Borderline Delicacies in Udon Thani
Whatever you might have known about Thai-Esan cuisines, the pictures started to blur when, maybe it’s my imagination, you crossed more provincial lines going north.
The further up you travel in Thailand’s Northeastern region, the more you will see that regional cuisine has changed from the usual so-called ‘Esan’ staples of ‘Som Tam’ (papaya salad) and Gai Yang (grilled chicken) to something from Vietnamese clans. Fresh spring rolls (Goi Cuon), rice crepes (Banh Cuon), Pho, and so on are more readily available at this region than the usual papaya pok pok we come to know and love.
And I am not complaining.
Esan, or the Northeast of Thailand, is a huge plateau. From Bangkok, going up to the Northeast for about three to four hours and you will enter Nakhon Ratchasima or Korat, the province that is considered to be the ‘Gateway to Esan.’ Here, you can pretty much still enjoy the usual things that come to mind when one talk about Esan cuisine, but of course with more local variations of everything. If you feel lidded to the variety of your favourite som tam in Bangkok, you can definitely go wild with all local things of your imaginations in the Northeast. I don’t know if this is a prejudice, but eating local foods at their true origins is much more satisfying for me.
But then, the norther you go, the division of the food seems more stark. It seems to me that Khon Khaen which is about another three hours north of Korat, is the last frontier of the usual Esan food. Because as soon as we left Khon Khaen which is by the way about 450 kilometres or about a 6-hour drive from Bangkok, we are entering the land of Vietnam dishes – available in all forms and meals – from breakfast to lunch to afternoon snacks and dinner.
According to my research on this topic, the migration of Vietnamese cuisine in to the Kingdom began in the era of King Rama III (1788 – 1851) when the suppression of Ro-man Catholic occurred in Vietnam. The influx of Vietnamese people started in Bangkok where among their primary settlements is in Sam Sen area in Bangkok. Also, the migrations were crossing the Mekong River into Thailand’s northeastern parts. Border provinces of Udon Thani, Nong Khai, Sakhon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom, Bueng Kan, Mukdahan, or even Ubon Ratchathani to the south are all brimmed with Vietnamese settlements, resulting not only in many establishment of Roman Catholic churches and settlements, but also in their delicacy abundance and obvious. It is a proof that the influence of food and cuisine has its unique way to sneak into our heart and stomach and then stay long term.
Breakfast in Udon Thani is a wholesome and hearty affair. Vegetarian or vegan visitors might find it difficult to have a proper meal here, because meats such as pork are prominent in all things. Vietnamese style toasts (Banh Mi style) served with Chinese sausage (Goon Chiang), steamed pork sausage (Moo Yor) and butter. Usually, one would also or-der a plate of pan-fried eggs (Kai Gata) which is basically fried eggs topped with minced pork, steamed pork sausage and, again, Chinese sausage of ‘Goon Chiang.’ What I like most about this is that most breakfast shops here serve their fare with hot tea, Chinese style, in a good pot and small cup. I find tea is much more soothing and cleansing than coffee in this style of fatty meal.
Lunch and dinner and all things in between vary greatly. And they can be a bit of a sharing affair. Freshly made rice crepe or Pak Mor or Banh Cuon is a local favourite. You can find it everywhere in this part of Thailand. Usually stuffed with minced pork and chives, a plate of Pak Mor is served ladled with toasted shallot and perhaps a chunky provision of steamed pork sausage or Moo Yor. The sauce is a light sweet vinaigrette with chopped chillies, grated radish and carrot. A basket full of fresh vegetables and herbs are also mandatory.
Khao Piak (or literally ‘wet rice’) is Vietnamese style noodle. The rice noodles exude the starch residual, thickening the soup into something of a velvety mouthful texture. This is a bowl of local comfort, if you will, and there are a few shops in town that decide to specialise in this particular menu instead of going all out with a full-blown a la carte. Which is always a great thing.
Udon Thani is a trading hub of the northern Esan. Local clans are more Chinese than Esan, as you might be able to tell. Shophouses are local houses, Chinese New Year is a mega affair here. A change of sceneries when it comes to the usual image of Thai Esan. A great place to visit and eat.