Banana blossoms are one of the many unusual ingredients found in Thai cooking. On the surface, this appears to be an unlikely ingredient – when eaten by itself, it has an unpleasant astringent bite. This taste, however, disappears when accompanied by a creamy coconut sauce and this is how the blossom is often served.
The Thai word for banana blossom is หัวปลี (hua plee).
The outer layers of the blossom are a rich purplish red color and are quite tough. The best parts for eating are the light ivory leaves in the center.
To prepare the blossom for use in cooking, the outer red layers are peeled off. Then the inner ivory colored layers are typically cut into wedges and then soaked immediately in water with a bit of salt or lime juice: this is to prevent the sap from turning the heart and leaves black.
Directly above we see a banana blossom being prepared for use in a Thai dish. Once the dark red outer leaves have been stripped down to the inner ivory-colored ones, we can cut it into wedges.
If we didn’t soak the leaves in salt-or lime-water, they would turn black (and unappetizing!) from the sap.
One typical way to serve banana blossoms is as an accompaniment to a dipping sauce, such as Salted Crab Coconut Cream Sauce – Loen Poo Kem. In addition to salted crabs and coconut creme, this sauce may include ground pork, chopped fresh shrimp, tamarind juice, palm sugar, and salt. This tasty, creamy sauce mellows out the flavor of banana blossoms. The way the sauce and the banana blossom combine to create a unique taste needs to be experienced: it can’t really be described. Besides the banana blossom, a variety of other vegetables choices are on the platter accompanying the sauce.
Banana blossoms may also accompany the noodle dish Mee Kati – Rice Vermicelli Cooked in Spiced Coconut Cream Sauce. Again, the creamy coconut sauce coating the noodles tempers the astringency of the banana blossom to make a delicious taste in the mouth.
Banana blossoms are also made into salads in Thailand; Kasma taught a Banana Blossom and Chicken Salad with Toasted Coconut in her Advanced Set C-3. Peanuts and Roasted Chilli Sauce – Yum Hua Plee. Once again, coconut cream provides the medium to mellow out the astringency. This salad is delicious and a favorite among many of her students.
Banana blossoms can also be cooked as a vegetable in a spicy, rich curry sauce.
If you’ve tried cooking with banana blossom but haven’t had luck making it taste good, do try the suggestions we’ve made above.
In the S.F. Bay Area, we are able to find fresh banana blossoms in many of the Southeast Asian markets and also at the Berkeley Bowl, particularly during the warmer months. If the fresh blossoms are unavailable, banana blossoms are also found already cut into wedges in cans or bottles where they are packed in brine; no need to soak these in salt- or lime-water after shredding. They won’t have a crisp texture and fresh taste, however, like the fresh blossoms to when they are shredded and eaten raw in a salad.
Pla som, or sour fish, is one of my very favorite foods from the northeastern Isan region, which is also known for its sour sausages. It’s made in a similar way as the Isan sour sausages, using fermented rice as the souring agent. I’m partial to fish and a perfectly fermented and crispy-fried sour fish is so delicious it’s hard to stop eating it! The problem is: perfection is hard to find, even in its home territory. (Note: Isan refers to the northeastern part of Thailand.)
My first encounter with pla som was some fifteen years ago in the then small riverside town of Nakhon Phanom in the northeastern corner of Isan. It was at a small rice shop near the hotel I spent the night. Hungry and looking for a good place for breakfast, I walked down one of the streets and noticed a busy rice shop crowded with customers – a good sign! Among the assortment of ready-made dishes in front of the shop was a yummy-looking fried fish topped with crispy fried garlic, fried dried chillies, sliced shallots and cut Thai chillies. I soon discovered it wasn’t any ordinary fried fish. It had a very unusual and delicious sour flavor definitely not from lime juice, tamarind, vinegar or any other sour condiment. That introduction to pla som was truly memorable and I fell deeply in love with this Isan food.
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In those days, Isan food hadn’t yet become popular in the main heartland of the country’s central region. It was impossible to find it in any eatery or restaurant in the capital, even in the few so-called Isan restaurants just opening in the city. But memories of that first encounter remained vivid in my mind and on my tongue. I could only dream of another trip to Isan to savor the delicacy.
