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Issan Thai Food Recipes and Thai Culture

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Issan Thai food recipes with sticky rice that clings to your fingers and the smoky deliciousness of grilled meats. These are the kind of dishes that make my life worth living. They’re a symbol of rural Thai life and they’re here for you to try. You’ll even get a closer look at the Northeastern Thai culture, with the inside scoop from a local.

Collage of authentic Issan Thai food recipes and Northeastern Thai culture featuring spicy larb, a group of smiling locals, a water buffalo in a field, and a hand holding a spicy larb moo salad with sticky rice.

You might also like my collection of healthy Thai food recipes for 2024!

Learn more about the traditional Isan cuisine with unique recipes from a local, and discover why Northeastern Thailand is a must visit for anyone who loves good food.

These traditional Isan recipes are easy, delicious, and perfect for any day of the week. But first, let’s take a closer look at what makes Isan food so different.

What is Isan?

Isan is the Northeastern region of Thailand and is known for its laid-back lifestyle and strong cultural identity. This area, marked by its rice field landscapes and lively cultures, is bordered by the Mekong River, separating Laos and Thailand.

Mekong River bridge, separating Laos and Thailand.
Mekong River bridge between Laos and Thailand.

What is Isan food?

Isan food, originating from Northeastern Thailand, is a unique cuisine known for its spicy dishes, Thai sticky rice, and use of fresh vegetables. Classic staples include papaya salad, grilled meats, grilled fish, and even wild ingredients like mushrooms, red ant eggs, and insects.

Som tam pla ra, Isan papaya salad, served with fresh vegetables.

Insects? Yep, you read that right! Insects and mountain rats are somewhat of a delicacy here, especially amongst the elders.

Northeastern Thailand

Northeastern Thailand, often overlooked by tourists, is truly a place of its own.

Here, amidst endless rice fields and local street food markets, life moves at a different pace. It’s a life that’s far from the chaos of Bangkok – it’s a simpler, down-to-earth way of living.

A water buffalo in the rice fields of Northeastern Thailand.
A water buffalo in the rice fields of Northeastern Thailand. For many Isan locals, trading cows and buffalos are a source of income.

I love the slow-paced way of life in and strong family ties in rural Thailand, and I wouldn’t trade if for a thing.

While Isan is often labeled as the ‘poor side’ of Thailand, it’s actually a region rich in culture and tradition. It’s simply a different way of living. I’ve known Thai people who own extensive land yet choose the humble life in a small wooden cabin amongst the rice fields over a modern house and car.

A group of Isan locals and Western people under a bamboo rooftop.
Introducing my in-laws to our friendly neighbors, an elderly couple who have embraced a simple bamboo hut life in the heart of the rice fields.

Northeastern Thai people are known to be hardworking folks, deeply connected to their land and rice fields, passed down through generations. Communities in the villages are tight, where everyone supports one another in every way imaginable.

Elder Issan local catching fish in flooded rice fields with a net.
An elder Issan local, our closest neighour, trying to catch fish in a flooded rice field.

In Isan, every street corner and food market tells a story. It may not have the glitz of the big cities, but it offers something far more precious. It’s a window into a simpler, more genuine Thailand.

Isan is a place where the rhythmic pounding of mortars and pestles and the warmth of local interactions make you slow down and savor every moment.

Thai woman seated on a bamboo table, working with a granite mortar and pestle.

Thai Issan food

Thai Issan cuisine is all about communal eating and shared joy. Picture a bamboo table gathered with family and friends, the air filled with the smoky scent of grilled meats and the strong scent of ‘lao khao’, a cheap Thai whiskey.

Family in rural Thailand enjoying authentic kanom jeen nam ya.
My little niece, nephew, grandmother, and me gathered for a feast of authentic Thai food.

Som tam pla ra, a spicy green papaya salad with the tang of lime and pungent fermented fish sauce, is a staple. Thai pork larb, with a blend of minced meat, fresh herbs like mint and coriander, and mouth-burning spices, is a must-try.

Here are some more unique larb recipes you’ll love: fried chicken larb with crispy chicken, shrimp larb recipe with whole shrimp, and mushroom larb recipe with enoki mushrooms.

