One thing that I learned about eating Thai in Thailand is that there is a strong regional belief in the amount of heat that goes into cooking the food. And other than the mountainous North, the other regions vie for the hottest, the spiciest, the tastiest. It's not all one level of spice, and many great Thai cookbooks discuss the importance of a balanced meal with sour, sweet, salt, heat, umami, and probably bitter thrown in.
A personal favorite of mine is the homeyness and sweat inducing food of Isan, a northeastern Thai province. When I visited Khon Kaen in 2004, I was warned that they do spice and heat beyond what was found in Bangkok. That was proved to be true, but it wasn't all about tongue-numbing heat. There were northern sausages, fermented for its sour yeasty flavor; the best roasted chicken for dipping into their version of the Thai salsa; a som tam (papaya salad) with river crab; frog's legs that were so crispy and tasty, you tentatively nibble one and end up finishing the entire plate.
Since it's been a little over 3 years since my last Thailand adventure, I knew that I wanted to eat as local as possible and my friends were kind enough to oblige. My first lunch was at one of the many Isan style al fresco eateries, one that long time friend E habituates for its location near his office. We treated another visitor from Australia to a sampling of the basic cuisine - the savory grilled chicken, a pork larb, slices of roast pork, a tom yum with fresh and sweet shrimp, two kinds of som tam, northeastern sausages - fermented to contrast with the sweet and the hot, and sticky rice to roll up in balls and dip into the sauces. Our fingers grew sticky, our palates held up to the heat, and our stomachs were happily full.
With two Thai friends and M, one of Switzerland's sons who chose the tropics over the Alps, we went out for another night of Isan dining. Beyond the staples, we also had crispy and nibbly frog's legs, a red curry snakehead fish, a chicken larb that reminded me of a ceviche for it's tenderness, and two seafood and vegetable dishes to offset all the heat. Ying ordered a pork intestine dish with herbs and chillis that I liked for its chewiness. Bring along a bottle of inexpensive cabernet sauvignon to cleanse the palate and you will likely feel as full as we were walking back to the apartment. I think the two bags of sweet roasted chestnuts were above and beyond what we could eat at the end, but we couldn't resist the lady seller's charming sales pitch.
Our only sad moment during dinner came when we saw the approach of a mahout and a young elephant. It's illegal for them to be walking the streets, but everytime I've been to Bangkok, I've seen at least one pair. This time was even more sad since the elephant was so young. His handler sold bananas to the customers in restaurants so they could see the elephant eat. Child labor on a different level.
Dining in these Isan eateries is not posh, and sometimes the only way to find them is to depend on friends who live in town and know where to go. I am sure I can find the lunch diner due to its location right down the alley from the Four Seasons while the dinner setting is a few blocks from E's apartment in Sathorn. If I had time enough to take in more soi based dining options, I'd be as well versed in Bangkok eateries as any long term resident could be, but I return to the not-so-spicy Manila food environment later tonight. Best get my needed intake of heat before my flight!