Fast forward half a dozen years. Michael and I took a trip to Isan with our friend and adopted brother Sun, who drives for my Thailand tours. I was showing Michael around to the places I’d been and we were exploring new places as possibilities for organizing a future tour. I hadn’t offered an Isan trip for years as traveling in the vast Isan region, Thailand’s largest, during the last two decades of the last century could be tedious and standard tourist accommodations lacking in many of the fascinating areas worth visiting. With Isan now a popular destination among domestic Thai tourists and Isan food becoming an “in” cuisine nationwide, it was a perfect opportunity to check out the new infrastructure, as well as the lively markets and local eateries I’d been reading about in Thai travel magazines.
We had just arrived in Nong Khai on the Mekong River. It was late in the day and after checking into a family-run guest house near the river, we went for a walk along the alley by the waterfront, hoping to find a good restaurant with views of the river for dinner. My eye caught a signboard with the words pla som and immediately I insisted that we have dinner there.
I ordered the pla som while Michael and Sun chose a couple of other dishes. Soon, both of them understood why I was so excited about eating there. The fish was very quickly gone before the other dishes received our attention. The next evening, after a full day of exploration, Sun was the one to adamantly insist that we return to the same place for dinner and, this time, forget about other dishes and just order three plates of pla som, one for the each of us!
For the rest of that trip, as we journeyed along the Mekong east- and southward to the border province of Ubon and then cut westward to Surin and Buriram before heading back to Bangkok, we kept an eye out for pla som but, unfortunately, did not find any place with as good a pla som as we had in Nong Khai. Some were actually rather disappointing. Most of the pla som we saw were uncooked, sold in open tubs in the fresh marketplaces and made with whole fish, as it’s traditionally done, particularly small silver barbs (pla tapian) that do have a lot of small bones. The pla som we had in Nong Khai was made with chunks of a large fish with plenty of moist meat and very little bones.
Michael and I love to visit open-air fresh markets in Thailand and Sun often drives us to marketplaces far and near. We soon begin to notice raw pla som being sold in some of the larger gourmet fresh markets in or near Bangkok, like Or Tor Kor market and Don Wai, either already packaged in plastic bags or sold bulk in big piles. The pla som made by Kamnan Jun sold in Don Wai market is particularly good. It’s made with a fish called pla nuanchan in large mostly filleted chunks with skin still on. The skin is important as it adds a good texture to the fish when it is crispy-fried.
The first time I saw pla som at Don Wai, I bought two large bags and fried all the pieces up the next morning for breakfast. Sun, whose home is in Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, planned to breakfast with us before making his long drive home. He was so delighted to have so many pieces of pla som to feast on. The fish was crispier and even more delicious than he remembered having in Nong Khai. He was convinced that I must have a secret way of frying the fish that enhanced the crispiness and flavor. He devoured with great pleasure as much as he could but there were so many pieces we couldn’t possibly finish the two big plates. So he decided he would wait till afternoon to begin his long drive, so that he could have lunch and finish off the rest!
Pla som has become much better known among Thais all over the country as Isan food continues to soar in popularity the past decade. As migrant workers from Isan find their way around the country, I’m seeing raw, ready-for-cooking pla som in markets far and wide, even in the southern region. A number of Isan restaurants in Bangkok now have it on their menus but so far nothing near as good as the best pla som I’ve had in Isan or that I’ve fried myself from fish bought at Don Wai and Aw Taw Kaw. Vientiane Kitchen on Sukhumvit 36 serves an acceptable one after the restaurant remodeled recently and put in a new menu (and perhaps new cooks, too), but it lacks the crispiness that has become a trademark of delicious fried pla som.
I can even find ready-to-cook pla som in my local Cambodian market in Oakland (see my blog on Mithapheap Market), in packages in the freezer imported from Thailand and labeled in Thai as pla som Mae Jinda. The ingredients are shown in English though, listing fish, garlic, rice and salt. To preserve the fish better for its long journey here, it is made saltier than what’s available in Bangkok’s markets and needs to be eaten with plenty of rice. Delicious though it is!
