80% Delicious \ 20% Surprising: The Isan Showdown
We entered the world of Isan food courtesy of the creative team behind 80/20 and some of the most creative chefs in Thailand and discovered food that was mind-bogglingly good, pleasantly spicy, and surprising too.
June 30, 2017
With the announcement of an Isan Week at 80/20, featuring a collaboration between the in-house talents at 80/20 and some of the best chefs working in Thailand who go by the name of FUCKING CHEFS, notably Chef Nhoom of Samuay&Sons in Udon Thani, Chef Black of Blackitch in Chiang Mai, Chef Tep Kamolsilp of Siam@Siam Hotel in Bangkok, and Chef Van of Bangkok’s own Rarb, we just knew that we had to be there.
As soon as we glimpsed the menu at this week-long pop-up we understood that we needed an open-mind. Isan food is known for being raw, and with Chef Fergus Henderson, who made head-to-tail cooking a thing in the ’90s with London's St. John's restaurant, creating head-to-tail-meets-raw-and-robust Isan cuisine, we were in for a trailblazing experience.
In this region of Thailand, one does not shy away from eating bamboo worms, pigs brain, and various insects. So, for this creative cook-out, the chefs brought with them their recipes and ingredients found on their recent foraging trip and wine-making tour of Isan lead by Chef Nhoom. What was so interesting about our dinner was the way that Isan food was deconstructed and built back up again. And seeing as this was a collaboration between chefs of varying institutions, we needed to make sure that we sampled a dish from each one.
To start the night off, Napol, aka Chef Joe of 80/20, served up a smoked cobia tartare. But unlike the tartares you expect, the cobia rested on a bed of fermented fish and Isan-style sauce, seasoned with the strangest, most delectable wild leaves imaginable: a kind of Isan ceviche requiring an acquired taste, which pla ra certainly does.
Then came steamed banana leaf-wrapped snakehead fish with spicy tomato relish, alongside roasted shio koji cabbage perfected by Weerawat, aka Chef Nhoom, who presented a dish we never knew we needed in our lives. Refreshing and with just enough spice, it was simply delicious. A fascinating touch to the dish was the koji cabbage creating a delicate Japanese twist on a rather refined Isan stable, though, as Chef Nhoom came out and explained, the dish was supposed to be made with pig’s brain but the market didn’t make its delivery so he had to make do.
Chalermpon, aka Chef Van, of RARB restaurant served up fermented pork with bacon bits, ground rice mashed potatoes, and an Isan style gravy that was the most delicious twist on British bangers and mash that we’ve ever had, and most definitely will make us think twice when having naem again. After all, how can it be better when cut extra thick and grilled to perfection with bits of bacon?
Phanupon, aka Chef Black, of Blackitch Restaurant in Chiang Mai, who is known for his farm-to-table cuisine, served his gaeng ohm with duck thigh with a special gaeng som sauce dish, all with the same ingredients as his original dish, which was too popular, but with some replacements. This creamy dish sure was interesting and not like a gaeng ohm you would find anywhere else, though ideally we would have liked a ball of sticky rice to soak up that dark and creamy soup.
With no vegetarian or vegan dishes on the menu, Chef Andrew of 80/20 got creative in the kitchen and presented us with his twist on a classic som tum with homemade chamuang sorbet, soon to be on the menu for sure as it was a delicious mixture of all the right flavors in all the right ways!
These are just some of the exceptional dishes coming out of the kitchen during this Isan cook-out running until Monday the 3rd of July. We wish we could have tried them all but that just means we have to come back once more, which is almost better.
For bookings, contact 80/20 at 02-639-1135