Sunday, September 29, 2013

Making Pla thu


 "Making Pla thu" is not a euphemism for one of man's favorite activities such as:  "banging", "humping", "doing it", "slapping uglies", "doing the horizontal mambo", and so many other colorful expressions. Making Pla thu is all about making a specialty food that is very popular here in Isaan.

If you go to the local markets, either morning or night markets, you will come upon one, if not several, vendors selling small diameter woven trays containing small silvery fish, "Pla thu" or "Pla thu Talay" (Talay is Thai for "beach" as in ocean beach)

In addition to the small, approximately 8 inch (200 mm) diameter woven baskets, the vendors also offer large baskets containing about 15 to 20 fish.

Pla thu is Short mackerel, Rastrelliger brachysoma, prepared in a certain manner. The fish populates the waters from Southeast Asia to Melanesia.

Duang's cousin, one of her 123, has a business outside of Tahsang Village.  The other day he called to inform Duang that they would be making Pla thu that day starting at 1:30 P.M.  He had called earlier to determine if I would be interested in taking pictures of the process - as if asking was necessary.  Of course!  I am always interested in exploring, learning and trying to understand all aspects of this culture that is so different from mine which I am familiar with.

Frozen Short Mackerel Imported from India
Under a threatening sky, Duang and I walked from the two lane highway that connects Tahsang Village to Kumphawapi, down the muddy narrow driveway to a new small cinder block home where the processing would take place.  On the side of the house was a good sized work area - concrete pavement covered with a sloped corrugated metal roof.  Beyond the covered work area, there were two large concrete urn shaped concrete containers which captured the run off from the roof during the frequent rains of the monsoon season.  This rain collection system is very common out in the villages of the Isaan countryside.  The rainwater is used for bathing, cooking, cleaning, and sanitary needs.  Bottled drinking water is purchased from local markets and established vendors who home deliver.

At the far end of the processing area there was a large propane burner, A frame structure, and several 15  kg portable propane gas bottles - identical to the one that we have under our kitchen counter for our cooking hub.  A very large aluminum kettle rested on top of the propane burner.

Adjacent to the fish processing area, there was a small pond that was surrounded by a fine mesh plastic netting that is often used in threshing rice to collect rice kernels that fall off the stalks that are handled in the process.  Inside of the fenced in pond, were various accoutrements associated with raising ducks and fish. Two separate narrow concrete drains built into the work area concrete paving and buried PVC pipes directed water and debris from the fish processing area into the pond.

We arrived early and neither Duang's cousin or his wife were there.  We got to meet the young couple that live in the house, maintain the property, and work for Duang's cousin.  In addition to daily wages they are allowed to stay in the house as part of their compensation.

Soon a middle-aged woman arrived on a motorbike. She put on a hat, apron, rubber boots and latex gloves before commencing to wash down the work area along with several large plastic tubs.  The water for washing down the equipment and work area came from a well in the back yard of the house.  Although the water came from a well it is not suitable for drinking or cooking.  Duang says that it has too much salt.  I suspect that the salt may actually be potash.  There is a very large potash deposit in the area.  There have been plans to exploit the deposits on a grand commercial scale but studies as well as permitting process have long delayed the start of construction.  No matter the reason, sodium chloride or potash content, the well water was only used for cleaning.  Water for cooking came from the concrete urns.

In a short while the middle aged woman was joined by the cousin's wife and the young couple.  At 1:30 P.M. the processing of the fish started.

The young man filled a large tub with water and added a large amount of salt to it stirring it with a plastic floor brush on the end of a wood handle.  The salt was not a refined table salt.  It was a raw local salt obtained from evaporating brine, obtained from wells, in shallow ponds under the unrelenting Isaan sun during the dry season.  The local salt was not pure white.  It was a myriad of pale neutral colors with square crystals ranging in sizes from 1 to 3 mm in dimension per side.

Into the freshly prepared brine mixture, he broke up the solid block of small fish that he removed from the plastic bag contained in the cardboard shipping box from India.  Using his bare hands he separated the individual frozen fish and placed them in the brine to thaw out.

They process fish everyday.  The day that I visited, Duang left shortly after we arrived to visit her family in Tahsang Village, the four person crew was going to process 90 kg of fish - roughly 200 pounds.  On other days they often process 150 kg of fish - 330 pounds. Some days they have to work until 8:00 P.M. to finish the work.  The frozen fish is purchased and delivered each day by a "big company" in nearby Kumphawapi. I am fairly certain that the fish is trucked up weekly or perhaps even daily from the Bangkok area.

