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Curries and Common Ground

As the pickup truck wound through the hills of northern Thailand I had one of those moments that hits every traveler at some point, that sense of amazement that one is actually in such a foreign place far from home. We were on our way to a remote hill tribe village somewhere in northern Thailand near the Burmese border. I realized that not only did I not know exactly where we were going, and neither did anyone back home. No matter, we were on our way for three days of cooking classes and village visits, and I was just trying to take it all in.

One of the main reasons many people go to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is to go on a trek up into the mountains to see the hill tribes. Most treks last 3 days and include lots of walking through the jungle, an elephant ride, a river raft ride, sleeping in villages, and gawking at the locals who may or may not want you there. Some people come to smoke opium that is grown in the hills and used by many of the tribal elders. We weren’t interested and in fact had avoided the treks with testimonials from satisfied customers who said they found lots of “mind bending substances” along the way.

The “trek” we chose was slightly different. It included transportation to a tribal village, all food, four cooking classes, an elephant ride, and a raft ride. The difference between this one and the others was that we were in one village for three days, instead of spending most of our time walking through the underbrush. It also included cooking classes and we were the only people on the trip, so it seemed very personalized. Our guide and cooking teacher, a Thai man named Noi, spoke the local Burmese dialect of the villagers as well as English. The classes were my main reason for going; I had been a professional chef for years and wanted to see Thai cooking at the source. Chiang Mai has dozens of places to take cooking classes, but this trip seemed to combine the best of both worlds.

Noi picked us up in his truck and our first stop was a local market in Chiang Mai. Here he bought produce, pork, chicken, and chilies from the outdoor vendors. The sights and smells were incredible, but not for the faint of stomach. Nothing was on ice, including the meat that was attracting flies but the hundreds. After years of working in restaurants I had to close my mind to the sanitation violations around me and remind myself that if these people were still standing, so would I. Luckily, Noi brought a cooler with him for the journey as they also have no refrigeration in the village. What fascinated me were the variously hued, green, crimson and mustard colored heaps of prepared chili pastes (curries) that could be bought by the gram for only a few baht. The curry pastes were wet mounds of fresh spices, with chilies, herbs and fermented fish paste all finely ground and ready to go. This was the Thai version of going to your local supermarket and buying prepared pasta sauce, only fresher.

Our next stop was another market in a very small town that serves as the last stop for most treks in that area. We noticed many other trekking groups, all in pickups filled to the max with travelers, stopping to buy supplies. This market was much the same as the last, and here we bought only a few more things, mostly produce. Some of the more interesting items for sale were various cooked insects. That’s right, bugs, creepy-crawlies, cooked up for human consumption. There were bamboo grubs, big beetles, and small worms, fried crispy and thankfully no longer squirming. All were “very good protein, and very expensive” according to Noi.

Far up in the hills, along a rust colored dirt road, we picked up three Palong tribe women, one with a sick baby and two teenagers. They were members of the neighboring village we were on our way to visit and they climbed in the back of the truck with us. It was our first awkward encounter with these people so different than us. We looked at them, and as we checked out their “weird” costumes, they did the same to us. We must have looked as funny to them as they did to us. The women wore towels and pieces of fabric wound around their heads to cover their hair and traditional multi-colored hand woven fabric skirts. We wore clunky leather boots and travel pants with many pockets. Two of the women chewed betel nut that made their lips and teeth a disconcerting bright red color. All we could do was smile at each other and wave goodbye when we dropped them off a few miles later.

When we got to the village, we were shown to a little bamboo hut elevated off the ground by posts. It was so loosely constructed that I was afraid that my husband David would fall through the floor and onto the chickens below at any moment. We were given mats, blankets and a mosquito net. Next we checked out the “toilet” and the “shower”. The toilet was a six by six foot hut with bamboo walls. Inside, there was a porcelain basin sunk into the ground and one “flushed” by pouring water down the basin from a nearby bucket. The shower was an open-air platform surrounded with bamboo walls. It contained a few large barrels of water, a bucket for scooping the water, and had been built mainly for visitors. Most of the villagers bathe at a pump/well that is in the center of the compound. It is a social event, attended by both sexes, women wearing sarongs, and men wearing shorts or pants. Laundry is often done at the same time.

Our first cooking class was held that afternoon in the home of our hosts. This was a much larger structure, also built primarily of bamboo and up high on stilts. Pigs, chickens and children ran around underneath. Inside it was fairly dark and smoky due to the lack of windows and the cooking fire inside. We sat on the floor and watched as Noi cooked up five different dishes; kaeng masaman (yellow curry with chicken and potato), kaeng keo wan (green curry with pork), kaeng hung le (a sweet and sour pork cooked only on special days), pad pet kai (spicy chili with chicken), nam prik pon (cooked tomato and egg dip), and tom ka kai ( hot and sour soup with chicken). As he cooked, I asked a few questions, noticing that cooking methods and ingredients tended to repeat themselves.