Steamed sticky rice is a daily thing for Isan residents. Its chewy texture is the perfect side for dipping into our spicy sauces, soaking up the flavorful juices of grilled meats like moo yang.

Hand grabbing a ball of Thai sticky rice in a traditional bamboo basket with a Thai rural background.
Our sticky rice is always kept in a traditional bamboo basket.

In Isan, we love Thai hot pot, grilling, sun-drying, and deep-frying. The sizzle of grilled meats, the chewiness of Thai beef jerky, and the crispy perfection of fried fish are just a few of our favorites.

Our traditional Thai cuisine might surprise you with its simplicity. It’s months of hard work for rice, which is a labor of love. Some families, like our neighbours, even make their own charcoal! And let’s not forget those unique ingredients – mountain rats, frogs, buffalo, and wild crab – that add a touch of the wild to our dishes.

A spoonful of bamboo shoot and soup over a bowl with more bamboo soup.
Thai bamboo soup, a staple in Isan.

My grandmother’s soups like this Thai bamboo soup, filled with fresh vegetables and wild forest ingredients like mushrooms, raised my husband’s eyebrows at first. But now, they are on our weekly dinner rotation.

All these dishes, some a bit unusual to most tourists, are a symbol of our land and our way of life.

Thai vs Lao food

Isan and Lao cuisine are like brother and sister. Both kitchens share a love for bold flavors with fresh herbs, spicy chilies, and that umami of fermented fish sauce and shrimp paste.

Every meal is a communal feast, where everyone gathers around a big pot of sticky rice, ready to dive into spicy Thai salads, Thai dipping sauces, and amazing chili pastes.

Jeow bong, a Lao chili paste, with fresh vegetables and sticky rice.
Jeow bong, a Lao staple, complete with fresh vegetables and sticky rice.

The Lao dipping sauces and salads listed in the recipes below are some my favorites, they’re an absolute dream. These Isan and Lao recipes are easy to make at home and offer the perfect balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy.

Isan Thai food recipes

Ready to try your hand at some of the best Northeastern Thai recipes? They’re a fantastic mix of spicy, sour, sweet, and salty – the real deal, people. These are my must-try Isan and Lao dishes, perfect for any home cook!

Top-view of a traditional clay pot with gaeng om gai, a clear Thai chicken soup with Isan herbs and fresh vegetables.

Gaeng Om Gai (Clear Thai Chicken Soup With Isan Herbs)

Gaeng om gai is a herby and spicy water-based chicken soup or curry. My grandmother says it’s her remedy for any illness, and it shows in the abundance of fresh vegetables. Packed with Thai eggplants, bok choy flower, onion flower stem, and the essential dille, this classic is as healthy as it is delicious.

Glass sauce cup with nam jim jaew, a chili sauce for grilled meats, garnished with green onions and coriander.

Nam Jim Jaew (Thai Chili Sauce Recipe)

Nam jim jaew is a classic Thai dipping sauce, with a perfect blend of spicy, sour, and slightly sweet flavors. This sauce is typically made with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and ground roasted rice, and pairs perfectly with grilled meats and fresh vegetables. Try this easy family recipe for nam jim jaew – it comes together quickly in under 5 minutes and beats any store-bought version.

Thai raw beef salad, raw larb served with chilies and garlic cloves.

Thai Raw Beef Salad Recipe (Raw Larb)

This Thai raw beef salad recipe is full of authentic Northeastern Thai flavors. Pair raw larb with sticky rice for a quick and easy lunch or dinner!

White dish of thum khao poon, a rice vermicelli salad with tomatoes, lime, yard-long beans, and a spicy dressing.

Thum Khao Poon Recipe (Easy Rice Vermicelli Salad)

This easy rice vermicelli salad is perfect for when you can’t get your hands on fresh papaya. It’s quick to make yet insanely delicious with the best homemade dressing – a perfect blend of spicy and tangy. In Thai and Lao, “thum” means to crush or pound, and “khao poon” refers to rice vermicelli noodles.

Nam tok moo, Thai grilled pork salad, served in a patterned plate, ready to be eaten.

