Isaan oddities

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Mushroom soup

I recently made a visit to a semi-famous Isaan restaurant in Bangkok called Crok Mai Thai Lao [ครกไม้ไทยลาว]. The name refers to the ever ubiquitous wooden mortar and pestle required for somtom and northeastern chili dips. Most Isaan restaurants in Bangkok are little more than temporary street stalls whereas Crok Mai is relatively large and much more permanent. In fact, it’s permanent enough to even have its own website: Crok Mai Thai Lao. It is also well known for the expansive menu it harbors, featuring regular favorites such as grilled chicken, somtom, curries, and soups all the way to frogs, snails, bugs and vegetables not often found in Bangkok. There are way too many interesting things to try and I will have to make many visits to test them all. I even noticed at least 12 different kinds of bugs on the menu! Alas, as often happens when a restaurant becomes popular, the price is higher than typical Isaan fare and the portions seemed quite small. Even so, the chance at tasting all these new foods makes it more than worth it for me.

This was actually my second visit to Crok Mai. After my first visit I sort of forgot about it until recently. On this visit I went for a nice variety of food. First, I chose a mushroom soup (gaeng hed paw [แกงเห็ดเพาะ]). I found a lot of information about hed paw at thai-mushroom including the common name of barometer earthstars. Wikipedia states that many “North American sources often describe [them] as being of either unknown edibility,or too tough to be edible.” I think these are relatively uncommon in Thailand, but mushrooms were edible and I didn’t get sick. Actually, they were very tasty with an earthy flavor and a lot of fun to eat too since they (sort of) popped in your mouth.

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Ant egg omelet

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Ant eggs!

Second, I got an ant egg omelet (kai jiaow kai mod daeng [ไข่เจียไข่มดแดง]) which was actually disappointing. I have had red ant eggs several times before (ant egg soup), and this was the stingiest anyplace has ever been with the eggs. I was expecting a plump spoonful of eggs with every bit of omelet, but I could barely taste the ones in this. If you look close enough, you can see a few white eggs mixed in there, but more or less it tasted like a plain old omelet. The only way I recognized the eggs was the occasional pop (like the mushrooms) when I got one. Now I know: never skimp on the ant eggs in your omelet.

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bee grubs

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bee grubs closeup

Third was some bee larva (rang phung yaang [รังผึ้งย่าง]). I have also had this before, but I wanted to see how it would be prepared here. The serving was small and basic: some grilled up bee grubs and a bit of salt. It had an odd flavor that I found to be very good, although it was slightly pasty at times. It’s strange because not only do you eat the larva, but you also eat the hive around the grubs. If the hive had been out in the wild longer, I believe the meaty grubs would have turned into bees, the hive would have waxed over, and then it would have been filled with fresh, sweet honey. Sometimes its amazing how much difference a little bit of time can make for a potential food.

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grilled frog

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sour fish

Fourth, I ate a meat dish: grilled frog (gop yaang [กบย่าง]). This was the most surprising plate of the day. On the previous occasions I’ve eaten frog in Thailand, they just minced it up, bones and all. In this case, it was actually a whole grilled frog. I was surprised at the amount of meat on the frog and it was quite delicious. This cliche saying truly is fitting here: tastes just like chicken!

And finally, I needed some sort of fish so the meal was finished off with some bplaa som (bplaa som [ปลาส้ม]). The bplaa som was big and tasty with large bones. Large bones are good because they are much easier to pick out compared to the usual array of small and microscopic bones you encounter. I have talked about bplaa som before here, but to quickly summarize, it is basically a fish that is covered with rice and water which is then left to ferment (or rot) at room temperature for a few days before cooking. I did a quick search for a recipe and found this funny quote:

9. Soak it in a bowl of beaten egg before you deep fry. Don’t forget to remove the rice you see outside the fish. Leave the rice in side its mouth and stomach there. I think it will be ok.

All in all, this was a refreshing meal. Thai food is almost always delicious, but if I had to choose a region, it would definitely be Isaan-style food. I find it to be more exotic with bold tastes that can really get to you. Whether it’s salty, sour, bitter, sweet, or, most noticeably, spicy, northeastern cuisine just seems to have more oomph in it.

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