Over the NYE holidays, I traveled in Isaan, stopping to cook with families in Chiang Khan and Nong Khai (you'll hear about the cooking in Nong Khai - with some great recipes - a little later). While up in Thailand's northeast, we also got to eat some regional things that rarely make their way down to Bangkok. I was reminded of that today, when I passed a local vegetable seller on my street, who happened to be selling some of these remarkable tomatoes that we found in markets along the Mekong.
Thailand has many superior agricultural products, but tomatoes aren't one of them. While slightly better than, say, the grainy, pale pink specimens that were the only kind I could find in much of China, Bangkok's tomato selection ain't great. Asia is not a place for good tomatoes (though I hear the Japanese have an heirloom fetish - of course they do).
But these little guys - crisp, juicy, sweet, sour and even citrusy - were very nice. Both thick and thin-skinned, the small tomatoes varied dramatically in taste. Some added a fruity note similar to tomatillos, others were bitter or sugar sweet. They complimented a dish we encountered several times in Loei, which I've been craving lately for its simplicity.
We ate it once on the way from touristy Chiang Khan to Nong Khai. My wife and I spent two hours in Pak Chom's dusty parking lot/bus station/food market, before boarding a wooded-floored Mercedes bus, that seemed to move as much laterally it did forward. During that time, we tried the local specialties.
These noodles were a nice change from Isaan's meat-heavy cuisine, where occasions to eat a vegetarian dish are fairly few. In Loei we ate this simple, fresh noodle dish, where strands of batter are squeezed into boiling water, and are then cooked with some Chinese cabbage.
The noodles are topped with some of those tomatoes above, and dressed by the diner with fish sauce, sugar, and a sauce made of fire-roasted chilies and coriander. Locals mixed with their fingers, then ate with their hands in the beds of pickup trucks. We ordered a few plates, then admired the delicate texture of the dish. There was a subtle, green sweetness in that plain, boiled cabbage. And in it an opportunity to do something Thais rarely let you do - taste a single flavor or two.
Then we boarded the bus, and the grinding commenced.
There was five hours of rattling, squeaking, shaking, rumbling and shuffling ahead.