Nam Tok Moo Recipe (Thai Grilled Pork Salad)

Juicy grilled pork slices tossed in a tangy, spicy, and savory dressing. This Thai grilled pork salads pairs like a dream with sticky rice and crisp vegetables like lettuce and yard long beans. Before serving nam tok moo, I love topping it with a bit of extra toasted rice powder and I always make sure to add lime wedges and fresh chili peppers on the side.

Spicy cucumber salad in a black bowl with a side of sticky rice. A wooden mortar and spoon are next to it.

Spicy Lao Cucumber Salad Recipe (Thum Mak Thang)

Crisp cucumbers, tasty vegetables, lots of spices, and a simple salad dressing mashed together with a traditional clay mortar and wooden pestle. Sounds like the ideal quick lunch or light dinner!

Hand dipping sticky rice into jeow bong, a Lao chili paste, with a side of beef jerky, Thai eggplants, beans, a hard-boiled egg, and sticky rice.

Jeow Bong Recipe (Lao Chili Paste)

A fiery chili dip that’s perfect with just about everything – sticky rice, boiled eggs, beef jerky, and even stir-fries. I love it with a side of yard long beans, lettuce, Thai eggplants, and steamed fish. It’s so versatile and perfect for spicy food lovers.

Top-view of jeow bee, a traditional Lao bitter dipping sauce, with coriander, lime, grilled beef, and red chilies next to it.

Jeow Bee Recipe (Lao Bitter Dipping Sauce)

Lao jeow bee is beloved for its bitter taste, derived from its key ingredient beef bile. Another key ingredient is fermented fish sauce, or nam pla ra in Thai, and padek or padaek in Isan and Lao. This one is full of umami and strong flavors.

Authentic Thai bamboo soup, keng no mai, served in patterned bowls and garnished with greens.

Thai Bamboo Soup Recipe (Keng No Mai)

My grandmother’s recipe for Thai bamboo soup. For her, it’s a weekly staple, as she often goes out to find fresh bamboo shoots. She always brings back more than what’s needed, for sharing with her neighbors. Every sip of this soup is full of authentic Isan flavors. If you can’t get your hands on fresh bamboo shoots, it’s totally fine to use canned ones, which are readily available at Asian grocery stores.

Top-view of larb ped, a Thai minced duck salad with shallots and fresh herbs and spices, served with a red chili in a white dish.

Larb Ped Recipe (Easy Asian Duck Salad)

Larb ped, a minced duck salad, is a dish you won’t easily find at Thai food markets. Duck is kind of like a fancy protein in Isan, more the Thai restaurant or special occasion kind of stuff. This recipe is quick to make and easy to customize – and whether you like it spicy or mild, you’ll have something tasty on the table in no time.

Thai Beef Jerky Recipe With Dipping Sauce

Whether you opt for the traditional sun-drying method, an oven, or an air fryer, these are amazing. I always pair them with a Thai chili sauce and a side of sticky rice. The marinade for this recipe is super easy, with fish sauce, sugar, and black peppercorns – exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Aerial view of moo dad daew, Thai pork jerky, with nam jim jaew dipping sauce, sticky rice, and a wooden mortar and pestle on banana leaves.

Authentic Moo Dad Deaw Recipe (Thai Pork Jerky)

This is the best pork jerky you’ll ever try. It’s a popular snack in Isan, and we like it both deep-fried and grilled. It’s a hit with Thai kids and adults love it too. Serve it as a flavorful appetizer, as a protein-packed snack, as a side, or at your next backyard BBQ.

Thai ground beef larb served with chilies and garlic cloves.

Thai Ground Beef Larb Recipe

Quick, easy, and downright delicious! This Thai ground beef larb recipe is packed with fresh herbs, spices, and the best salad dressing ever.

Authentic Thai purple sticky rice in a bamboo serving basket, with raw white and black rice grains spread out on a bamboo mat next to it.

Thai Purple Sticky Rice Recipe (2 Ways)

Thai purple sticky rice is perfect for pairing with ripe mango. Mango sticky rice, anyone? It’s kind of the fancier version of white sticky rice, made by mixing white and black glutinous rice, or by soaking in a mix of butterfly pea flowers and lemon.

