Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
whatsoever between people living here, just the opposite.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Friday, April 1, 2011
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.
Life here in Prasat is, for the most part, very good. The population is approximately 17,000, not unlike Laramie, Wyoming, the town where I grew up.There are enough people so that it feels like there's always someone new tomeet, and yet it's small enough that there is never a day in the market when Idon't run into someone that I know. Many of the people I run into are from Kravan, the small village where I lived. People come into the market regularly because Prasat is the district center (the amphuh). This is an agricultural region, and Prasat is the main town. Here there is the farmers' coop (sahagorn), the major banks, the motorbike dealerships, the hospital, the district offices… If you live in the surrounding villages (of which there are hundreds), there's always a reason to come to town, and if you come to town the number one pleasure is the market.
The market goes from morning till night (and a smaller part runs all the way through the night). It's in the center of town, just adjacent to the bus station, impossible to miss if ever you should be coming this way. It sprawls in many directions, inside under a roof and outside in the open air. On the fifth day of every month it is especially big, and again on the fifteenth and the twenty-fifth, when everyone makes a special point of coming to town. The market will be three or four times its normal size, with vendors coming with special wares. Women who have spun and woven silk sarongs will sit on the ground with a few of their handmade sarongs laid out on a piece of cloth in front of them. So too will villagers with a harvest of red ant eggs (khai mot daeng), or crickets (jinglet), or shiny pitch black scorpions (meng bpong). The daily market is wonderful, but on the other three market days there's a particular sense of excitement. Teenage boys and girls eye each other without wanting to be seen. Children buy sweets (kanom). Parents look for bargains.
My favorite market, however, happens in a different placejust on the edge of town. It takes place every Friday afternoon – today, as a matter of fact! Soon we will drive over on the motorbike, along with virtually everyone else in Prasat. The traffic starts to get thick, and then thicker. Finding a place to park is a problem, but always resolvable. The market works because everyone collectively makes it work. People are happy; it's the highlight of the week. There are rides for the children. There's food, and food, and more food. There is a variety of vendors that's almost impossible to describe. People sell tropical fish, second-hand clothing, high-heels for two dollars, orchids, tools, curtains and pillows, everything! The whole market is based upon one long path that ultimately makes a circle. You can walk one direction or the other direction, but if you walk long enough you will ultimately see everyone, or at least everyone walking in the opposite direction. Today is April 1. The national lottery happens on the first and sixteenth of every month. Guaranteed today the market will resound with khow, nung, sahm: 9,1,3, the winning numbers.