I've spent a good portion of the past week camped out in Chiang Khan, a sweet, sleepy little town in northern Isaan's Loei province, which borders Laos from across the Mekong River. Chiang Khan is a popular weekend getaway for Thai city-dwellers, famed for its traditional timber houses and the cute trinket-and-food-lined promenade that sets up along the river each night. There's an abundance of coffeeshops here and plenty of street snacks impaled on sticks (meatballs, dried squid, barbecue chicken) to keep visitors happy.
But the real culinary powerhouse of Nong Khai is a diminutive woman named Chi, the namesake proprietor of Chi Kum Man Tong, a small restaurant on a side street that serves several varieties of northern Thailand's beloved som tum (papaya salad) and a handful of noodle dishes. While noodles aren't exactly hard to come by in Thailand, Chi makes a dish that's virtually impossible to find out of Chiang Khan: dong daeng.
Essentially Thai spaetzle, dong daeng are thick, short fermented rice flour noodles extruded from a small metal press and boiled to-order. The noodles themselves are a variation of kahnom jeen, a type of fresh, skinny fermented rice noodle you'll see all over Thailand.
Chi, a Chaing Khan native, claims to have invented dong daeng—named after the "dancing" motion the noodles make as they cook—some ten years ago, adapting a family recipe that called for bite-sized noodle balls nicknamed "gai muah," or "chicken heads." When Chi's shop started drawing crowds, it took her too long to make the gai muah to order, so she developed the tubular dong daeng instead, which are more efficient to make.
After the noodles are boiled, they're tossed, along with a handful of fresh mountain greens, into Isaan's ubiquitous mortar and pestle and mixed with garlic, chilis, limes, fish sauce and crushed peanuts. The finished product, served room temperature, is a wonderland of flavor and texture: the thick, chewy noodles are offset with crisp-tender greens, and the slight sourness of the noodles dovetails neatly with the tangy juice from the tomatoes and limes.
To round out a bigger meal at Chi's, she borrowed some charcoal grilled meats from the barbecue man who sets up shop across the street in the afternoon: gai yang, chicken pounded flat and painted with a sticky-sweet fish sauce-and-garlic sauce; and miang plaa, a whole Mekong fish stuffed with fresh herbs and coated in coarse salt before cooking.
Chi prepared a beautiful selection of accouterments for the fish, including a tray of fresh lettuce and a platter of fresh kahnom jeen and sliced shallots, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. The idea is to systematically eat the entire fish bite-by-bite, in individual lettuce wraps topped with a piece of each sliced accessory. It's a lot of raw, strong flavors in a small package, but they work together beautifully, proof that even the simplest ingredients can come together as more than the sum of their parts.