Moo Yang Recipe (Thai Grilled Pork)

The best Thai grilled pork ever, with a smoky outside and a tender inside. Watch it sizzle on a charcoal grill, bringing out the best in the Thai marinade made of palm sugar, golden mountain sauce, and oyster sauce. So good!

Lao som moo, fermented sour pork sausage, ready to eat with a side of red chilies, a lime wedge, and a head of garlic.

Lao Som Moo Recipe (Fermented Sour Pork Sausage)

Fermented pork sausage is a great standalone snack and the perfect side with other dishes. Lao som moo is made by mixing minced pork, pork skin, garlic, sticky rice, chilies, and salt. Once mixed, the mixture is shaped into a traditional sausage form and left to sit and ferment. Believe it or not, they’re pretty fun to make at home.

Yum kanom jeen, a Thai rice noodle salad, with mackerel, green onions, shallots, and chilies.

Yum Kanom Jeen (Cold Thai Rice Noodle Salad Recipe)

This cold Thai rice noodle salad is healthy, spicy, and full of mackerel or endless substitutions. It’s perfect for a light meal without too much fuss. It’s that kind of dish that’s perfect for summer but tastes great year-round. It’s the perfect recipe for your busy weeknights – quick, easy, and authentically Isan!

Several slices of Thai crying tiger steak, a Northeastern Thai staple, served with a spicy Isan sauce.

Authentic Thai Crying Tiger Steak Recipe

Known as sua rong hai in Thailand, crying tiger beef is a staple Isan food. It’s a part of our local tradition. Think beef sliced into thin strips, and to accompany it, a spicy and tangy nam jim jaew sauce – and of course, a bamboo basket of sticky rice.

2 Bamboo baskets filled with sticky rice, steamed glutinous rice.

How To Make Thai Sticky Rice (Khao Niao)

Also known as glutinous rice or sweet rice, sticky rice is a type of short-grain rice that’s high in amylopectin content and low in amylose. Because of this, when cooked and steamed, this type of starch causes the rice grains to stick together, creating that signature sticky texture we all love.

Larb gai, a Thai minced chicken salad, served with a lime wedge, lettuce, sticky rice, and shredded carrot.

Larb Gai Salad Recipe (Thai Chicken Salad)

Larb gai is a minced chicken salad that’s both healthy and light, with an easy salad dressing to make at home. It’s my favorite type of larb to turn into crunchy lettuce wraps. Simply serve it with a side of green lettuce and an optional spicy dip to turn this salad into a healthy appetizer or snack.

Traditional clay pot of Thai chicken glass noodle soup with a side of sticky rice.

Thai Chicken Glass Noodle Soup Recipe

This Isan chicken soup has it all – fermented fish sauce, MSG, lemongrass, lemon basil, and chilies. It’s a one of a kind recipe and you won’t find anything like it elsewhere. Made by my grandmother – it’s spicy, savory, and downright delicious!

Khao jee, sticky rice with egg patties, served in a clay dish.

Khao Jee Recipe (Sticky Rice With Egg)

Every Thais favorite breakfast, khao jee are hamburger-shaped delights made of grilled sticky rice and egg. You can find them all over the Isan street food markets, especially in the morning and during the cold winter days.

Khao poon with rice vermicelli, served in a black dish. Coconut noodle soup is served in a coconut shell, and a plate of fresh vegetables like bean sprouts, cucumber, and beans is next to it.

Khao Poon Recipe (Lao Chicken Coconut Noodle Soup)

Lao chicken coconut noodle soup is such a comfort food in a bowl. It’s a creamy coconut milk broth with chicken and rice vermicelli noodles, and a side of fresh vegetables. This recipe is unique with a homemade red curry paste that mashes the chicken into a mix of galangal, dried chilies, and shallots.

Tom yum pla, a Thai fish soup, with a rich broth, fish slices, and fresh herbs. Served in a clay pot with a side of Thai sticky rice.

Tom Yum Pla (Healthy Thai Fish Soup)

Tom yum pla is a staple in Isan, a healthy Thai fish soup, often made with lots of fresh vegetables and fresh fish bought at the market. This healthy recipe is perfect for the family and totally costumizable with your favorite soup vegetables.

