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A hard-charging Stevie Ray Vaughn riff rides off into the night, out of the ramshackle restaurant and into a flat expanse of dirt roads and twisted trees. A drum kit, built around the handlebars of a custom chopper, sits in front of the speakers where Stevie lives on. A crowd of stout, tattooed men and their slender wives, clad in tight black jeans, boots, and tank tops, pick through salads and dig into barbecue. A tattered American flag flaps in the background.
Howdy, y'all. Welcome to Isaan--your correspondent's favorite place to eat.
Mong Saap, the roadside restaurant in question, is run by 56-year-old Bruno Prasit. He was raised on American westerns and cowboys--the cultural fallout from the Vietnam War. (Prasit himself looks like a Native American, with his long gray ponytail and chunky silver jewelry. An eagle in a feathery headdress decorates his bicep. "I admire Native Americans," he says. "Here in Isaan, we all admire the Original Americans.")
Prasit was a drummer in a band in Thai beach towns like Pattaya and Phuket's Patong. But as he got older his hometown pulled him back into its slow, easy embrace. That town, in Thailand's Northeast, is called Yasothorn. And the food there, like the people, is straight-up country.
Yasothorn is also home to Bun Bang Fai, a festival where nearly 100 teams, sponsored by local businesses, compete against each other in an annual rocket contest. Rockets of all sizes--some with up to 250 pounds of gunpowder packed within--are set off a few hundred yards from Mong Saap.
Monks chant. Rocket builders pray. Gamblers bet. Harleys rumble. And morlaam, a trance-inducing blend of folk, rock, and dance-hall rhythms with a lilting Thai streak, screams from speakers for three delightful, drunken days.
I came to write a feature on this cultural phenomenon. And like many places I've passed through in Thailand, I left seduced by the food.
Photo by Jason Michael Lang
On the first day, photographer Jason Michael Lang (who shot this slide show, and is a certifiable expert on things Isaan) and I ate gai yang, or grilled chicken. It is a dish so close to Isaan's heart that in the rocket parade not one but two floats were dedicated in its honor. On the back of a flatbed truck, converted into a village with banana trees and lean-to huts, a real cooking fire with pounded, splayed chickens spattered above the flames. In front of it, a pickup covered in papier mâché was modeled after the mottled birds.
Our own chicken was cooked by a woman who had set up shop in front of a local motorcycle garage, and she grilled them first over a red-hot flame, blistering the black-pepper-rubbed skin, then tented them over slow coals to sizzle and smoke. They were juicy and assertively smoky, marinated in fish sauce, garlic, sugar and coriander root, and served with a ferociously spicy dip. "These are gai baan," literally, house chickens--the free range birds that wander everyone's yard, eating bugs. "You can't get those in Bangkok!" she chuckled.
Many tourists to Bangkok return home with photos of fried locusts and crickets. Some even dare to eat them. In Isaan, a place that has been plagued by drought and famine for centuries, bugs aren't a novelty item. In the morning market, I ate bee larvae, which were nutty and coated in sweet, floral honey.
At Mong Saap, I sat with their employees at closing time, as they fed me a vibrant salad with chili, salt, lime leaf, lemongrass, and something crunchy. I thought I was eating fried cracklings until I looked at my spoon more closely. It was packed with flying ants, bright green and shiny. They were great (but ignorance is still bliss).
This being catfish and rocket country, we thought it proper to try several versions of Exploding Catfish Salad. The dish gets its name from the reaction of the oil, as several handfuls of shredded, smoked catfish meat covered in breadcrumbs are tossed into very hot oil. They turn crisp and flaky in about 20 seconds, and are removed to drain. This crispy fish is then topped with a wild slaw of sour shredded mango, coriander, green onions, sliced shallots, lemongrass, chilies, lime juice and sweet chili sauce. It tends to explode in your mouth.
Three days of feasting couldn't have ended in a better place. Jason and I happened upon the 2009 Annual Rocket Bike Night, a gathering of leather-clad biker gangs from across Northern Thailand. Thai bikers have a gentility that seems almost alien--when they step off their chrome steeds and remove their helmets, they politely wai (bow, with hands in prayer) to their friends. And when two white dudes roll up on scooters, they chuckle, throw an arm around them, and hand 'em a beer.
That night, we sat with riders of all ages, listening to live morlaam bands and exchanging cheers and smiles. We ate slabs of pit-roasted water buffalo, a lean and gamy meat, that was covered in a chili, salt, and garlic crust. The food was free, and the beers were cheap. And the experience, well, that was unforgettable.