Samui Wining & Dining
Going Native

Joining the locals at Krok Mai.

 

18Issan food originates from the north-eastern region of Thailand, where the harsh heat of one season is followed by floods in the next. It reflects the skill and ingenuity of its people who combine simple hard-won ingredients to create a vivid cuisine.

      The insecure food supply, extreme weather and lack of grazing means the fare is often basic, with minimal cooking required because of the scarcity of trees providing fuel. A typical meal in Issan may be sticky rice enjoyed with a spicy sauce, and some grilled protein if you’re lucky enough to catch a fish, or snag a chicken. But what a resourceful celebration of the gifts of the earth it is - everything is valued and there are always greens and fresh herbs.

      However, when you sit down at Krok Mai, a well-established local Issan eatery on Samui, you’ll not lack for anything. You’ll immediately be presented with a plate of cucumber, basil, cabbage and green beans, sometimes even before you see the extensive and bountiful menu. The service in Issan food venues is typically fast, attentive and sneaky. If you are drinking, you’ll be amazed at how your glass never empties - the moment you put it down somehow it will miraculously fill up again!

      Krok Mai is on the main ring-road in Chaweng, near the Bangkok Samui Hospital. If you drive north passing the hospital entrance on your left for about 80 metres, it’s the first establishment you’ll come upon on the opposite side of the road.

      It’s a simple setup - the first sign that you are in the right place is the grill out in front of the kitchen with salted fish, chicken and pork smoking away. Seating is in one of nine separate bamboo shelters each capable of holding about six diners - or under a roofed area with about ten tables of various sizes.

       On the menu here is of course somtam, the famous signature dish of the northeast. In fact it’s hard to miss in Thailand: anywhere you go you will hear the famous ‘pok pok pok’ of a mortar and pestle advertising its availability.

      Each plate of somtam is made fresh according to the client’s particular preferences. Typically chillies and garlic are crushed in a mortar, and the heavier the pounding, the spicier the result. Then dried shrimps are worked in lightly along with freshly roasted unsalted peanuts and hand-squeezed lime. The lime skin is pounded in for good measure to add a pleasant bitterness and aromatic complexity. Add some fish sauce, dissolve the palm sugar, and roughly chop in some cherry tomatoes along with sliced green beans. Then work in the principal ingredient of julienned green papaya.

       At any street stand there are often lines of people placing their endless complicated orders: “more palm sugar”, “less chilli”, “with shrimp”, or “don’t add fermented crabs”...

         There’s apparently also no end to what can replace the classic green papaya in somtam and Krok Mai offers a variety of choices; with green beans, carrot, green mango, salted egg, cucumber or white noodles. These can be ordered in combination with dishes such as grilled pork, spicy crispy catfish, blue crab or spicy bamboo shoots.

         Krok Mai is an all-day eatery open from noon to 11 pm and is infinitely versatile. Stopping by alone for a quick light cheap convenient lunch? Nothing beats somtam, some grilled chicken and sticky rice. Going out with a crowd of friends? Grab a big table, order some large beers and get cracking.

         We plunge right in and choose a ‘mieng pla yang’ - roasted tilapia fish. The salted grilled fish has a pleasant if slightly muddy taste, and the whole thing is served up on a platter with thin white noodles (kanom chin) lemongrass, piper betel leaves, Chinese lettuce, seafood sauce, tamarind sauce, ginger, nuts and onions. Each diner assembles his or her preferential ingredients, piles it on the greens and pops it in the mouth. We also order the distinctive ‘soup nomai’ bamboo shoots boiled in a broth with mint, onion and coriander.

         No Issan meal is complete without larb - usually finely chopped protein of some variety served with fresh herbs and topped with roasted rice. We go for ‘larb pla duk’ a grilled catfish version served with galangal, spring onion, coriander and mint. And for good measure we add a ‘larb phet’ with chunky bits of roasted duck and pickled garlic. We throw in a vegetable ‘gaeng om’ - this thick delicious dill flavoured soup has pumpkin, angel hair mushrooms and eggplant.

         We have to control ourselves not to order more - the menu offers a huge selection of Thai style salads, loads of roasted meats and fish, curries, deep fried dishes including the famous Issan pork sausages, stir fries, and classic Thai soups like tom yam or turmeric chicken. There’s also an exotic array of more unusual dishes: spicy cow’s blood with Thai herbs, fermented fish or jungle curries. Let’s just say we didn’t feel the need to try everything.

         But there’s no need to worry about not being satisfied as no Issan meal would be complete without sticky rice. This glutinous rice has to be soaked and steamed in a basket and stored correctly to keep it from hardening. Served in a plastic bag within a ‘kratip’ (a woven basket) for maximum cleanliness and moistness, the rice is typically balled up in your right hand and dipped in the sauces. You will find it sticky but dry. You may use a fork if you prefer, but for me, there’s no more basic way of touching the earth and connecting with its bounty than to eat with my hands.

         

Annie Lee


 


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