After I stopped writing this blog I had a bunch of really nice emails. Someone wrote recently and asked: “what do you eat?” A really good question, but I laughed to myself. What we eat every day is totally unlike food I have ever eaten before, ever.
We eat the rice that Pea grew over this past year (and will soon grow again, fabulous rice), but many days we don’t eat rice at all. It’s hard to describe. We eat a ton of vegetables, for sake of a better word. The title of the book I have been writing is EATING LEAVES, and that’s my best way to describe.
The most common and distinctive tree leaves we eat come from the botanical family Leguminosae. Most of these Leguminosae trees are very big trees, the size of mature maples, and have many important uses apart from having edible leaves. As Leguminosae, their most important contribution, as with all legumes, is in fixing nitrogen in the soil. The leaves commonly grow in a feather-like fashion, like the feather of a hawk.
The four most common leguminous tree leaves eaten here in southern Isaan are khilek (Cassia siamea L.), tamarind (Tamarindus indica L.), chao om (Acaia pennata Willd.), and kratin (Leucaena leucocephala Lam.). In Pea’s family, the last two are eaten much more often than the first two, and tamarind leaves are generally cooked with other foods, seldom eaten raw.
Eating leaves is almost meditation for Pea. She will pick up a long thin stem of, say, chao om or kratin, and then carefully pull the fresh leaves and stem from the harder, bottom stem, discarding the bottom stem as she does it. With the tender leaves, still attached to a tender stem, she will begin to fold them in one-inch lengths, making a small “bundle” of leaf. She then dips the bundle into a chile paste or sauce (nam prik), and then eats it.
Eating leaves makes for long meals! And it’s not like these leaves are flavorless, liking eating celery. Just the opposite. All of them have very distinctive tastes and smells, something that I (and I think others) find addictive. Times in the last few years when I have not been here in Isaan, tree leaves are what I miss the most.
One of our favorite meals is a meal made simply with small fresh Thai oysters, a plate piled high with steamed kratin, a large bowl full of slivered shallots fried until brown, and nam jeem. No rice, nothing, just leaves, oysters, shallots, and chile.
We also eat a lot of flowers from trees. Like with the leaves, the flowers are most often lightly steamed. We eat vegetables like baby eggplants and squash, okra and kale, and tender young galangal, ginger, and green onions, but all these vegetables we most often eat as if they are the spoon – or the tortilla – there to dip into the nam prik, the fresh chile sauce (of which there are literally hundreds).
The nam prik (think roughly the consistency of guacamole) – cooking-wise – is the heart of the meal, the heart of the cuisine. At dawn every morning I hear Pea pounding with a large clay mortar and hardwood pestle. Nam prik takes time, and many of the ingredients will be grilled or dry-fried before being pounded. The house starts to smell like roasting garlic, shallots, and chiles. And then pound, pound, pound.
Nam prik, tree leaves, and veges: that’s what we eat. We also eat frogs, fish of many varieties, pork, chicken, duck, crickets, grasshoppers, red ant eggs, field rats, snakes, silkworm larvae, eels… Pea will almost never buy food that someone else has prepared. All fish, frogs, crickets and grasshoppers arrive at our house alive, never dead.
She is also extremely good with a slingshot. In the village, under twenty feet, I’ve never seen her miss downing a chicken for dinner.