Som tam pla ra, Isan papaya salad, served with fresh vegetables.

Som Tam Pla Ra

Som tam pla ra is Isan’s version of green papaya salad, also known as som tum. Thai papaya salad comes in various versions, this one stands out for its inclusion of fermented fish sauce, giving it a distinct flavor.

Close-up of Thai pork larb, with minced meat, fresh vegetables, and raw garlic cloves.

Authentic Thai Pork Larb Recipe

Chili flakes, lots of culantro, green onions, coriander, lime juice, toasted rice powder, and fish sauce are some of the key ingredients that gives larb moo it’s spicy, sweet, salty, and sour flavor combo. Feel free to customize this recipe with your favorite protein – anything you put in this dressing will come out amazing, promise.

Black spoon with toasted rice powder or khao khua.

How To Make Toasted Rice Powder (Thai khao khua)

Toasted rice powder, or Thai khao khua, is an essential ingredient in some of our salads and dipping sauces. It’s easily made by toasting glutinous rice and then crushing it with your mortar and pestle. If you don’t have a morta and pestle, you can simply use a food processor and pulse until it’s crushed but not powdered.

Tam sua, a traditional Northeastern Thai papaya salad with rice vermicelli and a dressing of fermented fish sauce, tamarind paste, and palm sugar.

Tam Sua (Papaya Salad With Vermicelli)

Another staple papaya salad in Isan, tam sua combines papaya shreds with slippery rice vermicelli noodles. The dressing is made of fermented fish sauce, fish sauce, tamarind paste, palm sugar, and lime. It’s a unique combo of flavors and textures, definitely a must-try if you haven’t yet.

Top-view of nam tok beef, fresh vegetables, and sticky rice, ready to be eaten.

Nam Tok Beef (Authentic Thai Grilled Beef Salad Recipe)

Nam tok beef, or waterfall beef salad, is another dish that’s commonly eaten with a side of fresh vegetables, sticky rice, and a dipping sauce for grilled meat. It’s spicy, it’s fresh, and easy to make with Thai pantry staples.

Jeow mak keua, a Lao eggplant dip, served in a sauce cup and garnished with mint. Around it are fresh vegetables, fried mackerel, and boiled eggs.

Jeow Mak Keua Recipe (Lao Eggplant Dip)

A traditional dip with smoky, charred flavors and refreshing mint. The spicy chilies, crunchy Thai eggplants, pungent garlic, and naturally sweet shallots are roasted over a charcoal grill before being pounded to perfection. Alternatively, you can use a grilling pan over low heat, but you’ll lose that authentic taste.

Close-up of spicy Thai long bean salad with dried chilies, tomatoes, lime, and shallots.

Thai Long Bean Salad Recipe (Som Tum Tua)

Easy, spicy, and so refreshing. The crunchy yard long beans are lightly bruised in the mortar, causing them to burst open and soak up all of that tasty dressing. It’s a summer favorite with crisp vegetable and a homemade dressing that beats takeout anytime.

Grilled Thai chicken wings served on a banana leaf over a bamboo table setting and a pot of sticky rice.

Thai Chicken Wings Recipe

Isan is famous for its grilled chicken. Whole chickens are used for making gai yang, often split down the middle and flattened before grilling. These Thai chicken wings have a delicious Thai marinade of garlic, soy sauce, palm sugar, and Thai seasoning sauce. A bit of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves add citrusy and fragrant notes.

Mortar and pestle

A Thai mortar and pestle is the heart of many authentic Isan dishes. It’s the secret to those crazy delicious flavors.

Granite and clay Thai mortar and pestle set on a wooden table.

For many Isaan locals, their day starts by waking to the sounds of crackling chickens. Then, firing up their pots of sticky rice and the sound of a mortar and pestle grinding chilies, garlic, and herbs fills the air. Another day filled with delicious meals to come.

A mortar and pestle is not just about mixing the ingredients. It coaxes out flavors in a way that food processors and blenders can’t replicate, releasing natural juices and aromas.

A Thai woman grinding red chilies and garlic in a granite mortar and pestle while kneeling on a grass floor.