The Fish Gutter At Work
Seated upon a very low plastic stool, with an inverted bucket underneath it for additional support, next to the thawing tub, the middle aged woman placed a large plastic bucket between her legs.  The white bucket was the type that you will often find in bakeries filled with shortening, jelly, or other ingredients.  You will also find these types of hard plastic buckets filled with wall joint taping compound in home improvement stores.  I don't know the origins of this bucket.  With a plastic colander, she would periodically scoop several fish out of the thawing bucket and place the filled colander over an empty bucket slightly to her left to collect the water draining from the fish.  As she selected each fish, she inspected it.  Out of the 200 pounds that she worked on, she rejected 4.  The rejected fish were dropped into the bucket located between her legs.  With a small knife like implement about the size of a paring knife - a roughly 120 degree curved tubular segment; sharp on one side with a handle on the other end.  In a single skillful, if not artful, movement she made a shallow incision behind the fish's head just slightly underneath the fish gill and eviscerated the fish, pulling the entrails through the opening and dropping them in the bucket between her legs.  The cleaned fish was then rinsed in a tub of water and placed in a plastic tub that had been placed on a very low concrete tiled table in front of her.

One of many fish eviscerated over two hours

Duang's cousin's wife and the wife of the young man, that was also working on the fish, sat on opposite sides of the low concrete tiled work table. To their side were plastic crates containing the open weaved bamboo baskets that the fish are sold in.  Their job was to selected the proper combination of cleaned fish to place in the bamboo baskets.  They selected fish to ensure that each basket contained roughly the same weight of fish.  Duang's cousin's wife used a plastic colander to scoop the cleaned fish out of the tub and dumped them on to the tiled work table.  The women would bend the heads of the fish to get them completely resting on the bottom of the basket.  As each basket was completed with fish, it was stacked up on the work table. When there were several filled baskets on the work table, the cousin's wife removed them and placed them on a large woven tray with long loop handles attached to it.

While this was going on, the young man was very busy doing all sorts of tasks.  It was very difficult to take a photo without his butt, or him bent over detracting form what I wanted to photograph.  However since I consider myself to be an environmental portrait photographer, I excuse my failures to be "capturing reality".

After setting up the first bunch of fish in the thawing tub, he filled the large aluminum kettle with water that he drew out of the concrete rain water urns.  He carefully measured some salt on a scale and dumped it into the almost completely filled kettle. He fired up the propane burner under the kettle and in a while, had a big pot of boiling water.  He used a very fine meshed paddle strainer to remove the scum on the top of the boiling water caused by the salt impurities.  He then added "Salt Vietnam". Duang's English description for MSG, and several bullion cubes to the kettle.  Once Duang had returned from her family visit, I asked her if the bullion cubes were shrimp or fish flavor. Well, it turned out that they were actually pork flavored.

Placing Baskets of Fish to be Boiled
When the flat baskets with the long loops were filled with 24 baskets of fish - 4 stacks of 6 baskets high. the young man placed a woven bamboo cover and a thick as well as heavy wood disk over the top of the stacks. He lifted them by hand using the long loop handles and lowered the assembly into the boiling water.  The cover and heavy wood disk kept the baskets of fish immersed in the boiling water.  The fish were boiled for a few minutes.  There was no timer or even a clock available to determine when the baskets were to be removed from the boiling brine solution.  I guess after doing this every day, you quickly develop instinctive sense when the fish are ready to be removed.  I was too busy photographing to time the boiling but it seemed to be around ten minutes to me.

Removing the Cooked Fish
When the fish were ready, after boiling for however long, the young man, against the backdrop of banana trees in the back yard and the clatter of heavy rains on the metal roof overhead, used a rope and a simple pulley attached to the A frame straddling the propane cooking station to remove the basket assembly.  A steel yoke shaped hook lifted the basket assembly by its long handles.  As he pulled on the line the heavy assembly emerged from the boiling cauldron in a cloud of billowing steam and a cascade of scalding brine falling back into the continuously boiling kettle.

Moving A Support Into Place
Just as the bottom of the basket assembly cleared the top of the kettle, the man slid two prepositioned sticks of wood underneath the raised assembly so that he could lower the basket assembly.  After removing the long loop handles from the steel yoke, the steaming basket assembly was placed on a metal tray against the exterior wall of the house to cool.

Steaming Hot Pla thu
After cooling off for a while, the fish basket assembly was placed inside of the home.

