When it comes to Thai food, perhaps none is more distinctive or unique than Isaan cuisine
WHILE MOST PEOPLE HAVE PROBABLY NEVER heard of Isaan cuisine, they’ve most likely enjoyed its bestknown export, som tam (green papaya salad). Located in northeastern Thailand, the 20 provinces that make up Isaan jut out into Southeast Asia with Laos to the north and east, Cambodia to the south, and the rest of Thailand to the west.
Unlike the sweeter flavors and Chinese-influenced stir-fries and noodle dishes (think: pad thai and tom yum) of South and Central Thailand, Isaan cooking is strongly influenced by Laos and Cambodia, favoring extreme heat and sour flavors. While less celebrated internationally, Isaan food is hugely popular locally for its gritty simplicity, reflecting the rice-growing culture of the region where workers stuff their sticky rice and other food in bamboo containers or wrapped in banana leaves to eat in the fields.
Somtum Der (136 Pasteur, D1) proudly flies the flag for Isaan cuisine in Saigon. Part of a franchise with locations in Bangkok, Beijing and Tokyo, Somtum Der is all about showcasing the simply authentic yet in-your-face flavors of Isaan characterized by fiery chilies, pungent fermented fish sauces and teeth-sucking sour notes. The beauty of
Isaan cuisine is being able to marry whole ingredients with unadorned cooking techniques to create something greater than the sum of its parts, acknowledged by Somtum Der
New York being awarded a Michelin star in 2016. Michelin’s description of the restaurant rings true for the Saigon branch in that “Somtum Der offers a cozy little enclave, stylishly accented with bright pops of red, and a welcome glimpse of the kitchen’s somtum station. There, you'll spy large glass jars of peanuts, dried red chilies, and spices—the contents of which are ground by mortar and pestle to produce what some claim is the city’s best green papaya salad. Order big here, for the portions aren't massive and the food is so terrific you'll inevitably want more.”
We start with the restaurant’s namesake, Tum Suo Der (VND95,000), the classic unripe papaya salad, here served over a bed of rice noodles to sop up the juices (and to counter the deceptive spiciness). It’s a beautiful example of sweet, salty, tangy and spicy with the texture provided by crispy pork rinds and a basket of crunchy vegetables. We’re told this is one of the least pungent versions the restaurant serves, with just a bit of thick, opaque Thai fermented fish sauce (not to be confused with the regular, thin, clear fish sauce), the telltale
sign (and smell) of Isaan cuisine.
We enjoy two other appetizers, Nua Dad Diao (VND95,000) and Tod Mun Pla Krai fish cakes (VND115,000).
The Nua Dad Diao is beef that’s been marinated then sun-dried before getting a quick deep-fry. The sun-drying makes it pleasantly chewy without being tough, and the crispy-fried lemon leaves add a burst of flavor to accompany the nuttiness provided by the sprinkling of coriander seeds. The fish cakes are more reminiscent of Central Thailand with its savory-sweet flavors and bright dipping sauce.
The Tom Saap Kra Dook Aon, or pork spare rib soup (VND95,000), is very characteristic of rustic Isaan cuisine—a clear broth in contrast to the coconut-based tom yum—with an earthy mélange of simple ingredients: chunks of pork ribs, big stalks of lemongrass, slices of galangal and a handful of straw mushrooms. The result is a light, clean soup that burns slow and intense, thanks to the copious amount of fresh chilies in the broth. If you don’t like spicy, make sure to let the kitchen know, as even our ‘medium’ hot had us sucking air through our teeth and downing handfuls of the pull-apart sticky rice in shades of brown and purple in between gulps of refreshing Thai Singha beer (VND45,000).
Our main was a plate of Glass Noodles (VND150,000), a refreshing yet somewhat tame chaser to the hot and sour soup, but loaded with big, fresh shrimp, minced pork and dried shrimp over bean thread vermicelli cooked al dente to soak up the sweet and tangy dressing.
To finish, we shared a serving of Water Chestnuts in Coconut Milk (VND45,000), little bubbles of jelly around a crunchy center and topped with shaved ice, a sweet, icy ending to a fiery meal.
Helmed by Thai Chef Nam who was trained at the original Somtum
Der Bangkok, the Saigon branch is just one of two Thai restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City to be awarded the Thai SELECT certification by the Royal Thai Government, a sign of authentic Thai cuisine. The restaurant also receives visits from Bangkok-based chefs every three months to ensure the flavors remain true to the high Somtum Der standards, a slice of northeastern Isaan abroad.