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.
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.
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. You might want to open a window though or do this on a backyard grill in your wok, because the roasting has a teargas effect as oil is released into the air. When you smell the leafy smell and start to wheeze, grind the chilies in a mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder, or your food processor).
As I sat in the afternoon sun and pounded those dried things into powder, Thew explained that women were once measured by their pestle-work. "In the old days, girls were judged by the sounds coming from their krok (mortar and pestle). If you heard a quick and solid thunk of a pestle on clay—klap-klap-klap—you knew that was a good woman. Marryable."
That afternoon we began with one of my favorites, moo yang naam tok. Meaning "grilled pork waterfall," the words refer to a warm dish of grilled meat, spicy dressing, and herbs. It pairs well with cold beer or whiskey, and it's a brilliant bar snack.
I cut a slab of fatty pork jowl (chops are fine, too), about an inch thick, and marinated it in soy sauce and salt. It is important to grill meats slowly when cooking this way; they remain tender and the smoke suffuses the meat, which doesn't end up sealed by an intense sear. While the pork cooked, I whipped up a dressing with my instructors' help. (This dish is served warm, rather than hot, so as not to wilt the herbs.)
The only way to achieve the balance and complexity needed in Isaan dressings is to taste again and again, and so I did. Many cooks on Thailand's streets will thrust their cheap tin spoon in your face before they finish your papaya or pork salad for the same reason.
The appropriate balance slowly came into focus, like a lens fixing on flavors—a blend of sour lime, nutty ground rice, fruity-hot chilies, and salty fish sauce. I poured it atop the grilled pork, which I'd cut into thin slices. Then the salad was tossed with herbs. I handed it to A-Nong and Thew, who took bites and smiled. "You would make a pretty good wife," Thew said. Her mother rocked the baby, and quietly laughed. But I was too busy chewing to feel embarrassed or flattered.
(An additional and heartfelt thanks to Allison, Justin, and Phim, who kindly led me to a kitchen and helped me along in Nong Khai. )