Pla thu Ready for Market
Everyone was completely busy the entire time that it took to process the fish.  While the baskets were boiling, the young man ensured that the fish to be cooked were kept moist by pouring water over them.  He also ensure that there was a constant supply of fish in the thawing tub.  The owner of the business, the cousin's wife, worked for as long, and just as hard as her three employees.  Whoops, I did not mention that she worked just as long as her employees. No, I did not.  I did not because it would not be true.  She actually works longer than her employees!  At 3:00 A.M. she was going to the market in Kumphawapi to set up her stall to sell the Pla thu.  Her husband loads up the truck, drives her to the market and unloads the baskets. She will remain at the market until she has sold out - around three hours.  Three hours to sell 200 pounds of fish before the sun rises?  Yes!  It has to do with the traditional marketing of food here in Thailand. From around 3:00 A.M. to 5:00 A.M. the morning markets are busy being stocked by the many small vendors.  The public starts to show up around 5:30 to 6:00 A.M.  Her pla thu for the most part is not sold one basket at a time to a housewife.  Most of her product is purchased by vendors who have stalls at smaller markets in the much smaller villages in the vicinity of Kumphawapi.  They purchase bulk quantities of the baskets to sell at their morning markets or in some cases - night markets.  Pla thu does not need to be refrigerated and can last up to two weeks without refrigeration.

After two hours the processing of fish was completed. After washing and cleaning everything, the employees were done for the day.

Here in Isaan as well as in Lao, the Lao people use a fermented fish sauce in cooking and on their food very much like Americans use Ketchup.  Pla Ra (Thai) or Paa daek (Lao) is fish that has been fermented at least six months.  It has a very strong and pungent odor. We or rather, Duang, keeps a container of it in the cabinet under our kitchen sink.  When we first moved into our house, I was upset one morning.  When I went into the kitchen, it smelled like the sewer had backed up into the room.  I was "somewhat" relieved when Duang told me that it was only the pla ra that her family had given us as a house warming gift.  I have actually vomited due to the stench of it - much to the amusement of my in-laws.  For some reason I have assumed that Pla ra or paa daek was made from sliced up fish and other ordinary ingredients.  That was until the other day at the making of pla thu.  Remember the middle aged woman eviscerating 200 pounds of fish.  When she had finished her 5 gallon bucket was almost completely filled with fish guts and fish shit.  The fish that had not passed QC inspection had also been tossed into the bucket.  She added a whole bunch of the raw salt and mixed it all thoroughly before placing a plastic sheet over it.  Later rice, sugar, pork bullion cubes, and MSG will be stirred in to get things going.  To say the least, I was appalled.  Duang kept reassuring me that it would be OK because it would be cooked and all the shit would go away.  I am not buying into that belief and will continue my boycott of pla ra or paa daek!

The Makings for Pla Ra, Paa daek

Through Duang, I determined that the cousin's wife pays 30 baht a day for her stall at the Kumphawapi Morning Market.  That is an expense of $1 a day.  I asked about taxes and fees that have to be paid to a government or governments for running a business.  Well there is a fee for having a business here - she pays 200 Baht ($6.66 US Dollars!) a YEAR to the government.

As for hiring people to work in her business, it is a private matter between her and her employees.  The free market determines wages other than a newly instituted minimum wage of 300 Baht ($10 USD) a day.  There is no withholding of a portion of wages for local, province or national taxes.  There is no reporting of wages. There are no requirements to keep and report safety and health statistics.  There is no unemployment insurance premiums to be collected or paid.  There is no requirement to provide any kind of insurances or benefits - it is a matter between the employee and employer.  The workers are paid in cash each day.

I was curious as to how and why the owner had decided to start a pla thu business.  It turned out that she had previously for two years at a big company that produced it.  She left to start her own business.

Here in Isaan, it is easy for a person to start a business and, if they choose, grow it to the point where there are some governmental requirements.  For me, having had started to look into starting a business in the USA for Duang to make traditional Lao clothing, this is very encouraging and refreshing.  I gave up after discovering 56 pages of regulations involved in importing cotton cloth into the USA.   Here the people are free to make a better living for themselves.  The government does not discourage or interfere with starting a small business.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stopped In the Name of the Law

High School Students Perform Lao Traditional Dance

Thursday night, Duang and I drove out to Ban Nong Han to attend a big party where her brother was performing.

It turned out the the party was for the retirement of a long time public employee for the Sub-District.

