There’s a reason why Khon Kaen and many Isan provinces have become this year’s holiday hot spots. The burgeoning food scene in the country’s northeastern region is displaying an endless array of thrilling culinary advances. For foodies, this is sure to be a seductive call that’ll be hard to ignore.
Far from the city center of Khon Kaen – 30 kilometers, to be exact – a never-before-seen flurry of customers are trickling into Mekin Farm, a small restaurant within a farm that has just received the Bib Gourmand Award from the Michelin Guide. The guide’s 2023 edition features an expanded coverage that includes the four Northeastern provinces of Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani and Nakhon Ratchasima.
“Our customers have doubled since we’ve received the award from Michelin Guide. To be honest, we’re really surprised and still need to figure how to handle these larger crowds.”
Chongrak “Pu” Charuphanngam, now in her early forties, tells us that seven years ago, she had developed this barren piece of land in the middle of nowhere into a farm. At the time, she wouldn’t have believed it if anyone told her that her little restaurant and farm would one day become a model example of creative tourism in this region, not to mention a recipient of an award from the globally-acclaimed Michelin Guide. Unlike most restaurants that do receive recognition from the guide, the farm is extremely far from the city. It’s also relatively new. The award was a surprise to Chongrak, but it also made her very happy.
It all started with a dream of wanting to own a farmhouse that would double as a homestay, where visitors could come to relax and get in touch with nature. Chongrak first launched this farm with a small café that served many dishes too. The food at Mekin Farm followed her own family’s delicious recipes, all from her own mother. Just like the farm itself, the Isan food served here is simple and sincere, making use of ingredients found at the farm and from the nearby region. Fresh eggs from the farm are used to make their khao jee (grilled sticky rice with egg), which is served as breakfast for homestay guests. The ones here use butterfly pea sticky rice. Guests can also have fun grilling it themselves on the charcoal grill.
The café staples are salads made with vegetables picked fresh from the farm and a delightful homemade dressing. Ferns in their spicy salad are also picked fresh from the garden. The best catch from the nearby Ubol Ratana Dam are used to make steamed fish or fried fish served with a jaew chili sauce. Truly local flavors are found in the somtam and fried chicken; rice noodles with fish curry using homemade curry paste following the owner’s mother’s recipe; or deliciously sour Isan sausages from Phu Kiaw. For carb lovers, the farm also serves pizza, baked in their outdoor clay oven. Receiving the Bib Gourmand Award from Michelin has only pushed Chongrak to develop more menus and to improve her service in order to meet the demands of an ever increasing number of tourists.
Many may be stuck with the image of the northeastern boonies, devoid of beautiful nature common in other provinces that could inspire tourism. The common perception is there is nothing stylish to see or do here, but today, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Mekin Farm is only one of the many businesses by a new generation of Isan returnees who had left their hometown for the bright lights of Bangkok or other cities in foreign countries. Upon returning home within these past few years, they’ve brought back their worldly experiences and enlivened the Northeastern provinces with new and snazzy enterprises.
These days, one would be stunned to encounter countless cool businesses, helmed by a new generation, scattered all across the city and its outskirts. In many Isan provinces, there are eateries in the fields that bring together countryside charm with contemporary style. In Khon Kaen, you’ll come across expert pastry houses with cakes and croissants that are no less delicious than the ones in Bangkok. You’ll also find roasters with specialty coffee, craft cocktail bars, wagyu bars, authentic Italian restaurants, among many other mouth-watering establishments. Even talented chefs who have decided to open restaurants in their hometowns have centered their food on representing old culinary wisdom and injecting a touch of modernity to elevate Isan food.
All of these developments are a reflection of the Thai government’s initiative to establish the Northeastern region as a go-to for culinary tourism.