I was hoping to blog about a community group in Pha Bong, 10km outside Mae Hong Son, that gets together every weekend to make a spice mixture for laap, but when I drove out there on Saturday they weren’t able to get enough lemongrass (they need a lot of lemongrass) and had rescheduled for the next day. Unfortunately I was leaving Mae Hong Son then and did not get a chance to witness this…
Dejected but hungry, the next best choice was to head to Laap Khom, a restaurant in Mae Hong Son that uses the very spice mixture.
The owner of Laap Khom is the type of older Thai man who screams at you (in a friendly way, of course), then pats you on the back and makes you feel welcome. Despite owning a restaurant specialising in northern Thai dishes, he and his wife are originally from Isaan, and their daughter is the only local.
To make laap khua they simply take an order of raw laap, which apparently has been seasoned ahead of time, and fry it up in a small wok:
‘Usually my mom does this,’ explained the girl apologetically as she cooked. She needn’t apologise as it’s a decent dish — not the most refined laap khua you’re going to find in the north, but rich and tasty. The dish is served with a variety of fresh herbs, a couple of which are bitter, a slightly bitter dipping sauce made coarse with the addition of roasted rice powder, and of course, sticky rice.
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Lunch & dinner
get out of the hot spring. Or to put it in my context, leave Mae Hong Son. This was done with a great deal of reluctance, but it was beginning to get intolerably hot and smoky, a profound change from the first two weeks of my stay when I had to wear a fleece jumper and thick socks until lunch. One sign of the impending hot season is the floating restaurants that go up on the Mae Nam Pai:And now I’m back home in hot, sweltering Bangkok, although yet again in transition: tomorrow I’m off to Bangladesh (!) for a week and after that, will be in Phuket for a few days. An almost perverse contrast in destinations, for sure. Depending on the Internet situation in Bangladesh, I’ll try to do some blogging, but can’t make any promises.And lastly, I’ve entered a contest/marketing ploy for a prize to embark on my photographic ‘Dream Assignment’. My dream assignment? Collaborating with a talented writer to document Thailand’s regional cuisines in the form of a website and/or book. Details can be seen here. And if you really care, PIC me while there, ensuring that I’ll make it to the final round of 20.
I’ve spent the last several days traveling and taking photos in Bangladesh. It’s dirty, noisy, crowded and the food isn’t much to speak of. But the people here are by leaps and bounds the friendliest, kindest folks I’ve ever come across anywhere, and in a bizarre way, despite the garbage, pollution and poverty, Bangladesh is probably the most photogenic place I’ve ever been. Will be posting some more images here, including a bit of food-related stuff on the other blog, as soon as possible.
In general, food in Bangladesh wasn’t much to write home about. There were a few interesting dishes, some of which I’ll blog about soon, but most of our meals seemed to be endless but eerily similar variations on mutton and rice. The one area we were most impressed with was sweets. These ranged from syrupy-sweet golab jam, below:
to milky shondesh (background, image below) and the slightly more savoury mishti (foreground):
After a great deal of ‘research’, I realized that my preferences lie somewhere between the above, and this dish, taken at the sweets shop pictured at the beginning of this post, combined my favourite Bangladeshi sweets:
tender (and not overpoweringly sweet) carrot borfi, slightly firm and cardamom-rich laddu, and an unidentified one, which was remarkably similar in taste and texture to what we call ‘old fashioned’ donuts in the US.
There were even some great sweet-ish snacks, including poori (deep-fried bread) and semolina halwa:
And although jilapi, strands of dough that are deep-fried before being soaked in syrup, certainly looked interesting:
the combination of oily and sweet was just a bit too much for me.
The first time I was on Ko Yao Noi was in 2007 when I was assisting French photographer Eric Valli for the book project, Thailand: 9 Days in the Kingdom. For his assignment, Eric had chosen to photograph the Muslim islanders who gather swallows’ nests (a Chinese delicacy) in local caves, revisiting a topic he had documented in a film, book and National Geographic article in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the nine days we worked mostly with the new generation of bird nest gatherers, but Eric did make a point of stopping by to say hello to Sahat, a now elderly gatherer who was the superstar of his previous work. Despite his age, Sahat was still as spry as ever, at one point proving to us that he could still climb by quickly scaling a vine hanging over our boat!
Two years later find myself on Ko Yao Noi again and decided to stop by to see how Sahat was doing. I could only vaguely remember the street he lived on, but somehow found him, amazingly wearing the same Thai schoolboy’s shirt as last time! The image above shows him holding a copy of the National Geographic article that features him, an item he keeps along with Eric’s book in a plastic bag. The pages of both are worn and falling out, the victims of many viewings, and he appears exceedingly proud of having been recognized for his amazing work.
As for me, despite being on a tropical island, I am, if you’ll excuse my Swedish, jävligt upptagen at the moment, but will post some pics from Bangladesh when I get some time.