I’ve also taken to making my own pla som and used to teach it in one of my advanced classes. (See Menus for Advanced Set F.) Definitely a fish with skin still on makes the best pla som. I’ve tried making it with red snapper, catfish, basa (swai) and tilapia. The best result so far is with very fresh tilapia that I buy live from the tanks in Asian fish markets, that I then fillet to remove only the center skeleton, head and tail, but leaving the skin on. In the Bay Area it takes about a week to sour the fish. Rubbed with a coating of tapioca flour before frying, it delivers a most satisfying combination of crispiness and natural sour flavor to rival the best I’ve had in Isan’s restaurants.
My most recent trip to Isan was in December 2009 with a group of twelve on a special northeastern Thailand tour. (On Google+, opens in new window, see Kasma’s Northeastern Trip Photos, Part 2.) Whenever and wherever I saw pla som on a menu, I would order it. Several in my group loved it, but like me, they soon discovered that quality and taste could vary substantially. By far the best we had was at a truly native Isan restaurant in Mukdahan, called Bao Pradit. It’s south of town along the river, serving really hardcore Isan food made with local ingredients not found in other regions. With all the wonderful choices and fiery hot range of flavor combinations, Sun asked that I order for him his own plate of pla som and that’s the only thing he ate that night with a heavenly grin on his face. I would have to say it really was the best of the best pla som I’d ever had.
I’ve only travelled extensively to Isahn (or Isaan) – Northeastern Thailand – one time. Here are some thoughts and impressions.
Kasma was in Khon Kaen in Northern Thailand on the day this is written. She was leading one of her small-group trips to Thailand to Isahn (Northeastern Thailand).
In December 2004, Kasma and I took an exploration trip up there along with our driver, Sun; at the time she was thinking of doing another NE trip and wanted to see how things had changed since her previous trip in 1998. I had travelled quite extensively in other parts of Thailand with Kasma so was curious to see what Isahn was like, particularly since you meet people from the northeast all over Thailand.
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Isahn is one of the poorer regions in Thailand. That’s one reason you meet so many people from there throughout Thailand – they have to leave their homes to make a living. Just one example is the woman who sells kanom krok (grilled coconut rice-cakes) at Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo) on weekends. (I’ve written about her in Siripon, Maker of Kanom Krok.) She has come to Bangkok with her husband to sell street food and send money home while their children are raised by the grandparents.
When we travelled there in December 2004, it seemed much less tropical than the rest of Thailand. Much of the land has been deforested so it is certainly not as lush as the south and central regions.
As always, anywhere in Thailand, some of my most vivid memories are of the markets and the food. Every town seemed to have a bustling, lively market, often with some things I don’t notice elsewhere (such as grilled sticky rice on a stick, rats). One of my favorite memories was eating kanom Jeen at a market in Korat. Kanom Jeen are a type of fermented rice noodle, eaten all over Thailand but especially popular in the northeast. You’ll find a vendor in nearly every market – you can choose from any number of different toppings to put on the noodles.
Another lasting impression is just how very spicy-hot Isahn people can eat. Although I couldn’t eat very hot at all when I first met Kasma, over the years I’ve learned to enjoy food that I think is very spicy. At an early stop on our trip, we were ordering Green Papaya Salad (Som Dtam), one of the best know dishes from Isahn, and the vendor asked if I could eat spicy. Kasma said I could and told him to make it “regular.” Well, their regular is off my spice scale! Their regular is incendiary! Som Dtam and Barbecued Chicken (Gai Yang) were two of our staples throughout Isahn.
This trip was also the first time I ate Bplah Som – sour fish. It’s fish that is mixed with salt, garlic and cooked rice and then left out to ferment (sour). After a few days, it’s fried up crispy and has a delightful, sour flavor that’s hard to describe.
During our trip we visited a number of Khmer-style ruins. Throughout history, much of the area has gone back and forth between the Khmer of Cambodia and Thailand. The ruins are reminiscent of Angkor Wat, although much smaller; on the other hand, we had many of the ruins nearly to ourselves. On this trip, we did not visit Phimai, perhaps the best known of the Khmer ruins in Thailand, or Phanom Wan, both in Korat. We did visit are Prasit Puay Noi in Khon Kaen and several ruins is Surin province: Prasat Hin Wat Sa Kamphaeng Yai and Prasat Sikhoraphum.