My brother-in-law and his group were not the only entertainment for the evening.  We were pleasantly surprised to see the local high school troupe, Ban Chiang Witthaya School Silipin Tai Puan, that we enjoyed at a previous retirement party in Udonthani on 13 Sept were also performing.

High School Cultural Band Performing
The high school students play traditional music using traditional instruments and perform traditional Lao dances while wearing traditional costumes.  Apparently the troupe helps to support itself by hiring out for private functions.  It is good to see that the unique aspects of Lao Loum culture are maintained and celebrated by the younger generations.

We arrived at the party location at 6:30 P.M., in time to see the entire performance of the Ban Chiang Witthaya School.

There were quite a few presentations and speeches before Duang's brother got to perform.  I was confused as to what was going on in regards to the retirement festivities.  I had a pretty good understanding of the man who had retired.  After people made a speech about him, he was presented with an envelope or a colorful wrapped box.  He then presented the envelope or box to the person who had just finished speaking. That confused me.  I asked Duang about it and she said the man who was retiring gave the gift to the person who had talked nice about him.  It seems that in honor of the person who is retiring, people bought a gift for the retiree to give to the big bosses.  Hmmm ... I wonder if many of my liberal progressive friends would approve of such a means of wealth redistribution or what their comments would be.  The retire did receive some gifts and actually got to keep them.  I was telling Duang that in America when people retire they get to keep all the gifts.  But then again in America, the bride and her pay for the vast majority of the wedding rather than here in Thailand where the groom pays for the wedding and the bride's family spend it.

Duang's brother'st was his typical great show.  In addition to Lon and the band, there were four dancers, a male performer and a female performer.  Two of the dancers I recognized from a previous show last year. One of them apparently remembered me, too.  When she saw me photographing her, she did a couple of her dance moves that I had appreciated so much last year.

One year later, still kicking and thrusting to the music
The people at the party were very friendly which was not all that surprising.  The Lao Loum people are very friendly and hospitable.  I was offered alcoholic drinks several times.  Each time, I thanked the person and explained to them in Thai and gestures that I do not drink beer or whiskey when I am driving because I am afraid of the police.  One man had some difficulty understanding and I had to explain to him three times.  It was not that I could not explain it properly or clearly - he was just so loaded that he could not understand why any one would refuse a free drink.  The others who heard and understood me, seemed to think that I was a little paranoid.

We left the party at 11:00 P.M. to return to our home roughly 30 minutes to the west.  As we drove along Highway 22, a four lane divided thoroughfare that links Udonthani to Sakon Nakhon, Duang remarked about how few cars were on the road.  It was a fairly easy drive back to Udonthani if I don't dwell on the man stopped on his bicycle on the left side of the lane I was driving in rather than in the breakdown lane. Fortunately he was wearing light colored pants that I saw just as I came upon him.  Duang did not see him until I passed him.  I am also not dwelling on the broken down motorbike on the left side of the lane that we were in.  In was a good night in that, on the way home, there were no vehicles driving the wrong way or motorbikes passing us on the wrong side or on both sides simultaneously.

About 1 km (1/2 mile) from our home where the Ring Road 216 intersects with the main road to Bangkok, Highway 2, we came upon a scene up ahead.  Duang who does not drive at night did not understand what it was. I, perhaps because I am paranoid, knew exactly what we were headed for - A police DUI checkpoint.

Being a child of the 1950s, we used to play cops and robbers with the highlight of our play being the "cops" yelling "Stop in the name of the law ... or I will shoot"  I don't ever want to get into that type of predicament here in Thailand or even back in the USA.  I always err on the side of caution and slow down and become prepared to pull over and stop. Often it is confusing because the Thai Police are often not that demonstrative or assertive with their hand or flashlight signals as to what their intentions for me are.

Thursday night there was no confusion.  There were two check stations in the road that had been narrowed down to a single lane at a point where there was no opportunity for a u-turn or any other turn to avoid the check point.  The car in front was flagged over to the first and I was flagged into the second.  I rolled down my window as one of the two policemen approached the truck. When he saw me he was surprised and said "Oh, falang." (Oh a foreigner).  I don't believe there was any ill intent in his remark.  I suspect it was more along the lines of "Oh a foreigner, this could get difficult if he is drunk"  He then said "Alcohol" and pointed a flashlight shaped device at me.  I had to blow at the device.  In about 5 seconds there was a beep and the policeman said "Varry gud"  I told him in Thai that "No problem.  I do not drink beer or whiskey.  I am afraid of the police.  Police love falang too much.  200 baht, 300 baht".  "200 baht, 300 baht" ($6+, $5 USD) refers to a practice where foreigners get stopped for "speeding", driving in the right hand lane rather the left hand lane other than passing, or some other minor infraction or perceived infraction but the foreigner can pay a 200 or 300 baht "fine" on the spot and continue on their way.  In six years it has happened to me four times but not in the past two years.  The policeman started laughing and wished us a good night and sent us on our way.  I have no complaints - the police were doing their job politely and respectfully along with a sense of humor.

If you flunk the alcohol on your breadth test, you are given a formal breathalyzer test on the spot.  If the tests or tests confirm that you are driving impaired, you will spend the night in jail, go to court the next morning and pay a fine depending how badly you failed the breathalyzer test.  The typical punishment is around 10,000 baht fine ($330 USD), perform 30 hours community service, and have your car confiscated for 6 months. This may seem rather lenient, but I still would not to spend a night in any Thai jail.  There is also a kicker - if you are caught a second time, any where in Thailand, you will go to jail for 6 months.

You might avoid the breathalyzer tests by paying a negotiated "fine", but once the breathalyzer test(s) are administered, everything is documented and recorded with extremely unlikely chance to avoid the justice system.

Duang and I returned home smiling and laughing about our experience.  I was reminded of an old saying from the 60s "Just because your paranoid doesn't mean you are not right"  Yes I may have been overly paranoid, but the other night it was wonderful approaching a checkpoint with complete confidence and without any panic.

I am a guest in Thailand, allowed to stay in the country for one year at which time I have to apply for a years extension.  I enjoy my life here too much to complicate or risk it by doing something that is illegal and even worse doing something wrong which I have complete control over.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nang Ai and Pha Daeng - A Warning to Squirrel Eaters

Nang Ai and Pha Daeng, Tambon Nongwha May 2013
Earlier this year, in May, Duang was contacted by one of her 96 cousins, who works for the local government, in regards to our participation in a local festival. Bun Bang Fei Tambon Nongwha was taking place on 19 to 20 May.

Early May in Isaan and neighboring Lao People's Democratic Republic, is the time for local festivals where homemade gun powder rockets are launched into the sky.  The festivals are a combination of fertility and thanksgiving for the return of the essential monsoonal rains for the planting of the year's rice crop.

I wrote the following blog, which provides some of the background and details related to the Bun Bang Feis.

On behalf of the sub-district (Tambon), Nongwha, of which Tahsang Village is one of the eleven villages (Ban, Baan), we were invited to participate in the opening day's morning procession.  To participate, we would dress up in "fancy clothes like King long time ago".  I did not have a problem with that.  Then Duang dropped the bomb on me. I would have to ride a horse.  She asked me if I had ever ridden a horse.  "No", I had never ridden a horse before.  Duang seemed very honored and excited to be asked to be part of the procession.  I then thought that after almost 64 years perhaps it was time that I did.  After we accepted and reconfirmed that we would participate, Duang received a personal call from the Sub-District Headman to officially invite us and get our acceptance.  It was a sealed deal now.  It was also time to get the details regarding the horse.  Duang told me that I did not have to worry, the horse would go slow.  I expressed concern that the horse would be big enough for me.  She checked and informed me that the horse would be big enough for both us.  Since her cousin had met me, I felt somewhat reassured.

On the morning of the 19th, we woke up at 3:00 A.M. to have our make-up applied and to get dressed.   Two young men from the local university drama department came to our home with make-up kits and plastic containers of our elaborate costumes.

Duang was going to portray "Nang Ai" and I was to be "Pha Daeng".  In mythology there are several stories about Nang Ai and Pha Daeng.  The plots vary but they all agree in that Nang Ai was a very beautiful woman and Pha Daeng was a handsome stranger from far away, the ruler of Phaphong.

Duangchan Being Transformed into "Nang Ai"
For the Bun Bang Fai Festival, Nang Ai is the queen of the pageant and Pha Daeng is her champion.

Fortunately for this pageant I did not have to wear any makeup.  I did have to wear a costume ... fit for an ancient ruler.

Nang Ai

We left our home around 6:30 A.M. traveling down Highway 2 the main highway between the Lao/Thai border and the area around Bangkok.  Traffic was light that morning but I had a suspicion.  Here in Thailand, there are often Police check points.  The Police often will stop vehicles, and especially motorbikes, to check for drinking, drug use, license, registration, insurance, "speeding", lack of helmets, and sometimes because they are thirsty or hungry.  About one-half down our trip along Highway 2, I spotted a Thailand Highway Patrol checkpoint.  It is often confusing for me at these checkpoints to determine if I am to pull over or not. That morning there was no confusion, with authority, the policeman waved me to the side of the road.

I rolled down the window as he approached my side of the truck.  I greeted him in Lao and asked him how he was doing.  I pulled out my wallet and fumbled to show him my Thai drivers license.  He did not seem all that interested in that type of formality.  He was looking at Duang and me and was speaking to her.  He seemed to be in a good as well as jovial mood.  Shortly he waved me forward and wished us a good day.

I was confused as to what had just happened.  I asked Duang and she started laughing as she explained.  The policeman saw me driving down the road and wanted to see better what I looked like.  I guess there are not too many falang (foreigners) driving a four door pickup truck around Northeast Thailand dressed up like the ancient (mythological?) ruler of Phaphong.  This is another reason why I love Thailand - the surprises that happen so often!

When we arrived at the Sub-District office where the procession was forming up, I was relieved.  Our horse, a huge horse, was standing in the back of a pick-up truck.  It was not a real horse but a combination metal and fabric replica of a horse ... a very large and anatomically exaggerated horse!

Nang Ai and Pha Daeng Riding His Horse, Bak Sam
In this story of Nang Ai and Pha Daeng, Nang Ai's beauty and fame catches the attention of Phangki, son of the Naga King, Phaya Nak.  Phangki shape shifts himself into a very handsome man to court Nang Ai. Phangki is not successful in his efforts to win over Nang Ai from Pha Daeng. Frustrated he once again shape shifts into a white squirrel to better track and keep an eye on Nang Ai with the intent of finding an opportunity to kidnap her.

When Nang Ai and Pha Daeng see the white squirrel, they order a royal hunter to trap it.  The squirrel, son of the King of the Nagas, ends up dying.  The meat is fed to the people of the town.  It miraculously keeps increasing until 8,000 cartloads of meat is fed to the people of the city and surrounding villages.  (Hmmm - reminds me of another story that I know but it is with fish instead of squirrel meat.).  Phaya Nak, King of the Nagas, vows to kill everyone who has eaten his son's flesh. (on a historical note:  I have eaten squirrel meat but fortunately it was grey squirrel not white squirrel )

After eating, a very large thunderstorm suddenly hit the city.  Since that did not typically happen, Pha Daeng tried to escape quickly with Nang Ai on his horse, Bak Sam. from the rising flood.  All of Isaan is turned into a swamp. The escape was not successful. Nang Ai is swept off the horse by the tail of a naga.  The spirit of the white squirrel had become King of the Nagas and had taken Nang Ai into his underwater kingdom.

Pha Daeng is devastated by the loss of his true love, Nang Ai, and soon dies.  His spirit recruits and organizes an army of spirits from the air to wage a long war against the Naga kingdom.  The war eventually ends in a stalemate, both sides too tired to continue.

It is said that the Nong Hon Kumphawapi Lake is a remnant from the flood and the trench that can be seen today in Tambon Pho Chai was created by Bak Sim's erection as he ran to escape the flood.  For that reason and the ancient fertility rites associated with the festival, our horse that we rode sported a very exaggerated erection and testicles.

Duang and I sat on our horse out in the hot and bright sun for a long time.  After finishing the procession, we dismounted and sat under the protection of a canopy along with the dignitaries and government officials.

Dance troupes from each of the eleven tambon villages performed traditional dances in a competition to determine the three best village participation.  Tahsang Village won second place which was very welcomed.

Duang and I returned to our home to change clothing and returned that evening for the Muay Thai boxing matches.

It had been quite a day for us.  Everyone was very kind and gracious to us.  It was obvious that everyone also appreciated our participation in the cultural event.

There has been plenty of rain (thankfully) in the Sub-District which is welcomed and I have heard that some of the good fortune has been attributed to our participation.

If invited, we will participate again next year.  If we participate, I will be certain to apply sun screen.

I have heard of people being considered to be a "legend in their own time".  I am not that, but I am definitely pleased to have been a "legend from another time"

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wan Kao Saht - Feeding the Spirits

Tahsang Villagers Offering Food to the Spirits

Today was a special day in Isaan.  Today, 19 September 2013, 2556 BE, is Wan Kao Saht.  It is the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival.  For Westerners it is the "Harvest Moon".

