices, with most dishes costing between $3 and $8 dollars.  

This is what we ate.

Grilled Tilapia with Fresh Vegetable and Spicy Sauce

The fish was delicate and flaky with a sweet taste, not at all muddy. We ate this dabbed with spicy sauce and wrapped in fragrant leaves (cabbage, basil, and more).  

Steamed Blanched Cockles with Dipping Sauce

The cockles were fresh, tender and thankfully sand free. Mild in taste, it pared well with the spicy sweet and salty dipping sauce.

Bamboo shoot with Chilli in Northeastern Thai Style

The bamboo shoots were infused with fresh chilli peppers. This was among the spiciest dishes that we sampled.

Northern Thai Sausage

The pork is fermented giving the sausage a slightly sour and acidic taste. Glass noodles broke up the texture of the sausage meat filling.

Duck Laab

The Laab was prepared with coarsely ground duck meat. Pulverized toasted rice gave the dish a pleasant granular texture.

Papaya Salad (Som Tam)

I was looking forward to the version with raw salted crabs, unfortunately the restaurant didn’t have any when we visited. The platter contained a mound of papaya salad surrounded by sausages, sprouts, beans, fried pork rind and egg.

Grilled Chicken

Tender, juicy, marinated and grilled. Simple and satisfying.

Mushroom Soup

The mushroom soup had a medicinal herbal taste which reminded me of certain Chinese herbal jellies.  

Frogs with Basil

This dish looked like Christmas, but with frogs –red chilis, green basil and tender frog meat (legs and body).

Silkworm Pupa

Silkworm pupa has a crunch like a shrimp shell, but the insides are surprisingly powdery. It is mildly astringent and better than I had expected – my expectations shaped by the time I ordered a plate of chrysalis in Shanghai. That worm shell tasted like acetone, the Thai pupa was much easier on the palate.  

Grilled Pork Neck (Khaw Moo Yang) was the one dish that I was hankering for, but was not available that night. Thankfully, the next night I was wandering around BTS Ari Station and I found a food cart with pork neck (also called pork collar) roasting away.

The smell was so intoxicating I had to sit and eat a dish by myself.

Grilled Pork Neck (Khaw Moo Yang)

Pork neck (or collar) has the advantage of intramuscular fat with less connective tissue than the shoulder. Once marinated, it cooks like a quick steak. Sliced thinly and served with a spicy dipping sauce, the dish is amazingly meaty and satisfying.

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