"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Zabb Elee – April 25, 2011

Isaan cuisine, I do not know; but good food, I do. And for good food, where else do you need to look for but Zabb Elee, whose name means “really delicious” (แซ่บอิหลี)* in the North-Eastern dialect of Isaan, instead of being merely “delicious” (zabb)?

*Due to the difficulty of writing out Isann pronunciation using English alphabets, there are many versions of how to properly spell “แซ่บอิหลี” although “saep ih-lee” seems to be the consensus outside of restaurant naming.

Som Tum Poo Plara – Papaya salad with preserved crab and pickled fish

The air hurriedly parted; then a waft of noisome presence closely followed: My salad had arrived. No, they did not tone down on their fermented fish, did they? My olfactory senses were stimulated, even before visual or gustatory. Among the tangibly crunchy strings of green papaya, unexpectedly, I encountered the skinny Thai cousin of my old friend – ganjang gejang (Korean soy marinated crab). The crab flesh was adequately gelatinous and sweet; however, the quantity was absolutely too little. The acid in the salad – lime and tomato – softened the tangy and bitter blow of the fermented fish sauce; and together, they faced the monstrous magnitude of spiciness: “Fight poison with poison.” After sweating through the first serving, I rested with the crispy pork rind to give my taste buds sufficient time to realign themselves for further attack and to replace the fallen ones. Once equilibrium was established, I was ready to enjoy the salad.

Hor Mok – Thai curry fish custard wrapped in banana leaf

Here is a fusion dish that has succeeded: Hor Mok is a fusion of Thai, Malay, Indian and Portuguese. From our generation, California rolls and spicy tuna rolls seem to be winning the race and becoming the “classics” for future generations, where one day, your grandchildren may proudly claim “my grandma’s spicy tuna roll” on a reality TV show (but I do hope this craze over reality TV shows will have died down by then). It is a wild world out there for the fusionists: survival for the fittest – tastiest.

The rich custard was sweet from the coconut milk and fluffy from whipping up the fish paste. The complex spices – coriander and cumin among others - balanced off the heaviness of the coconut cream and killed off any remaining fishiness (if there was any to begin with); while the keffir lime leaves delicately scented the custard.

Pla Nil Pao – Grilled Thai tilapia stuffed with Thai herbs and sweet tamarind sauce
The rather dried tilapia did not win my heart; but their sprightly bright dipping sauce certainly did. The customary tangy tamarind played a quite role, by creating a lightly sweet and sour background, where the chopped onions, garlic and herbs took the center stage. Once anointed with this enchanting sauce, the semi-hard fish seemed to come back to life and start to swim happily in the mouth.

Pad Tua – Sauteed bean sprouts with crispy pork and fresh chili

A rather innocuous dish compared to other contestants, yet the crispness of the bean sprouts revealed the chef’s adept hands in sautéing. Crispy pork was no longer so by the time I tore myself away from the tamarind sauce, but the sweet and salty beans sprouts were a perfectly acceptable to provide variety for the table.

Kao Neaw – Sticky rice

Sticky rice is a specialty of the Isaan cuisine, and it should be. Lightly sweet and fragrant, these elongated grains were beautifully cooked.

Zabb Elee
Address: 75 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10003
Phone: (212) 505-9533 Ave


  1. I missed a lot of good posts while I was away. Nicely researched. I didn't know Hor Mok was a Thai/Malay/Indian/Portuguese fusion dish.

  2. Thanks to you, or I would not have had it!