I have been calling it "Wan Kao Sa" but this afternoon after consultation and closer listening to my wife, I have confirmed it to be "Wan Kao Saht".  On this special merit making is performed in offering food to the Phii (ghosts).  People also earn merit through offering "Kao Tawtek) to their local Monks.  It is also traditional for older people to give gifts of Kao Tawtek and money to children.  I was hoping to photograph the giving of the Kao Tawtek and money today, but it was apparently occurred yesterday.

Like many things here in Thailand, Kao Saht seems to be adapted and amalgamated from other cultures. The Chinese celebrate a Hungry Ghost Festival but that was 7 August to 4 September of this year with "Ghost Day" on 20 August.  In Vietnam, today is the second biggest holiday with an emphasis and focus on children.

We drove out to Tahsang Village, my wife's home village, early this morning to be able to participate in the daily merit making ritual of offering food to the Monks.  After picking up our young grandson we drove through the bright green rice paddies, "high as an elephant's eye" sugar cane fields, and muddy fields lying in fallow, we arrived at the "Outside" Wat.

Today in addition to earning personal merit, the participants are earning merit for the spirit of their dead relatives.  In the Lao Loum culture, as well as other Southeast Asia cultures, the people have to take care of the spirits of their family as well as other ghosts.  Spirits need merit in death as well in life to assist them in their journey to enlightenment.  Merit is the basis for determining what form and status a person will be reincarnated as.

We had brought offerings of bottled water, food, and toiletries for the two Monks of the Wat.  We were not alone.  About one-half of the Tahsang Villagers were at this Wat.  I assume that the other half of the village were at the "Inside" Wat where "Rocketman" is the senior Monk.

Baskets of Food for the Spirits Connected by Si Sein to Monks
The villagers, in addition to the normal offerings of food for the Monks, had brought baskets of special foods wrapped in banana leaves.  The baskets were carefully placed on the floor of the incomplete Sala next to a concrete column.  A si sein (cotton string) was placed across the tops of the baskets.  The si sein ran up the column, across the sala and ran down a second column near where the Monks would sit slightly above the villagers.  The si sein terminated in a ball placed on a plate at the side of the Wat's senior Monk.

Many of the women were dressed in white uniforms like the attire that Duang wears just about every night during Vassa when she conducts her ritual upstairs in our home where my roll top desk has been converted into a shrine.  The women, including Duang's mother, are participating in a women's retreat at the Wat tonight.  They will spend the remainder of the day and most of the night reading and studying the scriptures and receiving lectures from the Monks.

The offering of food to the Monks was a typical daily ritual with one exception, while the Monks ate their one meal of the day, the women along with a couple of Brahmans chanted in Pali.

At the end of the ritual, the villagers gathered up their baskets and went outside.  The villagers scattered throughout the Wat grounds selecting specific trees to stop at.  My mother-in-law selected a large bohdi tree (Ficus religiosa).  She squatted down next to the exposed roots of the sacred tree.  It is considered sacred because it is said that Buddha sat under bohdi trees while meditating.  Yai Puh, Grandmother Puh, laid out food for the spirits of deceased family members.  The food was placed upon banana leaves an consisted of peeled fruits, sticky rice, chili sauces, dried fish, and other typical Isaan foods.  Off to the side was a banana leaf with betel-nut chewing items.  After the foods were laid out, water was poured over them as the family members said things along the lines of "You come down now to eat.  Good for you.  I miss you.  You look after family.  Good luck for you.  You go back up to Buddha. Santa Claus take care of you"  Santa Claus?

Feeding the Family Spirits
I think that Duang is trying to help me to understand the ritual in terms that I can better relate to.  I sincerely doubt that any of the villagers there this morning know about "Santa Claus" let alone in the context that Duang refers to him.

Five years ago we were in Bangkok for Christmas.  I woke before Duang on Christmas morning.  I took one of her socks, placed some money in it and since the hotel did not have a fireplace in our room, hung her sock from the large flat screen television.  When she woke I explained to her the story of Jesus's birth, the three Kings and Santa Claus.  What is the saying about throwing things up against the wall to see what sticks? The "Santa Claus" part of my explanation of Christianity is what Duang has retained.  To her, Santa Claus, is Christianity's supreme being or spirit, - the guy that makes all things happen, the entity that you pray to for favors.

So in that context, I believe that she was helping me to understand that the people were beseeching the supreme power to look after the departed spirits.

