“We don’t know what day she was born — they didn’t keep track of that stuff back then.” This about Khun Yay — “Grandma” — the mother of my landlord in Mae Hong Son.
What is known is that “back then” was 90 years ago, so at some point, somebody chose December 31st, New Year’s Eve, to be Khun Yay’s birthday. An excellent choice, as come this time of year in Mae Hong Son, the sky is inevitably blue and the weather is cool: perfect conditions for a celebration.
I’ve mentioned Khun Yay before. Born in Ayuthaya, she got married at a young age, and not long afterward, she and her policeman husband were posted to Mae Hong Son. Even today, Mae Hong Son, tucked into Thailand’s mountainous northwestern corner, feels relatively remote, but when they arrived in in approximately 1939 it must have seemed like another planet. Indeed, Khun Yay claims that the trip took three months and involved riding on an elephant.
Like many Thai celebrations, Khun Yay’s 90th birthday celebration began with a Buddhist component, bringing together monks from the more important temples in town, as well as VIPs, relatives, friends and neighbours:
Prayers were recited, holy water was sprinkled and money was donated, but one suspects that most people came for the food.
And, indeed, there was a lot of it, mostly central Thai-style dishes prepared by a caterer in town:
But I was more interested in the local stuff, all of it made at home by neighbours and family.
As an appetiser, we were given little bowls of a salty, savoury salad that combined slices of deep-fried tofu, deep-fried nuts and sesame, salt, garlic oil, deep-fried shallots and slivered ginger:
It was distinctly Burmese — both in terms of its flavour and ingredients — and distinctly delicious. And if too heavy or oily for some, it was seemingly strategically coupled with Mae Hong Son’s tart, fragrant, juicy oranges.
There were countless tiny bowls of khao sen, thin rice noodles in a light, tart broth made from pork bones and tomatoes:
Relatively easy to make in large quantities, khao sen is a staple dish at celebrations in Mae Hong Son. And drizzled with garlic oil, topped with crispy deep-fried noodles (ostensibly to provide a bit of crunch — a Thai effort to pack just about every possible texture and flavour into a dish) and eaten with the intensely spicy local chilies and a squeeze of lemon (more common than limes up here), the dish is, for me at least, Mae Hong Son in bowl.
And because there was khao sen, there was, of course, khaang pawng, deep-fried fritters of shallots, an obligatory accompaniment to the noodle soup:
If you like deep-fried shallots, imagine a crispy, ping pong ball-sized knot of them supplemented with lemongrass, turmeric, dried soybean powder and dried chili, and you begin get an idea of khaang pawng. I ate two plates.
There were also delicious local-style sweets made by Khun Yay’s family the day before.
And what I suspect was Khun Yay’s first selfie: