Wan Naung Gon lies a few kilometres outside of Kengtung, in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State. It’s predominately inhabited by the Tai Neua, a group of people related to the Shan and Thai. It’s a quiet, traditional-feeling place that’s also the home village of my guide, Leng.
Leng was kind enough to arrange a day of making local dishes with some of his relatives including Sam, a former cook. I know a bit about Shan-style food from the time I’ve spent up in Mae Hong Son, but I’m always curious to learn more about it, as many of the techniques and ingredients seem to echo what the Thai people ate in the distant past, before their food began to be influenced by that of the Muslim world, China and the West.
In particular, I was curious about a dish Leng had mentioned called neua sa. On the surface, the dish seemed pretty similar to northern Thai-style laap or saa, dishes of minced or chopped meat supplemented with herbs and spices:
But for this version, Leng added a special ingredient: makok (มะกอก).
The sour fruit and the tart leaves:
of this tree are common ingredients in rural Southeast Asia. But for this recipe, Leng used the bark of the tree. Hacking off the hard outer bark from a branch revealed a green inner layer with a fresh, citrusy aroma. This was scraped off:
and minced directly with the pork:
I was told that using the usual tart suspect, lime, would just be too sour.
Sam took over from here and added dried spices — prickly ash and dried chili — and a mixture of finely chopped herbs — green onion, coriander and rau răm:
The mixture was seasoned with salt and MSG and mixed by hand:
At this point, the dish was essentially done. A taste revealed it to be assertively herbal, as well as spicy and fragrant; a world away from its northern Thai counterpart, which is generally a meatier dish that emphasises blood, offal and savoury flavours.
Because I thought it best to stick with cooked meat (I was alone in this), Sam took half of the mixture, added sliced pork skin and a couple tablespoons of water, and fried it in a wok:
He put the other half on a cabbage leaf, wrapped this with foil (traditionally this is done with banana leaf, he was keen to explain) and grilled it; this he called saa aep — a dish similar in name and ingredients to northern Thai aep, a sort of casing-less sausage.
The next dish Sam made was pla lam, fish cooked in a bamboo tube. He began by chopping a couple small catfish, and combining them with a variety of herbs, a bit of dried spice, and unusually, the tender leaves of chayote:
These were seasoned and stuffed into a joint of bamboo:
which was sealed and put over a flame for about 25 minutes:
The contents were emptied out:
Again, the emphasis here was on herbs. The dish was not overly fishy, and the fish had a delicate texture and was surprisingly moist.
Sam’s wife made a simple nam phik makheua som, a dip based around tomatoes. After skewering chilies:
and grilling them along with some tomatoes
She then mashed a bit of raw chili, shallots and garlic in a moral and pestle:
and added the peeled grilled ingredients, seasoning the dish with salt and MSG. The result was a spicy, savoury, smokey dip.
One of my favourite dishes of the meal was nam phik mak heng ta chang, a dip made from pea eggplants. To make this, Sam boiled pea eggplants until tender. While they cooled, he made a base by sauteeing garlic, tomato, turmeric, dried chili, MSG and salt in oil:
The eggplants, which had been roughly pounded in a mortar and pestle, were added to the base along with a bit of water. The mixture was simmered a bit longer until it had reduced and amalgamated:
Perhaps due to the slightly bitter nature of the eggplants, Sam insisted we eat this dish with nor khom, a type of slightly bitter bamboo that was in season at the time.
The last dish Sam made was a Shan-style stir-fry of phak kut, fern fronds. A similar base of sauteed shallot, tomato, garlic, chili and dried turmeric was supplemented with thin slices of pork belly.
This was seasoned, yet again, with salt and MSG, the and the ferns were added and cooked briefly:
This result was pleasantly oily, crunchy and savoury.
After all this work, we had ourselves a beautiful Shan-style feast:
which ended — lest you get the impression that this was some sort of stuffy ceremony to cookery — like this:
If you’re visiting Kengtung and want to learn more about the local food, Leng is an excellent guide, and can be contacted at +95 94903 1470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.