Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fresh Plaa-Muck


New Years Day is celebrated in Thailand as well as Chinese New Year, Thai New Year (Songkran) and various Hill Tribe new year celebrations.

All the New Year celebrations are times for families and friends to come together for eating, drinking, singing and dancing.  These occasions are also times when special merit making, as opposed to merriment making, can be earned through offerings as well as special religious rituals.

Just as there are special foods associated with specific holidays such as Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, New Years Jan 1 is a time for many people in Thailand to eat plaa muck, which you most likely know better as squid or calamari.

On our way out to Tahsang Village on 1 Jan to gather up the clan to go see a special Monk, we stopped at the market in Kumphawapi to pick up some items for the trip as well as offerings to the Monks.  We had gotten up early at 5:00 AM so we arrived at the market around 7:00 A.M.

It appears that the recent opening of the Tesco-Lotus Superstore just down the road from the traditional Kumphawapi market has not adversely affected the talat sao (morning market).  The market well well stocked and it was just as crowded as when I first encountered it 6 years ago.  I find that reassuring because just as I believe in local solutions for local problems and conditions, I believe that the more a community can be self-sufficient the better served its members will be.  Keeping the profits of groceries in the community is more beneficial and more market responsive to the local community's needs than shipping it off to large urban centers or worst of all - offshore multinational corporations.

After we had finished our shopping, which will be subject of a separate blog, we returned to our truck parked across the street in the large vacant lot next to the banana seller's stall.  I heard an announcement from a truck's P.A. system and asked Duang what it was all about.  She told me that the man was selling "plaa muck" (squid).  I looked and saw about three cars from our truck, a man in the back of a pick up truck filled with several plastic coolers.  I wandered over to check it out.

Fresh Live Squid For Sale - 400 Miles from the Gulf of Thailand
The vendor had opened one of the plastic ice chests and with a wood stick was stirring up the water in it.  The water exploded with black liquid and the frenzied movements of white withering squid appendages - the cooler was filled with live squid.  Live squid - beautifully formed, firm and with bright yellows eyes - 400 miles, 8 hours from the Gulf of Thailand!

Duang caught up with me and as I took photographs, she translated my questions and the vendor's replies.  The man and his wife had gone to the docks and purchased the squid right off of the boats that night.  After loading up their plastic containers, they drove 8 hours through the night to Kumphawapi.  Although New Years in January is an official one day holiday, many people take 5 days for their celebrating.  The squid vendor will remain in the area and return to his home in Bangkok after five days.

Stirring the Squid
The man had installed a series of battery powered aerators and pumps to keep the squid alive.  Similar arrangements are also used in the market to keep the fish, eels, and prawns fresh and more importantly alive.  It doesn't get any fresher than being alive.  There is no concern about purchasing bad seafood when it is still wiggling when you leave the market.

The man tended the squid while his wife handled the customers.  There was a simple spring scale on the back of the tailgate and the money was kept in a pouch secured around her waist. Customers selected their squid from several that had been removed from a large cooler and displayed in a plastic tray.  The vendor's wife weighed the selected squid on the scale, placed them in plastic bag and collected the money from the customer.

I was very impressed for many reasons.  The first reason was the realization that although I was 400 miles from the ocean I was able to buy fresher squid than most of my friends who live near the water back in Connecticut.  I could buy it not because of any technological advancement that Thailand has over the USA but because of an individual's initiative to meet a market's needs.

The market system of Southeast Asia, for me, represents a paradox.  Although the markets do not have much in terms of commercial refrigeration and advanced packaging, I believe that the food is actually fresher for the consumer.  Without widely used refrigeration and packaging, the food has to be fresher.  Any spoilage would be obvious to the consumer who can handle the items, inspect the items, and smell the items before purchasing.

I was secondly impressed with the ability of a person here in Thailand with some initiative to create a business.  I can only begin to imagine the permits and licenses required if I were to decide to create a similar business back in the USA such as driving up to Maine and filling up ice chests with lobsters to then keep alive and drive to New York City (roughly 400 miles) to sell in some parking lot. For a start I know that there would be business license(s), commercial plates required for the truck, health permit(s), tax permits, and God knows what regulations to be followed for transporting live seafood.

Here is Thailand as well as countries such as Vietnam, Laos, China it is very simple for a person to set up a family business.  It is all left up to the individual's imagination and initiative. As the Nike slogan says ... They "Just do it".

In the USA if you were to hire a teenager every week to care for your children while you and your spouse went out for an evening or two, you, to properly follow the law, would have to consider the babysitter to be your employee.  As an employee, you would have to have a taxpayer number, make Social Security contributions (old age, and health) on behalf of your employee, withhold the employee's required Social Security contributions, withhold Federal taxes from your employee's wages, withhold state taxes from your employee's wages, contribute to unemployment insurance for the employee, report all kinds of information to both the State and Federal Government. You would also be responsible for maintaining all kinds of records.  Oh - you are also responsible to first determine that your babysitter has the legal right to work in the USA.  Now is that any way to run a country or to encourage people to start businesses or even to hire any one who has not established themselves as a business?

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