Living, Breathing, and Eating Isaan

A big part of cultural adjustment, enjoyment, and sometimes difficulty for all of our volunteers revolves around food and the daily diet in a new environment where cuisine, traditions around eating, and available produce differ dramatically from those we are accustomed to. Below, WorldTeach Thailand volunteer Caitlyn Pisarski tells us about the food culture at her site and in her home.

 Grilled chicken, sticky rice & corn

My WorldTeach roommate Steph and I have a pretty sweet deal when it comes to living arrangements. Our Thai roommate, Pi Yok, prepares or buys our food every night so we never have to worry about where to find our next meal after a long day of teaching. This convenience does come with some setbacks (my mind wanders to the night we were served a chopped up and stir-fried frog, or when we were given raw lap, a popular Lao/Isaan meat dish with chilies and herbs) but most days the food is delicious; we even have a favorite dish we’ve come to look forward to, a savory vegetable omelet over jasmine rice, every Friday.

Yesterday, we had a typical Isaan meal (pictured above) which was purchased from the daily market: grilled chicken, a handful of sticky rice, and an ear of corn (though the chicken doesn’t always come with feet still attached!). Sticky rice and grilled meats are staples in the Isaan diet, as are fresh vegetables, soups, curries, eggs prepared in a variety of ways (omelet, fried, hard-boiled), and of course: som tam!

Som tam, rose apples, egg omelet and vegetables

Som tam, or papaya salad, is made with shredded green papaya, tomatoes, long beans, peanuts, chilies, lime, fish sauce, and sugar. It can be prepared with a variety of other ingredients and the papaya may be substituted with vegetables such as long beans or cucumbers. I eat som tam at least twice a week at school and usually once during the weekend. For me it was an acquired taste but I find myself craving it now; I’m also proud of the fact that I’ve graduated from the less-spicy anubaan (kindergarten) Thai version, teasingly named as such by Pi Tuk. I can now tolerate som tam Lao, though it still leaves my lips burning long after I’ve left the table!

One of my favorite things about the Isaan diet is the freshness of the fruits and vegetables. Second favorite thing: availability. Fresh markets are as common here as Walgreens and CVS stores are in the United States. I am also continuously amazed by the bright orange color of the beta carotene-packed egg yolks, a stark contrast to the washed-out pale yellow yolks found in the States. Food has been on my mind (more than usual) since reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and it’s hard not to draw comparisons between my diet here and in the U.S. It will be interesting as I navigate my way once again through the grocery store aisles after 1) having meals provided for me during the past year, and 2) living in a community where the closest thing to a grocery store is an open-air pavilion lined with local farmers selling their daily harvests. The transition will be note-worthy, to be sure.

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