Zab Zab: killer Isaan food in Kanchanaburi

Food, Kanchanaburi, Thailand / Sunday, May 28th, 2017

Isaan (northeastern Thai) food at Zab Zab restaurant in Kanchanaburi, ThailandWest-central Thailand’s Kanchanaburi town might not be a foodie destination in its own right, but for those passing through for its numerous other attractions – among them the WW2-era death railway line, Hellfire Pass, numerous war cemeteries, and countless waterfalls including those at Erawan and Sai Yok – it packs a surprisingly good punch for those looking to eat well.

Yet inevitably, with the hordes of travellers that make Kanchanaburi a mainstay on Thailand’s tourist trail, much of the fare here is either western fodder, or at the very least Thai cuisine adapted to suite the foreign palate. Aside from the town’s numerous evening markets, where inexpensive dishes are both plentiful and rich in variety (and often decent enough, but rarely life-changing), it can feel a challenge to find truly excellent authentic Thai cuisine.

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Somtum hoy dong papaya salad with pickled cockles at Zab Zab Isaan (northeastern Thai) restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

The food is, however, there for those willing to put in the effort to find it. One such place well worth hunting out is Zab Zab, a northeastern Thai restaurant just off the main backpacker drag of Maenam Khwae Road. Just like many of the best, humble Isaan eatery doesn’t make a huge deal about itself (though it has a dual-language signboard out front, both Thai- and English-language menus are available, and on our most recent visit it had doubled in size by taking over the property next door, meaning there’s now also some limited air-conditioned seating available), and plenty of travellers inevitably pass right by without even giving it a second glance.

Laab pla chon salad of deep-fried snakehead fish at Zab Zab Isaan (northeastern Thai) restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

The menu at Zab Zab – the name being coined from the Lao-derived Isaan dialect equivalent of the Thai word ‘aroi’, meaning ‘delicious’ – is extensive, though this mostly open-air, local-feeling restaurant, one up from a street stall but still nothing fancy, doesn’t serve anything extraordinarily unusual that you wouldn’t find at any other everyday northeastern eatery worth its salt either in Bangkok or upcountry. Instead, what stands out here – appropriately given that choice of name – is the consistent excellence of every dish turned out, and the fact that not a single one makes any attempt to tone down its flavour profile. While the cooks will almost certainly go easy on the chillies by special request, this is the sort of place that unapologetically serves pungent, aromatic and fully flavoured food that refuses to hold back on a single punch.

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If you don’t make that special request for fewer chillies, expect every plate (with exceptions, of course, for dishes that are genuinely meant to be milder wherever you eat them) to come out of the kitchen mindblowingly hot. (I rarely struggle with spicy food – if anything it’s almost always my Thai dining companions, rather than me, who are sweating and reaching for water – but even I had a hard time with our most recent meal at Zab Zab, albeit that I loved every second of the torture.) Put simply, this is the kind of restaurant that practically shouts from the rooftop that, if you don’t like your Isaan food made to authentic recipes and with intense spice and flavour, this is not the place for you.

Dishes span the usual repertoire of northeastern Thai cuisine, including the likes of somtum papaya and mango salads, laab and namtok herby meat based salads, a variety of spicy, fragrant soups, and a selection of grilled and fried meats. The menu also makes some concessions to other styles of Thai cuisine from regions across the country apart from northeastern Isaac, with a small selection of more ‘everyday’ stir-fry and salad dishes (like stir-fried holy basil, fried rice, and so on), as a way of satisfying fussy diners not in the mood for somtum.

This is likely also an effort to serve the odd foreign traveller who does randomly roll in off the street, doesn’t get the fact that Thai restaurants tend to have different offerings depending on style and region of cuisine (and the lack of understanding on that front is to be expected, since Thai restaurants overseas almost always serve just about everything under one roof), and so expects to be able to order a pad thai wherever they go.

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Ordinarily, this kind of attempt at generalism is an alarm bell for me, potentially a sign that a restaurant is trying to cover too many bases at the expense of being good at any of them. But thankfully – while I haven’t tried any of the non-Isaan dishes on Zab Zab’s menu (why would you, when there’s such a veritable choice of northeastern foods that are their speciality?) – this is not one such place, and the presence of pad krapao on the menu doesn’t mean you need to fear being served a mediocre plate of somtum.

