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).