Isaan turns up the heat

This fiery regional cuisine is gaining new fans in Bangkok, writes Leisa Tyler.

Ten years ago the fiery, pungent dishes of Thailand's Isaan Province were scoffed at by the affluent residents of Bangkok. Isaan is a plateau slightly smaller than Victoria between Laos and Cambodia and with a giant swathe of the Mekong River hugging its northern and eastern borders. It is culturally closer to Laos than Thailand (they speak a dialect of Lao).

The cuisine is simple, quickly prepared and peppered with exotic additives such as ant eggs, live shrimp and pig's blood - far from the sophisticated and time-consuming dishes found in Thailand's central plains. But the clean, robust flavours of Isaan cuisine have recently helped trigger something of a comeback.

Isaan eateries abound in Bangkok these days.

Carts cooking gai yang - grilled chicken - and the perennial favourite, som tam - raw papaya salad - clutter every street corner; hole-in-the-wall diners churn out grilled pork with a zesty dipping sauce and salt-crusted barbecued fish.

Then there is Soi Polo Fried Chicken. Like the best Thai eateries, Soi Polo Chicken is a little dinky, a little loud and if you come during lunch hour, ridiculously busy. But the fried chicken here is indomitable, taking chicken to new gastronomic heights. The restaurant is easily accessible, cheap as chips, well stocked with beer and the genial proprietors speak English.

A twist on grilled chicken, here the bird is fried whole with cloves of garlic. Without being greasy, the flesh is juicy and succulent, the skin perfectly spiced and crisp; ethereal when eaten with the crispy sweet cloves of garlic and a tongue-tingling chilli sauce.

Team it with larb - cooked mince (choose from duck, pork, catfish, chicken or beef) tossed with ground roasted rice, spices, raw shallots and mint. It's sweet and sour, vinegary, spicy and fresh at the same time; ideally eaten with flattened balls of glutinous Issan-style rice served in a bamboo basket.

Also supremely delectable is the sai grok Isaan - north-east style pork sausage flavoured with herbs and spices. Grab a raw bird's eye chilli, bite it in half, and then follow quickly with a hunk of sausage. Don't be afraid; the fat in the sausage will neutralise the heat of the chilli but release its slightly bitter and astringent tang.

Soi Polo Chicken isn't big on vegetables, offering river weed fried with garlic, or som tam. With 10 types of som tam to choose from including salted egg (Thai kai kem), or noodle and prawn (sua Thai), there is sure to be a taste for all.


Getting there

Thai Airways flies non-stop to Bangkok from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1035, low-season return, including tax.

Eating there Soi Polo Fried Chicken.

Location Off Wireless Road, Bangkok.

Type of food Issan.

Price range Dishes from 40 baht ($1.30); lunch for two 300 baht.

While you're there Stroll in Lumpini Park, opposite the restaurant, a small oasis in this concrete jungle.