Somtum hoy dong papaya salad with pickled cockles at Zab Zab Isaan (northeastern Thai) restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Somtum hoy dong (ส้มตำหอยดอง) – papaya salad with pickled cockles

On our most recent visit, we threw caution to the wind and ignored the fact that there were only two of us eating, and ordered a huge spread of food that was probably comparable to my first time here, when we went as a group of five. The somtum hoy dong – papaya salad with pickled cockles – had left an especially indelible mark on my being when I had last eaten here, and was among the most convincing reasons for us to return, and so that was certainly going to figure in our feast this time around. It was no disappointment: loaded with cockles, packing the sweet and sour flavour contrast that I so love about this dish, and certainly not lacking in chilli power.
Tum mamuang somtum-style mango salad at Zab Zab Isaan (northeastern Thai) restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Tum mamuang puu (ตำมะม่วงปู) – green mango salad with salted crab

But not content with just one mere mortar-load of somtum, we also ordered tum mamuang puu, a somtum-style salad of shredded green mango with salted crab. The added sour notes that the mango brings to tum mamuang are what makes this dish another of my favourites, albeit for whatever reason not one that I end up eating all that often (more force of habit than anything else, I suspect). Suffice to say that Zab Zab’s rendition was an admirable one.

Laab leuad raw beef salad at Zab Zab Isaan (northeastern Thai) restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Laab leuad (ลาบเลือด) – raw beef salad with blood

Laab leuad (semi-literally minced meat salad with blood) also made it onto our table, as it does for me at least once or twice a week on my dinner-time pilgrimages to my regular Isaan street food stall at home in Bangkok. This dish – which, between central Thai and Isaan/Lao dialect goes by a confusingly large number of names, also including goy and sok lek – is to all intents and purposes a Thai-style tartare. It’s made with roughly chopped (rather than minced, as the word laab would usually imply) marinated raw beef (optionally including offal) – or, on rare occasions and much more to the horror of food safety obsessives, pork – alongside shallots, spring onions, toasted rice powder, chilli, and lime, plus a squirt of pig’s or chicken’s blood.

Any laab leuad I eat is competing against the incredibly hard, pretty much unbeatable benchmark of my regular Bangkok haunt, and for me the mark of a show-stoppingly good version – one that will make me heart sing as I start to dig in, rather than fill me with dread that it might be a disappointment – is an abundance of fresh mint leaves either thrown into the mix or festooned on top to be amalgamated as I eat. Mint seems to have the surprising ability to lift the entire dish, and really bring out the complex flavours to enable the whole medley to taste of more than just a plate of raw meat. Zab Zab’s laab leuad had a generous amount of mint, and the dish predictably delivered on all fronts. You know what? It might even be almost on a par with the one at my local market – almost.

Laab pla chon salad of deep-fried snakehead fish at Zab Zab Isaan (northeastern Thai) restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Laab pla chon (ลาบปลาช่อน) – salad of deep-fried snakehead fish

Another standout dish was the laab pla chon, this time a whole deep-fried snakehead fish smothered with a more saucy, liquid-based version of the familiar laab dressing (also similar to that in laab leuad), dominated by chilli, shallots, and toasted rice powder – and yet another deviation from the widely held yet not entirely accurate idea that all laab dishes need to be made with minced protein. In spite of what I said earlier about Zab Zab serving up a pretty standard albeit well-executed Isaan menu, laab pla chon is perhaps the exception – it’s certainly not only found at Zab Zab, and there are doubtless swathes of restaurants serving it across Thailand, but it’s undeniably a less common sight at your everyday northeastern Thai street joint.

In fact, it’s one of the dishes I tried at trendy east London’s much-raved-about Thai restaurant Som Saa at the height of its popularity in August 2016. Indeed, laab pla chon – or namtok pla tod (fried fish namtok salad) as they choose to style it, in yet another mark of the fluidity of names attributed to Thai dishes (whereas laab is most often understood as being made with minced meat or fish, nam tok, meaning waterfall, depending on who you listen to for either the way the blood trickles off the meat over the charcoal or for the way its spice levels make tears run down your cheeks, usually refers to a dish prepared using chopped, bite-sized chunks of grilled meat, and an almost identical herb-spice base) was one of the dishes at Som Saa that I saw most fantasised about in press coverage of the restaurant, perhaps erred on by the admittedly enticingly erotic presentation of a whole fish laden in smoky juices.