Noi’s English was good, but not perfect, and sometimes misunderstandings occurred; “What about duck?” I asked, wondering about one of my favorite foods. “Yes, the other village we go to tomorrow eat duck”, he said. “Very special, eat black duck when cold.” “Oh! I like duck. Like Chinese duck with crispy skin”, I said. “Yes, they are originally Chinese people”, he said. “I think he means dog”, said David “No!” I said, “He can’t!” “Dog or duck?” I asked him. “Duck, D-O-G” said Noi. “Oh, no! I mean duck, you know, quack, quack…”

We quickly confirmed that we would not be eating dog tomorrow afternoon and then sat feeling a little guilty as we ate the wonderful food on the back balcony overlooking the jungle. We tried to get Noi and the family to join in, but they wouldn’t. The food was shared between everyone only after we had finished. Noi told us that this was not the type of food they commonly ate, but they were interested in trying it.

That night, once the sun went down, it was dark, and there was not too much to do. David went to sleep and I tried to read by the dim light of an oil lamp. At night, I discovered, the bathroom becomes a scary place. The light of the torch revealed a giant spider, with thick legs, at least 3 inches across. It becomes a little difficult to drop your pants, squat, and turn your bare butt to a spider the size of a kitten, only inches away from tender flesh.

The next morning we had a breakfast of boiled rice soup with green onions, tofu, and chicken. This is a common Asian breakfast and the exact opposite of our usual American bacon and eggs. Then our “ride arrived and we were off by elephant to visit some of the other villages. The elephant ride through the jungle was surprisingly peaceful and we arrived in an Akha village. Noi invited us to meet the headwoman of the village whose husband had recently passed away. I was a bit nervous as we went into her house because right before we went in, we were told he had been dead 19 days and was still inside. As it turned out, he was interred in a small, boat shaped, closed wooden casket. She offered us tea and showed us her silver headdress, one of the few real silver ones remaining. Most are now made of tin, the silver having been sold off long ago.

In the afternoon we had our second cooking class. Noi showed us chicken with coconut milk soup, kaeng ped (red curry with pork), pat pet mamoung kai (fried chicken with cashew nuts), pa nang (red chilies with fried pork), Thai salad with egg, and tom ma kau (smashed eggplant dip). I faithfully wrote down each recipe and was impressed with the complexity of flavors generated from about ten basic ingredients. Rice was cooked over an open fire and curry paste made from scratch using a mortar and pestle.

Later in the evening there was a party in the village given for a twelve-year-old girl who was to be married in two days to a seventeen-year-old boy from a neighboring village. Members from his family came to meet with hers and a pig was slaughtered to honor the occasion. At one point I ventured outside to go to the bathroom and when I returned, I heard a noise at the door. Suddenly, there was a very drunk young man sitting on our floor. As surprised as I was that he just walked inside and sat down, he seemed equally surprised to see David lying on the mat under the mosquito net. Ten seconds later a friend joined him. There they sat, not speaking English, but trying to talk to us. They offered us “whiskey”, probably the only English word they knew, and we declined. David was asked if he wanted a “massage” (an odd offer given the circumstances) and said we pantomimed that we were going to sleep. They left as quickly as they came in. Later, I wondered what would have happened if my husband had not been there, but ultimately I didn’t feel in danger.

The next morning I told Noi of the encounter with the drunken young men and he relayed it to the family. They said they were probably young men from the other village. Over breakfast, we had a chance to sit and talk with the seventeen-year-old daughter in law in the family, with Noi acting as interpreter. She had a beautiful one-year-old daughter and had been married for two years. It is not uncommon for girls to marry at age 13 or 14 with the marriage arranged by the families. It was her opinion though, that twelve was too young. She then gave us the local gossip; the girl had spent the night out in a field with the boy and now they had to get married. It was not implied that the girl was pregnant, but rather that custom states that if a boy and a girl spend any time alone together they have to get married.

She offered to show us some photos from a friend’s wedding in the village so we could see what the wedding would be like. After, I showed her some pictures from home that I carried with me, which included a few from our wedding. Her first comment was that my dress was white, very uncommon here, and that we must be rich because it looked so expensive. She had never seen such a dress before. A friend, sitting next to her, said that she had seen one once in a photo. They then poured over all the photos asking for details about the pictures of our friends, parents, grandparents, cats, and places like the Grand Canyon, Venice, and Paris. It was an interesting cultural exchange and while their lives were so extremely different than a typical American teenager, at that moment they were no different than any other young girl, fascinated by the romance of a wedding photo and far away places.

After we had lunch, the women of the household, young and old, and many of their friends, came inside to eat a special meal for the upcoming wedding. They had a soup made out of dried bitter greens, white squash and pork, some steamed rice which was eaten with the hands, a bowl filled with fried pork intestines, and a bowl of larb, a dish consisting of spiced, chopped, raw pork. Obviously the pig that had been sacrificed the day before was being put to good use and eaten before it could spoil. I was invited to sit on the floor and partake with them while David and Noi sat off to the side.

This was real Palong food, simply prepared but very good, yet different than Thai food. The soup was a bit spicy and salty, and the tripe was fried crispy tasted a little like pork rinds. I did not try the raw larb; I’ll try just about anything, but unrefrigerated raw pork was just asking for illness that my western stomach would not be able to handle.

As we drove back to Chiang Mai, I reflected on how I had gone in search of cooking lessons and returned with a better understanding of a life so completely different, yet similar to my own. Babies are born to teenage mothers, men die, people eat, love, laugh, and get drunk at weddings. Young women of any culture love romance and young men will get drunk and do stupid things. Food is used to celebrate and comfort. All this clarity, and I didn’t even have to smoke opium to come away with a stash of great curry recipes and a new appreciation for the family of humankind.

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