Undoubtedly my favourite dish I encountered in Bangladesh was phuchka (known elsewhere as panipuri), tiny crispy poori-like breads filled with a delicious mixture of spiced beans, chunks of potato, diced shallots, chopped fresh chili and cilantro (illustrated above, at the top). The phuchka are spicy, fresh, sour, and are small enough to be consumed in one go. The beans used were most likely a type of chickpea, but actually reminded me of the tender gula ärtor Swedes traditionally eat in their ärtsoppa every Thursday.
A variation on the dish, consumed in Khulna, southern Bangladesh, did away with the act of stuffing altogether and simply served the crumbled bread over the bean mixture, which also had slices of hard-boiled egg:
I believe this version is called chatpati, which was also the name of the shop. Regardless, an essential part of this dish appears to be a sour tamarind-based, watery sauce/dip, which was served with both types.
or met ya ruang, or kayii or kayuu. Or met thai khrok or met hua khrok. Or perhaps even met mamuang himaphaan. These are all the different Thai dialect words for cashew nuts. The English word, cashew, is almost certainly a cognate of the Portuguese cajou, which apparently originates from the Tupi word acajú, and which is most likely also the source of kayuu, the term used on Phuket, the thought being that the Portuguese first introduced the fruit to Asia from its native Brazil.
Met ya hui and met ya ruang, however, are the terms used only on the island of Ko Yao Noi, in the Phang Nga Bay, not far from Phuket. As in much of the south, cashew trees are just about everywhere on this beautiful island, their yellow and red fruit emitting a sweet smell and making colourful stains on the roads:
Most of us have only ever eaten cashew nuts plain, but in the south, cashews are used in various local-style curries, and the fruits are sometimes consumed as a sweet snack. I’ve also recently seen a cashew-based bottled drink here in Bangkok.
To prepare cashews for consumption, the nuts are first collected, separated from their fruits and dried, as illustrated at the top of this post. The next step involves roasting the nuts:
This is done in large black woks with holes in the bottom to encourage the nuts to catch on fire, causing a toxic substance in the shell to dissipate. When the nuts are flaming, hissing and emitting a shocking amount of black smoke, they’re dumped onto the ground to cool:
After being peeled, the nuts can be eaten at this point. But if the cashews are to be packaged and sold, they’re typically roasted in ovens first:
They’re then graded for quality (whole nuts without any shells demand higher prices), packaged and sold:
Shooting photos in Dhaka, Bangladesh was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. There are few certifiable ‘sights’ in the city, but the hectic atmosphere and abundance of incredibly friendly people combined to make it a virtual game reserve for photographers. To commence a slideshow of 25 random images from the city, click on the image above — use keyboard arrows or hold your mouse above the images to navigate through them.
I love breakfast in southern Thailand. Unlike breakfast in the west (or even elsewhere in Thailand), which is typically as bland as possible, southern Thais fancy a bit of flavour in the morning. Khao yam, the rice ‘salad’ illustrated above, isn’t exactly spicy, but the abundance of thinly-sliced fresh herbs certainly stands in contrast to a bowl of oatmeal or rice porridge. This dish was heavy on the galangal and mackerel, and served slightly warm, was a wonderful breakfast, particularly when coupled with a glass of sweet Muslim-style tea:
On Ko Yao Noi many choose to begin the day with khao mok kai, chicken biryani:
Fragrant with turmeric and other dried spices, it’s a dish usually regarded as lunch elsewhere in Thailand.
Another popular breakfast is khanom jeen nam yaa pak tai, fresh rice noodles ladled with an equal parts creamy and spicy curry dressing:
You can cut the heat with some of the unusual toppings, which here ranged from slices of watermelon to pickled jackfruit, as well as some interesting local herbs.
And if you find this all a bit too much for breakfast, you can always go for the huge array of sweet-ish snacks on offer at just about any southern-style coffee shop:
While scooting around Ko Yao Noi I came across the scene above, a local woman stirring a vast wok of fragrant curry. I stopped and asked what was going on and she explained that she doing the Muslim equivalent of making merit by sacrificing an animal (in this case a buffalo) and sharing the meat with friends and family:
The woman went on to explain that because I wasn’t a Muslim, I couldn’t eat any of the food — not even one bite — as doing so would render the merit invalid. She was very clear about this, and repeated it several times, not to be exclusive, I suspected, but rather because she felt guilty that she couldn’t offer any to me. Ko Yao Noi is a predominately Muslim island, and like other Muslim places I’ve been (Pakistan, Bangladesh and other places in southern Thailand), the hospitality and generosity run thick. I found the residents of Ko Yao Noi in particular to be the friendliest people I’ve met anywhere in Thailand. I ran into characters ranging from a man who uses monkeys to gather coconuts:
to a group of Muslim missionaries:
and everybody was genuinely friendly, generous and kind. These experiences, not to mention some pretty interesting food, have given me a strong desire to visit more Muslim lands. Later this year I’ll have some free time and a lot of frequent flier miles, and at the moment am considering Syria or Yemen (although food-wise, Lebanon and Turkey look pretty interesting). Any Muslim world hands with any suggestions?