It’s a staple in every Isaan kitchen, and for good reason.

Don’t forget to check out my collection of simple mortar and pestle recipes later!

Isan-style food in the west

How did Isan food hit the streets of Bangkok, and ultimately find its way to the Western part of the globe?

Isan locals, in hopes of finding better work opportunities, packed their bags filled with dreams and recipes passed through generations. They head to central Thailand, Bangkok. Bangkok is a city that never sleeps, full of tourists and locals. After a time, sticky rice and spicy salads popped up everywhere, and everyone loved it – tourists and locals.

Fast-forward a bit, and you’ve got lots of people from the West totally in love with Thailand. Some marry Thai people and bring back a slice of our rich culture. One of the go-to businesses for Thai people in the West is food tents – serving up delicious Thai dishes.

Okay, finding that 100% authentic Thai food flavor in the West is a tough job, but it’s definitely a little sneak peek into the heart of Thailand. While Thai food in the West is not exactly like Thailand, it’s a great way to get that quick fix of spicy, sour, salty, and sweet.

Northeastern vs Southern Thai cuisine

The first time I tasted a REAL Southern Thai dish, it took me by surprise! It was way more salty than what I’m used to. Let’s take a closer look at the two unique regions.

Northeastern Thai cuisine

Wandering through an Isan market, you might smell the pungent flavors of fermented fish sauce and shrimp paste, but that’s the charm of it.

  • Salads: Two staple dishes are som tam pla ra (papaya salad with fermented fish sauce) and raw larb.
  • Natural ingredients: Fresh greens from the local fields to the plate.
  • Spicy with a flavor balance: A fiery kick tamed by a hint of sweetness, salty, and sour.
  • Fresh vegetables & sticky rice: The daily staples of Isan cuisine.

Southern Thai cuisine

In the South, the ocean’s breeze mingles with the scent of simmering spices. Here’s what you’ll find:

  • Rich, spicy curries: These curries are very herbaceous, strong, and rich in flavor. They’re deep and complex, quite thick, and can be super salty but also balanced.
  • Fresh seafood: Thanks to the nearby sea, the seafood is as fresh as it gets. Tom yum soup with the freshest seafood you can find? Yes please!
  • Salty and spicy: Bold and utterly delicious.
  • Aromatic: Every stir-fry and curry is full of aroma and fresh flavors.

Some delicious Southern Thai recipes to try: Khua kling recipe, a Thai dry mince curry – kaeng som, a sour curry – and this delicious Thai roti dessert.

Frequently asked questions

Is Isan food spicy?

Yes! Isan food is known for its bold, spicy flavors, where chilies are a key ingredient. Spicy dishes like som tum (green papaya salad) and larb (spicy meat salad) are just a few of the daily staples in the Northeastern Thai region.

What is Thai Isan language?

Thai Isan, commonly referred to as Isan and different from Central Thai, is the unique dialect spoken in Northeastern Thailand. It shares its roots with the Lao language, making certain words and phrases similar.

Is Isan food suited for vegetarians?

Isan is known for meat-heavy dishes, some recipes can be adapted for vegetarian using tofu or mushrooms. Additionally, the region is known for its bamboo soup, which can be made vegetarian.

What are common herbs and spices in Isan cooking?

Lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, toasted rice powder, and a variety of fresh and dried chilies are used on a daily basis.

I want to eat Isan food but I can’t eat spicy!

Kai yang (grilled chicken) with a side of fresh vegetables and sticky rice is a perfect start.

What is fermented fish sauce?

Fermented fish sauce, a staple in Isan cuisine, is a savory, umami-rich condiment made by fermenting fish and salt. This process lasts several months, yielding a deeply flavorful sauce that’s essential in traditional Isan dishes like som tam.

COnclusion

Discover my collection of easy Thai recipes and Thai breakfast recipes next!

Issan Thai recipes are a mix of bold spices, fresh flavors, and natural ingredients. The next time you’re in the mood for something different, why not try some of these authentic Isan recipes? If you liked this little journey into the Northeastern Thai culinary traditions, cuisine, and staples, please leave a comment below! Follow me on FacebookInstagram, and Pinterest.

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