One more interesting feature in the north east would be the unusual rock formations. Many of them feature rocks perched on the tops of other rocks in quite improbable positions. Phu Phra Baht Historical Park in Nong Khai. In Mukdahan there’s Phu Pha Theup National Park, a hilly, rocky plateau with fabulous mushroom-shaped rock formations. There’s also Sao Chaliang in Khong Jiam. We spent many hours wandering around these natural areas.
Of course there are numerous temples. Isahn, more than the rest of Thailand, remains more traditional Buddhist. Young men here are more likely to ordain at some point in their lives, a traditional practice once followed throughout Thailand. The temples range from more traditional ones, to forest monasteries (Wat Pah Pong, established by Ajahn Chah, is found in Ubon Ratchathani province) to less traditional, such as the temple built entirely from ceramics – Wat Bahn Na Meuang in Ubon Ratchathani.
Then there’s the weaving. Traditionally, nearly every village had an area where the women would get together to weave, cotton or silk. Although much of the weaving activity has disappeared there are still many outstanding weaving stops in the north east, from Mukdhadan to Khong Kaen to the Thasawang co-op silk village in Surin. For more on weaving in the NE, see Kasma’s blog entry:
There was so much more: fabulous dragons at temples; hieroglyphics that are thousands of years old; a factory where they make gongs (we got to watch the tuning process, which involved a lot of banging!); watching them make spring roll wrappers at Sri Chieng Mai in Nong Kai.
Such a rich region! Suggestions for travel: if you go on your own, do your research before you go so you know where to go. Plan to drive: either renting a car on your own or renting a car with a driver – it’s a big region and you’ll log a lot of kilometers getting from place to place.
I’ve barely scratched the surface. For more, check out:
I never fully understood my mother’s passion for fabrics until I made a trip to Isaan (Northeast Thailand). In her younger days, she spent endless hours browsing fabric shops, acquiring a huge assortment of cloths in a wide range of colors and textures. They filled a large bureau in her bedroom. During her spare time from cooking and being a mom, she would select pieces from her collection and happily sew up beautiful clothes for herself and pretty little dresses for my sister and me.
Before I left home for college in America, she made sure I learned to sew and sent me to apprentice with a seamstress. I learned to draw patterns from pictures of dresses I saw in fashion magazines. Though I was able to make myself a wardrobe of new clothes for college, I didn’t really take to sewing with a passion like mother hoped I would.
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In my youth, I took more to my father’s love of travel and photography. During school breaks and on long weekends, he would take us on excursions to different parts of the country that were just opening up to domestic tourism in the 1960’s. Among the places we visited were the awesome Angkor-era Khmer ruins at Phimai and Phanom Rung in the northeast. Both have since received World Heritage designation and remain the highlights of any trip to Isaan for first-time travelers. Following college I also discovered and admired several other smaller, but no less inspiring, atmospheric Khmer stone sanctuaries, such as Prasat Hin Peuy Noi in the Khon Kaen countryside and the charming Prasat Hin Sikhoraphum in Surin province with its well-appointed reflecting pool.
It wasn’t until a couple of decades later, after I started my home-based cooking school in Oakland, that I decided to explore Isaan’s other hidden treasures. I hired a van and traveled with a few friends from province to province, relying on off-the-beaten-track Thai travel magazines and locals to direct our journey. We drove down many narrow, almost deserted roads to unknown destinations. Soon what consumed the trip turned out to be the seemingly countless weaving villages scattered throughout the northeastern region. As we drove through the countryside, I saw one home after another, in one village after another, where women could be seen weaving in the shade of the open space beneath their wooden house raised on stilts. It was such a contrasting sight that easily grabbed my eye: simple, weathered wooden houses of farming families and brilliant, richly colored silk unfolding from generations-old looms beneath them. The diversity of ethnic peoples settled in small villages here and there on the Isaan plateau meant a profusion of different styles of weaving producing an abundant array of silk and cotton textiles, each unique and beautiful on its own right.
I couldn’t help making stops whenever I saw wooden looms clicking and clacking away beneath the homes in quaint villages. It didn’t take long before I began to fully appreciate the time and effort that went into creating such lovely textiles. The friendly villagers were curious to see us drop by, as few outside people ever did, and most of them were weaving fabrics that they would use to make beautiful traditional clothing for village festivals and to wear to temples for special religious ceremonies. The cloths they were weaving had special meaning in their daily lives.