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Ultimately, while I am a fan of Som Saa overall, that’s more for the buzz and vibe of the bar-restaurant and its excellent cocktails than for the food. It’s undeniably a cut above the general standard of Thai restaurant fare in the UK, but overall I found it underwhelming and overhyped (and my Thai dining partner agreed, so it’s not just me), especially in terms of the authenticity to Thai flavours that Som Saa claims is central to what it’s doing – there’s more adjustment to the western palate going on there than I had hoped would be the case. (On a subsequent visit to London I rejoiced on trying Lao Café, which is without doubt a true celebration of the genuine flavours of northeastern Thai and Laotian cooking.)

Laab pla chon salad of deep-fried snakehead fish at Zab Zab Isaan (northeastern Thai) restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

That was especially true of Som Saa’s namtok pla tod, a dish that was good enough but lacked the expected wow factor. Not so at Zab Zab – while some will perhaps find this one to be a tad on the sweet side, the laab-style dressing an impressive and satisfying combination of mildly spicy, sour, and sweet notes to complement the crispy skin and juicy, in parts deliciously fatty flesh of the fish – and topped with shredded green mango for another punch of sourness that really completes the mix, and means it ends up almost as a tum mamuang salad (again, Som Saa’s version settled for a topping of salad leaves, which I couldn’t help think was a cop-out).

Tom super teen gai tom saab soup with chicken feet at Zab Zab Isaan (northeastern Thai) restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Tom super teen gai (ต้มซุปเปอร์ตีนไก่) – chicken foot soup

The first of our final two dishes was tom super teen gai, a tom saab hot, sour and fragrant soup (think of if as the Isaan answer to the ubiquitous tom yum, even if that’s oversimplifying things), based on a broth of lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime, and loaded with chicken feet and rewardingly large chunks of congealed pig’s blood. This was yet another fiery and flavour-packed dish, served hot-pot-style over a flickering candle.

Yum leb mue nang salad of boneless chicken feet at Zab Zab Isaan (northeastern Thai) restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Yum leb mue nang (ยำเล็บมือนาง) – boneless chicken foot salad

Lastly, we also tucked into yum leb mue nang, a spicy-and-sour salad of boneless chicken feet in a heavily acidic dressing of lime, chilli, fish sauce, and sugar, along with fresh tomato, onion and coriander. It’s not a dish that I tend to eat on a regular basis, but lately I’ve developed much more of a fondness for the sharp sourness that gallons of lime juice brings to yum-style salads of all kinds, and this yum leb mue nang was a delicious example of exactly that.

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We ordered some grilled chicken, too, when part-way through our meal we were desperately hankering for something comparatively bland to take the edge off the array of almost exclusively super-spicy dishes we had somehow ended up opting for – but by this point trade had picked up and the chicken hadn’t emerged by the time we finished our meal, so we cancelled it (or rather, we assume that the order got forgotten somewhere along the way, because nothing was actually said about it either way).

But the six dishes that the two of us did devour were impressively powerful and fresh, intensely pungent and aromatic, and simply loaded with genuine passion for authentic, unabashed, straight-outta-Isaan flavours. Those looking for a true education in Isaan cooking and an experience of its full array of dishes – without having to trek to the northeast, and unexpectedly without even having to stroll more than 30 seconds from Kanchanaburi’s backpacker central – will not be disappointed with Zab Zab.

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Prices are reasonable, as is to be expected from this kind of low-key, largely open-air and local-style restaurant. Individual dishes range from 30-40 baht for the cheapest of the somtum papaya salad varieties, up to a couple of hundred for dishes like the whole fried fish (our sticky rice was thrown in without charge with our main dishes, which was a nice touch). There’s also a decent selection of soft drinks, including fresh passion fruit juice when we visited, and local beers.

Note that the English-language menu (which non-Thai-speakers will likely be given without needing to ask) doesn’t have quite the full selection of dishes that make it into the Thai-language version so, if there’s a dish you especially want to try here, come with the Thai name in mind or written down.

201/18-19 Tambon Tha Makham (Krom Pra Rad Cha Wang Bo Worn Road – just past the junction with Maenam Khwae and Don Rak roads, and along from the Nine Guesthouse and Gravite coffee shop), Kanchanaburi; 089-545-4575

Daily, 11.30am-10pm