It’s January, which means once again, I’m back in Thailand’s most northwestern province, Mae Hong Son. I’ve been visiting the area since 1998, and for the last five years or so, have made a point of trying to spend at least a couple weeks here every winter. During this season, in some parts of the province, temperatures edge close to freezing, and the cold weather is undoubtedly one thing that draws me here year after year.
I’m also drawn to the scenery. The shot below:
was taken in Ban Huay Pha, a village about 16km from Mae Hong Son city. It’s just one of several beautiful vistas one encounters on this short drive, which toward the tail end of the cold season is painted in shades of red, purple, pink and orange by the changing leaves of the teak trees.
And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t come for the food. The majority of people in Mae Hong Son are Thai Yai, the Tai ethnic group also known as Shan, and have a distinct cuisine. Conservative tastes, a palpable Burmese influence, a reliance on emblematically local ingredients — sesame, tomatoes, soybeans, turmeric, garlic and shallots come to mind — and relative isolation have left their dishes staunchly local and virtually unavailable outside of the province.
I was reminded of the particular uniqueness of this food while in Ban Huay Pha — a short walk from where the photo above was taken — where I encountered a small group of people making khao puk ngaa (ข้าวปุกงา), a Thai Yai sweet made by pounding freshly-steamed sticky rice with sesame.
As pictured at the top of this post, this was done in a heavy wooden mortar, and with long bamboo poles functioning as pestles. While the men pounded, the woman would toss in spoonfuls of black sesame seeds. After several minutes of this, the rice emerged as a warm, soft, rather dark blob. A chunk was pulled off and offered to me; I was told to dip it in melted sugarcane. Eating the sweet, I was struck by the fact that this experience, from the setting — a tidy Thai Yai village perched at the edge of a mountain valley — to the unique flavours — those of sticky rice and sugarcane from the valleys, and sesame seeds from the hills — could really only be had in Mae Hong Son.
I’ve lined up a few more posts on the food of Mae Hong Son and look forward to sharing more about this area’s unique countryside, people and flavours.