We stopped at several villages which were particularly known for their fine silk and cotton weaving and observed the entire process from start to finish – from silk worm rearing or raw cotton processing to the elaborate process of dyeing and hand-weaving. I soon became captivated by the unending range of colors, designs and textures that I couldn’t help buying the enchanting works of art. Besides, I have a soft heart for helping villagers who’d been so kind to show us around and even shared with us their food at mealtimes. When piece after piece of gorgeous material was unfolded to reveal its glorious detail and lustrous texture and sheen, how could I refuse to show my appreciation for their talent by not acquiring at least one of the pieces? And the lovely children who followed us around with curious eyes and eager smiles made each stop worth every baht I spent. My own textile collection had finally begun and by the end of the trip, I had completely filled a large, striped fiberglass bag with maybe twenty, thirty or was it forty pieces of textiles, ranging from small scarves to four-meter yardage. Many I purchased with mother in mind and she was very happy with the pieces I brought back for her. Some became gifts for special friends and a few were made into skirts and dresses I cherished. The remainder which included some of the most exquisite pieces returned with me to Oakland to hang on walls or live with other precious items acquired from my travels in my bamboo treasure chest.
Although weaving is done in small villages all over Isaan, there are several provinces particularly known for their weaving villages. In these villages, a large concentration of people weave textiles not only for their own use during their spare time in between rice planting and harvesting, but are actively involved in producing fabrics for sale to visitors and to send to markets far and wide. From the villages of Ban Khwao in Chaiyaphum province and Chonabot in Khon Kaen come some of the finest mudmee (Thai-style ikat or tied-and dyed) silk in the country. I have fond memories of visiting both these villages where the people are very warm and friendly. I remember walking around the village with my traveling companions, witnessing all the different stages of silk production. From smiling grandmas and grandpas to teenage children, entire families take pride in their work to make a supplementary income during their spare time from farming. Seeing how silk threads are tied to resist dye before each dyeing is a special treat, adding to our appreciation for all the knowledge of design and color theory and the special care that go into tying, dyeing and weaving to produce the intended results. The more colors in a piece of mudmee silk, the more complicated it is to design and make.
The finest piece of mudmee silk I own is from Ban Khwao. It has especially fine motifs and delicate, multi-colored contrasting borders. It’s simply too beautiful to be touched by the sharp edges of scissors. The mudmee silks in Chonabot are equally exquisite though the feel and designs are noticeably different. After having seen and felt dozens of pieces of mudmee silk from these two villages, I think I can pretty much tell from which village a piece of mudmee originates when I see it in a shop in the city. Each village does have its signature style.
One of my favorite weaving villages is Ban Poen in Kalasin province, home of the unique “praewa” silk It’s a small village of the Phu Thai ethnic people. I remember on my first trip there we drove for a long while on narrow and somewhat winding roads through open hilly country before we descended onto a small village in the middle of nowhere. It certainly was a treasure of a find. These days, the road has much improved as the same route now takes you to the world-famous dinosaur excavation site and museum. Sirindhorn Museum (named after our beloved crowned princess), opened in 2007, has recently become one of Thailand’s top ten destinations, though 95 percent of the visitors remain Thai and only a handful of foreign tourists venture out to this remote area.
I have a particular affinity with the Phu Thai people of Ban Poen. Perhaps it’s because of their warmth that is so welcoming and make me feel at home. Perhaps it’s the adorable children who come out with their mothers to greet us and who sit beside them when they weave, learning to become the next generation of artisans. Perhaps it’s the unique “praewa” silk that is produced here and which I’ve long admired whenever I see members of the royal family wear it with such elegance. It is aptly called by some as the “Queen of silks” and has acquired both domestic and international fame. I hear that a patent has been applied (and maybe already granted) for praewa silk to preserve this age-old weaving technique of the Phu Thai. Traditionally, Phu Thai women weave praewa as a shawl (sabai) that is draped across one shoulder and as a headdress or hood worn for special ceremonies. For sure, the entire village is radiantly dressed in their traditional praewa clothing for their festive events. Praewa is part of an age-old living culture that will continue to thrive in the modern era as deserved recognition is awarded to it for its exquisite excellence.
My first visit to Ban Poen was truly unforgettable. The women proudly brought out remarkably beautiful pieces of silk to show us on old wooden tables beneath their homes. Some were for sale while others were superb masterpieces reserved for their own ceremonial use or that were in the process of being completed as gifts to members of the royal family. One woman eagerly unfolded a long piece with elaborate panels of intricate, raised designs, each unlike the others. It was almost five meters long. Her 17-year old daughter had been weaving it for over a year to enter in the Queen’s textile contest. I was very impressed and touched by the talent of this shy and humble teenager. She created each panel on the piece spontaneously, each telling a story either about herself, her village or their culture in symbols. It was quite a breathtaking work of art. I found out later that she did win the coveted Queen’s award for excellence in weaving, which she much deserved.
Another province renown for silk weaving is Surin in the lower northeast bordering Cambodia. There are several weaving villages not far from the provincial capital. Here the textiles incorporate Khmer designs and motifs and some have pronounced imagery of people and animals. Rich dark browns, yellows and warm reds and oranges are combined in textural background weaves to yield cloths unique to this area. Currently, the most popular weaving village in Surin is Thasawang, from which comes some of the most magnificient silks the world has ever seen. Although it is touted as the largest silk co-op weaving center in the country, unlike traditional weaving villages where women weave cloth for their own use in their own homes and make extra pieces to sell for supplementary income, the weavers here are paid a daily wage and weave extraordinarily fine cloths fit for kings and queens that they themselves can only dream of owning.
The village was conceived by a teacher who gathered together weavers from many villages in the area to share and preserve knowledge of different weaving techniques and collaborate on producing ever finer grades of silk that each of them cannot produce on their own. The central government was persuaded to fund the large, two – to three-storey, open-air buildings where weavers could work to create masterpieces to deliver to the affluent in Bangkok and the world. Unlike weaving villages that have been around for generations and represent the crafts of particular ethnic peoples, Thasawang came about only recently, within the past 10 to 20 years. i believe it was set up also as a workshop for the teacher to instruct others on ancient weaving techniques and to showcase the teacher’s own work. While I love the human element in visiting traditional weaving villages where weavers own their work, Thasawang, nevertheless, is a most fascinating place to visit. It is a heaven for textile lovers.
Some of the looms are as tall as two storeys. Some are specially made to weave particular pieces of silk and are dismantled after the pieces are completed. Miles of silk threads are strung on the looms and it’s a wonder how they are kept from entangling into a strangling mess. Some pieces of fabric employ such complicated weaving processes that four or more people are required to work the loom to weave only a few centimeters a day of the most extraordinary silk the world has ever known. It;s quite a sight when all four are involved in sorting out threads, with one of them sitting in a pit or on the floor beneath the main loom with a mass of silk threads draped in front of her. Here, too, you see young men involved in helping the weaving process, which tells me that they are specially trained for the work and most likely not traditional village weavers.
Though silk is highly regarded as a treasure of Isaan, there are much more cotton textiles woven in the region than silk. The Prae Pan women’s group in Khon Kaen makes heavily textured, raised designm reversible cotton cloths in warm natural colors. They are woven into blankets, tablecloths, napkins, placemats, table runners, wall hangings and yardage lengths for making sarongs and skirts. Practical and for everyday use, I find these textiles just as attractive as silk and classy in their own special way. Other well-known cotton textiles of the northeast include the “khit” pattern fabrics of Udon Thani province and the cotton cloths of the Phu Thai of Renu Nakhon in Nakhon Phanom. While silk is breathtaking to behold, I wear much more clothes made from Isaan cotton textiles. They come in simple mudmee design, plain pastel colors, in stripes and a combination of mudmee alternated with raised-design weaving much like embroidery done on the loom. I adore their simple beauty and admire them just as much as the magnificent silks that garner more press and attention.
So if you are heading to Isaan for the first time, be sure to include a few weaving villages in your itinerary – in between visits to the Khmer ruins, national parklands with unusual, weathered rock formations reminiscent of parts of the American Southwest and, if you like pre-history, the excavation sites of ancient civilizations and fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. These are the treasures of Isaan and, to me, the weaving villages breathe the life of the country’s heartland where you meet wonderful people in their surroundings and can take home a piece of Isaan to remember your journey by.