Chef Tam On Isaan's True Flavours And Local Thai Cuisine
Image Credit: Rim Naam, The Oberoi Group Of Hotels

Over a decade ago, visiting Thailand was mostly about the beautiful beaches down south and the spicy Thai cuisine, which was mostly comprised of Pad Thai noodles, satays, seafood curries, crepes, and the likes. While the beaches remain a popular destination, folks are turning their gaze to the northern provinces like Chiang Mai, with its chilly mountains and the cuisine from Isaan in the north-east, which is different from the southern provinces of Thailand.

Recently, in an interesting conversation with Chef Napharphak Pompraksa, also known as Chef Tam, who heads the kitchen in Rim Naam, the Thai restaurant at the Oberoi in Bengaluru, it was discovered that the local Thai scene goes way beyond the usual touristy dishes. It's not just about what you find in Thailand; it's about exploring how neighbouring countries and various cultures shape Thai culinary traditions too. Thus, get ready to take a deep dive and delve into the nuances of the local Thai cuisine from Isaan, her hometown.

Isaan: Beyond the Tourist Trail

While the beaches from the south and the mountains from the north are still a hit, there's this whole other side to Thailand in the north-eastern province of Isaan, which not only differs geographically but also in culinary traditions. Now, if you reckon you're a Thai cuisine expert just because you've savoured Pad Thai, Tom Yum Goong, satays, and Thai curries, think again.

In Chef Tam's words, "Isaan is a derivative of the Sanskrit word Ishaan, which means north-east, as that is where the province is situated in Thailand. It is different from Northern Thailand, which is more mountainous in geography."

Although familiar Thai dishes are staples, there's a broader and lesser-explored spectrum of local Thai cuisine where the chef grew up, which one may not experience as a tourist in Thailand or get to sample it in their own country's Thai restaurants often. Thus, Chef Tam has curated a special menu featuring recipes from her home and grandmother's collection all the way from Issan for a pop-up at the Rim Naam for three days starting on February 2, 2024.

When you navigate through the provinces in Thailand, you can witness how the culinary habits change every 100 kilometres. Unlike the coconut-infused dishes of Bangkok or the south, the north embraces a seasonal and cooler climate, showcasing a penchant for pork, veggies, and deep-fried delights.

And in Isaan, the north-eastern province of Thailand where Chef Tam grew up, she says it was the entry point of Buddhist emissaries who came from neighbouring Cambodia, Vietnam, and current-day Laos. Thus, cuisine-wise, it has influences from all these regions and excels in using a myriad of local greens and vegetables as staples in everyday cooking.

She says, "Each of these dishes not only has the perfect balance of flavour and texture but brings with it a strong historic legacy as well. The people of Isaan migrated to various parts of Thailand and have influenced the street food of Chiang Mai in Bangkok. The use of chilli peppers, lime, peanuts, dried shrimp, fresh fruits and vegetables, sticky rice, cilantro, mint, and other fresh herbs is abundant in these dishes."

Distinguished Usage Of Ingredients In Isaan

"North-Eastern Thailand is more landlocked but has an abundance of rivers and streams, which makes the terrain lush and fertile with lots of local greens and river fish. So unlike the South, which cooks more with seafood and meats, we cook more with river fish, river prawns, and lots of vegetables too," says Chef Tam.

When asked to describe Isaan and what inspired her to specialise in the cuisine of her hometown, the place where she grew up, the chef said, "Our home, which I still go back to, is a serene place set amidst paddy fields and pineapple plantation. My family is still rooted in farming and local agriculture as their main source of livelihood. Our huge kitchen was always bustling and brimming with pots, cooking curries, stir-fries, salads, and soup broths the whole day. There was a steady stream of people who were fed through the day—our own family, neighbours, and relatives. My grandmother was especially my main inspiration to embrace cooking Thai food well and taking it to the world."

Thailand is a tropical country that doesn't really have cold climates, as it has temperate and hot zones. Regions closer to the coast have a largely tropical and hotel climate and regions closer to the main land are still hot but can be colder during the winter and temperate when you travel north to the mountains. Thus, not only do the ingredients used in preparing the Thai delicacies vary but also the cooking methods and techniques.

"The main use of heat-generating spices like chillies comes from the natural reason that they are rich in vitamins and also help the body to perspire and, through natural evaporation, cool down from inside. Since we do not use much deep frying but more wok toss, flash-fry, and muddling, the spices retain their natural goodness," says chef Tam, adding that "Isaan's food optimises fresh produce like river fish, prawns, dried shrimp, lots of greens, and rustic vegetables like yam, taro, pineapple, and homemade soy. We rely more on these than on seafood and meat, which are more prevalent in the South. Our meats, too, are more smoked and barbecued than cooked."

The Rustic Delicacies Of Isaan

In this three-day pop-up at Rim Naam, the menu includes a wide array of delicacies like Taa hoo pun oiy (tofu-sugarcane appetiser), Laab hed fang (deep-fried mushroom with crispy toasted rice), Pla muek yang (charred squids in fish sauce), Sikrong moo (roasted pork ribs with honey and Thai spices), and more for appetisers alone.

While soups are a highlight of the cuisine, you can expect a spicy and sour soup like Tom som pla or phak. For mains, you can choose from Isaan-style vegetable or chicken curry; Miang pla pao, which is a grilled fish dish with nam prik noom and nam pla wan sauce; spicy street-style rice noodles; and more. She expresses that the dishes featured have roots and influences from Vietnam and Cambodia and that each dish has a distinct flavour profile that is fresh, clean but not mild.

According to the chef, the delicacies have more character in comparison to mainstream Thai and are rustic. They are hot in the sense that they have pronounced use of spices in almost raw form, thus lending them a punch. Also, the use of lots of natural greens like morning glory, spinach, taro, and local yam, along with kafir lime, galangal, turmeric, and tamarind, has allowed the chef to prepare the dishes as the locals in Isaan would.

Most of the ingredients are specially imported from Thailand to retain authenticity and a few produce procured locally through Oberoi's special suppliers lends freshness to the dishes. The use of sweeteners like palm jaggery in a few dishes and, of course, Thai local chillies and coriander make these dishes as special as they were made at her home in Isaan.

Comparing Thai And Indian Cuisines

With culinary-themed travels on the rise, hotel collaborations, and international Thai chefs doing pop-ups in India and other countries, people are able to delve into the richness of Thai gastronomy and discover the rich tapestry of Thai food. Chef Tam has worked in India for over 10 years, including a three-year period in Mumbai with the Thai Consulate and now for seven years with The Oberoi in Bengaluru.

When asked about how she compares Indian cuisine to that of Thai, she says, "Indian cuisine is too vast and varied to draw comparisons. It has so many different textures, techniques, and ingredients. The closest comparison is perhaps coastal Indian food from South India, which has some resemblance to Thai food with the use of elements like coconut milk, grated coconut, turmeric, ginger, and whole spices. But our treatment and flavour profile of these ingredients are also a bit different."

Having been through a wonderful journey at the Rim Naam, Chef Tam says that her diners are supportive, exchange travel notes, and inspire her to pursue the cuisine of Issan, her hometown, in depth. If you would like to sample some of the delicacies from Isaan, you can reserve a seat for 'From Isaan, With Love', a lunch and dinner pop-up hosted by chef Tam at the Rim Naam, before February 4, 2024.