The daily food question in a Northern Thai village is, “What shall we fix to go with the rice?” Since this is a basic necessity, it can be a key to understanding village culture.
In village life the answer to the question is another question, “What’s available?” In most village homes one thing that is always available is some form of chili sauce or paste. So the question of what to build the meal around takes rice and chilies for granted.
Many meals in North Thailand feature soup, a marker of Lanna culture. It is a rare day one does not see at least one person in our village gathering sprigs of something from roadside bushes and vines. Depending on the season that will be the main ingredient is the day’s soup.
In the picture above, our neighbor on the ladder is gathering red leaflets that have popped out. She will turn them into a once-a-year bitter “blood leaf” soup. Our tree attracted a steady stream of gatherers for a couple of days. We had dok khae earlier that our sister collected each morning to sell. They were either turned into soup or, more likely, stuffed with minced port and fried. (See the pictures of stuffed, fried dok khae). Since these are seasonal, availability dominates desire. One can’t just decide any old day, “Oh, I have a hankering for stuffed khae flowers.”
Our house is surrounded by two rai (.8 acre) of garden. I have taken an inventory of more than 30 growing plants that produce something edible. We have 2 kinds of mangoes, 3 kinds of bananas, coconuts, papayas, lameye, ma-yom, chompuu, jackfruit, and at least 10 kinds of herbs and chilies.
Not everybody has this variety, but some have more and everybody has something. In addition, lots of houses have a few chickens, rabbits, ducks or fish. One or two have cows. Pigs are smelly, so our village does without them.
In our village there is no fresh market, but there are 3 roadside tables (see: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/mobile-market). There are at least 3 storefront shops selling things to eat and use. People supplement what they forage and grow with a few pinches of meat, chicken, or a fish, to provide protein and flavor for the soup or stir-fried dish to go with the rice.
This sort of food culture is passing away. In almost every family there is someone who goes to work and comes home at night. One task might be to stop at a food stand and pick up a couple of plastic bags of food, called kap or kap khaw (literally, “with” or “with rice”). A Northern Thai greeting is “What did you eat with your rice?” The time is coming when homes will hardly have cooking facilities. That is already true in new apartments in town.
In the past, before there was much money, food was hunted and gathered. It occupied part of every day. During certain seasons the effort was major, involving forays far from home. Meat of any type was rare. Northern Thai cuisine evolved from that background. Menus were unpredictable and opportunistic. Still, the incredible variety of edible ingredients meant that there was usually something to go with the rice.
Poverty was when, “We ate our rice with a little salt.”
Famine was when the rice ran out.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.