East Village restaurant Somtum Der (85 Avenue A; 212-260-8570) focuses on Isan, the largest region of Thailand. One of the four main regional cuisines, Isan’s is marked by peppery flavors. “Isan [cuisine] is very spicy, but at the same time, it is salty — spicy, salty, a little sweet. Kind of an explosive taste and cuisine,” says co-owner Supanee Kitmahawong. The area itself is a highland, filled with farms — which is where Isan food gets many of its ingredients and spices, like bamboo shoots, chiles, garlic, rice, and lemongrass.
The New York offshoot of Somtum Der opened two years ago, after Kitmahawong visited the original location in Bangkok. “When I found [Somtum Der in Bangkok], I thought that New Yorkers were ready for something new, a new kind of cuisine,” says Kitmahawong. “My partner and I opened in the East Village. Chef Korn is the one who came up with all the recipes, and he’s very talented.”
Chef Korn, or Kornthanut Thongnum, was born in the northern region of Thailand and attended school in the Isan area. He spent a lot of his time learning how to cook traditional Isan dishes. When Kitmahawong decided to open a Somtum Der in New York, she invited the chef to the city to train the staff and to teach them how to cook Isan food.
While Thai food isn’t typically vegetarian — dishes often call for fish sauce — there are a few vegetarian items that dot Somtum Der’s menu. The soup nor mai ($9), a boiled bamboo shoot dish, is usually served with a fish-sauce-based broth, which can be made vegetarian by requesting soy sauce instead. Soup nor mai is a very common dish. Papaya salad is usually served with dinner because it complements everything; however, a bamboo shoot salad can be subbed in — bamboo shoot is prevalent throughout Thailand.
Chiles, red onion, roasted rice grain, soy sauce, sesame seeds, and lime are used to bring flavor to the bamboo, after it’s boiled and then cut into a noodle-like style. If you aren’t used to spice, the dish packs a punch, but you can ask the server to tone down the level of heat before ordering. The dish is indeed pungent because of the lime and red onion; the bamboo shoots themselves are simultaneously soft and firm. The sesame seeds provide a solid crunch.
Sticky rice is traditional to Isan cuisine, rather than jasmine rice. The steamed sticky rice ($3) is served in a little box and then wrapped in cellophane to keep warm. When eaten with the bamboo shoot dish, the rice helps to soften the spicy blow.
The grilled sticky rice ($4) appears as oblong orbs, grilled on the outside but still soft within. There’s a hint of coconut in the rice, which is both nutty and sweet, though not overwhelmingly so. Like the steamed sticky rice, the grilled sticky rice offsets the hot flavoring of the soup nor mai.
Other vegetarian dishes on the menu include larb hed kao kuo ($8), a minced-mushroom salad garnished with peppermint, lime, and roasted rice; the vegetarian fried rice ($9), which is served with an assortment of vegetables; and tum mangsavirat ($8), the vegetarian papaya salad, which adheres to classic Isan flavorings: salty, sweet, and spicy.