Of all the wonderful things to eat in Thailand, I'm not exactly sure why I'm drawn to stuff from Isaan. But I think it's because of the food's gritty honesty. It's a style of cooking that is exceedingly simple, yet the food tastes paradoxically complex.
Though I'm describing the food, I could be talking about the people there, too. Northeastern Thailand is full of good-hearted, feisty, funny people. The kind of people who wai (bow) deeply and smile sincerely when you show up on their doorstep, and might drink you under the table a few hours later. The kind of people who invite a stranger into their home to cook for a few days, and seem oddly at ease. The sort of people who, when they cook, start by lighting a small fire.
The chilies cooked faster, and as they started to dry the air filled with a sweet, vegetal smoke—just like a pile of leaves burning in autumn.
That's still how most Isaan meals begin—by lighting shards of charcoal or a bundle of brittle sticks in a simple clay pot (or any flameproof vessel, really). This hibachi-like device is called a dao, and for two days in a town called Nong Khai, where the Mekong River fattens on a lazy path to Vietnam, I cooked over one. In these parts, this instrument, a few plastic stools, a tin pot, and a mortar and pestle can make a restaurant.
I was there to develop recipes for the bar and restaurant I plan to open in Bangkok later this year, and which I'll occasionally write about here at the Food Channel. My research brought me to Thew, 31, and her mother, A-Nong, 58. A-nong is well-known in her nearby village, Hua Hat, for her cooking. In Nong Khai, she gently taught me to make her food, occasionally stopping to taste what I'd cooked. Meanwhile, she rocked her two-year-old granddaughter Lily by gently pulling on a rope tied to a crib made of wicker. Lily will hopefully light a dao someday too (though I suspect she might not).
After our fire was lit and the coals were calm and hot, we began by preparing the two most essential dry ingredients in Isaan cuisine: roasted chilies and toasted glutinous rice powder. These (along with fish sauce) form the flavorful backdrop of this cuisine, the canvas cooks splatter with smoky meat, sour fruit, and lively herbs. You might be able to buy both rice powder and roasted chilies in a local Asian store, but I suggest you make your own because it's easy, they will taste better, and the process will draw you in.
I roasted the rice over the coals while stirring and briskly rocking the wok, until the grains started to snap and pop. Soon, some of the dry sticky rice turned brown. As a wisp of smoke appeared and some grains turned black, A-Nong told me to remove the rice from the heat.