Isaan, or northeastern Thailand, is full of dishes that are very strong and fiery in flavours. Most new inductees to Thai food may not take to this regional cuisine that well, as plaa raa—the Isaan equivalent of naam plaa (Thai fish sauce) but more overpowering and pungent—is a staple for many of its iconic dishes. But once the plaa raa “barrier” is surmounted, discerning palates will be rewarded with a smorgasbord of flavours. Seriously.
Having went down the path of pungent Thai sauces, I now see beauty in food like sup nor mai, or Isaan bamboo shoot salad. While it’s quite common to find this dish at mixed food stores in Bangkok, the versions served at these roadside or makeshift stalls often resemble strips of used rags soaked in dirty mop water, which tend to reduce the dish’s visual appeal by several notches.
But put a dish in the right hands and it will shine. During a recent visit to Udon Thani, my mother-in-law (whom I simply call Mae) welcomed our arrival with sup nor mai. After the first few morsels Mr. P and I were hooked, and by the end of the meal we were craving for more bamboo shoots. Before returning to Bangkok, we requested for sup nor mai again, which Mae happily obliged.
But to make the best and freshest possible version, we have to drive five kilometres to the next village nestling at the foothills of Phu Foilom. Why? According to Mae, the villagers there gather wild bamboo shoots from the mountains and grill them before selling, which will enable us to save a step in the preparation process.
After coming home, Mae starts the process. With deft movements, she peels off the grilled outer leaves from the bamboo shoots, then slices off the base while keeping the more tender parts. The shoots are then dunked in a bowl of water to remove any dirt.
Now, don’t these “naked” bamboo shoots look like wax crayons?
Mae then uses a bamboo stick to shred the tender bamboo shoots into strips. I pick up a stick and start to mimic her actions, which draws chuckles from her as she keeps her shredding momentum. But she takes a quick look at my progress and gives me the thumbs-up for creating passable-looking strips.
The bamboo strands are then sliced and caught in a bowl. Mae’s actions are so swift that several times I have to request for her to pause in her actions in order for me to photograph the process.
At this point, a spotted, tri-coloured dog trots over to the bamboo hut where we are seated, curious to see what the fuss is all about. Our eyes meet for several seconds, but I think to myself, sorry dude, sup nor mai’s not for you.
Mae then beckons me to follow her to the side of the house to pick bai yanang (ใบย่านาง). These leaves help to tat khom—which literally means ‘cut the bitterness’—as fresh bamboo shoots have a bitter, acrid taste.
After collecting and washing the yanang leaves, Mae gives them a vigorous rub to release their juices, a process which Mr. P likens to washing clothes. Very soon, the bowl is filled with dark green extracts – naam yanang.
The julienned bamboo shoots are boiled together with the yanang water in a pot to reduce the liquid. Fish sauce and lime juice are added, followed by shredded ginger leaves, chopped scallions and crushed peanuts.
The final dish is so yummmmmmy. I admit that it’s not a dish for everyone, but it’s so satisfying to dip balls of sticky rice into the thick sauce and bite into the bamboo shoots at the same time. Till now, more than a month since our Udon Thani trip, Mr. P and I are both still gushing over Mae’s sup nor mai. Well, we need to pencil in another trip back home soon!