Street food, affordable and sold by roadsides or public spaces, is a beloved local tradition. Often associated with renowned areas in Bangkok, this culture isn’t limited to big cities. Even in the small northeastern town of Nong Khai, a treasure trove of distinctive and not-so-easily found foods awaits, from Isaan and Vietnamese to Laotian cuisines.
Returning home for the first time in months, I embarked on a journey to savor the roadside tastes of Nong Khai. In this town rich with centuries-old tales, the aromas tell stories of their own.
Nong Khai’s cuisine bears a strong resemblance to Laotian food. This is largely due to the fact that Laos and Thailand share a contiguous border, and historically, Laos was once a Thai vassal state from the Ayutthaya to the early Rattanakosin period (1769-1853). Laotian culinary traditions subsequently seeped into Thailand.
Simultaneously, Thai cuisine influenced the food culture across the border, resulting in a fusion of gastronomic traditions between the two nations. This blending persisted until Laos was colonized by the French and became a French protectorate.
Nong Khai’s cuisine has also been influenced by the Yuan people. Before discussing the Vietnamese food influence, it’s essential to note that Vietnam also experienced French colonization, starting from 1858 to 1887. This led many Yuan people to migrate continuously to Laos, eventually spilling into Thailand.
However, the Yuan people did not lead a tranquil life as envisioned. They were suspected of possibly having communist affiliations during the early Cold War period. General Phibun Songkram’s government implemented policies that restricted the economic and social status of the Yuan community and confined them to reside in the designated areas of five provinces: Prachinburi, Ubon Ratchathani, Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom, and Nong Khai. This concentration led to a dense population of Yuan people in Nong Khai.
With limited agricultural land and access to education, the Yuan people turned to labor for survival. This era marked a period of financial constraint for them, prompting families to grow vegetables and cook Vietnamese food within their households instead of purchasing the pricier Isaan cuisine. Once they had saved up some money, they began venturing into food vending, often using floating platforms. Eventually, Vietnamese cuisine became widely recognized and associated with Nong Khai, solidifying its reputation in the province to this day.
Most of Nong Khai's street food possesses a mild flavor profile, often requiring additional seasoning or dipping sauces to enhance taste. Some dishes might incorporate fermented fish and fresh chili for the spiciness characteristic of Isaan cuisine. You haven’t truly arrived if you don’t try the recommended dishes when visiting Nong Khai.
“Khao jee,” known as “khao jee tha khai” in Nong Khai, is a beloved street food that every family is familiar with. It’s easy to make by shaping glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk into flat discs or balls. Then, dip them in an egg mixture seasoned with light soy sauce and white pepper before grilling them gently over low heat. This yields soft, fragrant Khao Jee infused with the aroma of egg and coconut. Some versions also include fermented fish paste in the egg mixture, creating a stronger outer layer with a rich umami flavor.
Khanom Buang Yuan
“Khanom buang yuan,” also known as “bansaeo” in the Vietnamese community, is a delicacy that emerged during the Siamese-Vietnamese War in the third reign of the Rattanakosin era. It resembles Thai pancakes but larger in size. The dough has a yellow hue from curry powder or turmeric and has a chewy, soft texture. The filling comprises minced pork, spring onions, bamboo shoots, and mung bean sprouts.
The pancake’s outer layer emits a fragrant aroma, akin to Khao Jee, but with a milder flavor profile. It’s usually served with a dipping sauce called “ajad,” made by boiling palm sugar and tamarind water. Typically, it includes cucumber, but here, it’s made distinct by adding roasted peanuts. This unique blend creates a balance of sweet and sour, enhanced by the presence of curry powder within the dough. The result is an enticing treat that leaves you wanting more, and the “ajad” sauce can be personalized to cater to individual taste preferences.
Khanom Niew Yuan
“Banh tai meo” translates directly from Vietnamese as “cat’s ear cake,” but in Nong Khai, it’s commonly referred to as ”khanom niew.' This is because the texture is chewy and springy, akin to the consistency of tapioca flour dumplings filled with minced pork. The filling comes with bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms, minced pork, carrots, and dried shrimp. The dish is garnished with crispy fried shallots. The dominant flavor is the bamboo shoots, followed by the warm spiciness of black pepper. Additionally, a sweet yet spicy dipping sauce enhances the overall experience, preventing monotony in taste.
“Tom sen” or “gang sen” is a Vietnamese dish reminiscent of both “kuay teow” and “kuay jub yuan” but distinctively using glass noodles as its base. Ingredients include fish balls, torn chicken, spring onions, mung bean sprouts, and pork rind. At first glance, its appearance, flavor, and aroma resemble typical noodle dishes. However, its true uniqueness lies in the customizable eating experience. Those who remain unsatiated can buy sticky rice to dip into the broth, or they can request the vendor to combine “jok” (congee) with the dish.
Khao Jee Pate
“Khao jee pate,” often referred to as the “Laotian sandwich,” is a dish that has been influenced by French colonization and has found its way into Nong Khai. This dish consists of French baguette, pâté, followed by various fillings such as grilled pork, red pork, liver pâté, minced pork, and fresh vegetables like cilantro, carrot, and cucumber. The dish is then drizzled with a dipping sauce made from a mixture of fresh chili sauce, mashed garlic, soy sauce, fish sauce, and lime juice.
The spicy dipping sauce helps to balance the sweetness and saltiness found in the various ingredients of the sandwhich. Additionally, there might be pickled vegetables like daikon to cut through the richness of the liver pâté. Normally, French baguettes have a soft, chewy texture, but when they are freshly baked and enjoyed with the fillings and dipping sauce, the result is a delightful contrast between the crispy exterior and the tender interior, combining sweet, salty, and spicy flavors.
If you're visiting Nong Khai and seeking an immersive experience that truly encapsulates the essence of the town, I recommend exploring the street food scenes around the city. Whether it’s Prachak Road, the Indochina Market, Phochai Morning Market, the Rim Khong Market (every Thursday-Friday), or the Walking Street (every Saturday), wandering through these culinary hotspots will allow you to truly immerse yourself in Nong Khai’s atmosphere and eating culture. These markets and streets are where you’ll find local delicacies, each boasting their own distinct flavors and aromas. The bustling environment, the variety of foods, and the interactions with local vendors will give you a genuine taste of what Nong Khai has to offer.