This is the season for Dawk Khae. They fall during the night from two flowering trees next to our house. We are lucky to have them. They are fairly unusual in our valley. Seeds for ours came with the landfill when we were building. They were a pleasant surprise. They also are a financial help to Pramote’s sister, Jaa, who comes every morning to collect them and turn them into “Dawk Khae Stuffed with Pork”. Jaa has made about $100 (3000 baht) in the last 6 weeks collecting, cooking and selling stuffed Khae flowers.
Pramote tells me the recipe is easy (for him). There are many versions. The fragrant, waxy, slightly bitter blossoms resembling an orchid are stuffed with a marble-sized ball of finely-minced pork (almost pureed), mixed with egg mixed with curried chili paste. These are roasted. They can also be steamed, fried or boiled. Some add them to soup – this is north Thailand, the land of ten-thousand soups.
McFarland [Thai-English Dictionary, Stanford University Press, 1944, p. 213] says “The fleshy petals as well as the tender leaves are relished in curries and soups or fried with butter. The bark, leaves and flowers are used medicinally.” He does not give Khae a name in English, meaning the tree is not well known by any English name in Thailand. Sesbania grandiflora (Leguminosae) is sometimes called Hummingbird Tree and is found from Malaya to North Australia. As traditional medicine has been replaced by more dependable modern pharmaceuticals, the only major use of khae products is for flavoring food.
In thinking about dawk khae I have 4 observations:
1. Nature is generous to the industrious. HM the Late King of Thailand developed an economic “philosophy” around the concept of re-introducing multi-use plants for sustainable income and utility. Dispensing with infrequent or minimal options is extravagant, but it is an aspect of movement into a money economy.
2. Thai cuisine is opportunistic. “Real” Thai food begins with the question, “What’s available?” Not “What do we want to eat?” This means that restaurants with fixed menus are only serving the most common items. A lot of Thai food remains little-known. Thai cuisine is also artistic. Some recipes took days to prepare. Fruit carving is only the most well-known surviving food-art; artistic decoration in cream on cups of coffee is the most recent.
3. Bitter is one of five basic flavors of Thai food, along with salty, pet (hot-spicy), sweet and sour. These flavors have varieties, from subtle to bold. A complete menu for a meal includes all 5 flavors as well as types (stir-fried, thick curry, thin soup, roasted meat and vegetables). Also there should be a variety of ingredients, typically, chicken, pork, fish, and “seafood” (anything from the sea that is not fish), which are used to flavor vegetables. Everything is eaten with rice. In other words, traditional Thai food is rice with vegetables made tasty by small amounts of meat, herbs and spices.
4. Thai cuisine is an aspect of Thai culture. It is probably more dependable than language as an indicator of cultural diversity in Thailand. Culture mandates emanating from the Bangkok elite have focused on language as the factor to unify the country. Increasingly, to trace cultural roots, food is the best way to identify strains of diversity.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.