Offerings to the Hungry Ghosts At the Base
of Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa)
The offerings to the spirits also included two lit yellow candles and two sprigs of "dogkhut" - I suspect Thai jasmine buds.  When offerings are made to Buddha, three of each item are offered - one for Buddha, one for the teachings of Buddha (Dhamma), and one for the Buddhist religious community (Sanga).  For spirits the offerings are in pairs.

Food Offering to the Hungry Spirits
After the family spirits had been offered food and drink, the people hung filled thin banana leaf packets in the trees throughout the grounds.  The banana packets contained food offerings to the other spirits.

After a while, perhaps ten minutes, one of the men rang the Wat large bell three times signifying that the spirits had completed eating.  The small banana leaf packets were removed from the trees and returned to the family baskets.  The packets will later be placed in the sugar cane fields, rice paddies, and other lands to feed the spirits (ghosts)  that inhabit them.  In return for feeding the hungry ghosts, the people ask that the spirits watch over the land and its crops bringing success as well as good luck to the owners.

The villagers returned to the sala to have a community meal with the food leftover from the offerings to the Monks.  There is always too much food offered to the Monks and since they are allowed to take only what they can eat that morning for their one meal of the day.  The food, that the Monks have not taken, is eaten by the laypeople in a community meal in the sala after the Monks have left.

Young Villager Enjoying the Community Meal
We returned to our home for a relaxing afternoon.  In the late afternoon, Duang offered food and drink outside to the spirits of our land.  After dinner she put on her religious attire and performed her nightly Vassa ritual which lasts about one hour.

Duang's Nightly Vassa Ritual
Life goes on here in Isaan measured in part by the seasons of the crops and the cycle of religious events.  Whether it is the seasons of the crops, the cycle of religious events, or personal life milestones, life here always is interesting and is often "enlightening".

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sai Mai - Another Special Isaan Treat

Roadside Vendor Making "Crepes" for Sai Mai

We had to go out to Tahsang Village on Sunday for Duang to take her father to the hospital for his scheduled appointment.  I have often mentioned that there are no secrets here in Isaan,  Well once again it was proven in regards to our planned trip out to the village.  On Saturday during one of my wife's daily calls with her family, a message from our 4-1/2 year old grandson, Peelawat, was conveyed to Duang.  Peelawat reminded her to stop along the road and buy him some Sai Mai.

We live very close to Highway 2 the main road from the Lao border south to the Bangkok area.  We travel on Highway 2 on our journeys out to Tahsang Village.  Highway 2 is typically a 4 lane separated modern road.  Despite being a modern thoroughfare, the highway can be quite interesting.  The King has sponsored a program, OTOP (One Tambon, One Product) where sub-districts (over 7,000 of them) focus on marketing a single handicraft or product.  Along the road just before the turn off to Kumphawapi, the road in both directions is lined with little stands built out of bamboo and sheltered by a large umbrella where local people sell a local specialty - sticky rice cooked inside of bamboo with coconut milk and a few beans.  If I understood my wife properly and have spelled it correctly, it is known as "Pan Kao Thai".

Further south along the road you will find villages where Isaan Sausages are cooked and sold to motorists.  In other locations, bottles of honey are for sale.  Not all the products are edible along the road.  In some areas, pottery, walking canes, rattan furniture, and textiles are featured.

Of course anywhere along the road, you will come upon places where people are grilling chickens and serving other foods to passersbys.

I have written about the seasonal treat, kao tawtek, that is now being prepared for Kao Sa on 19 September.  September is also the time for preparing and consuming another special treat - Sai Mai.  Spotted along Highway 2 on the way to Kumphawapi are stalls that are selling Sai Mai.  We stopped at one just before the Udonthani Mail Sorting Facility.

Sai Mai is a two component treat that is assembled by the consumer.  Sai Mai consists of small thin crepes that have a sugar product placed on it and rolled up to be eaten.   The sugar product resembles asbestos in texture as well as coloring.  It seems to be a Thai form of cotton candy.  It melts quickly and completely in your mouth.  It is softer and less stiff than American cotton candy.  It resembles chopped soft fibers rather than spun filaments of cotton candy.  The Thai product can be rolled and molded into compact balls quite easily but that it not the accepted practice for eating it.  This component is purchased from manufacturers. Sai Mai vendors distribute the product in various sized plastic bags sealed with elastic bands for sale.

The second component of Sai Mai is a small diameter thin crepe.  The crepes are made freshly at the stall and several are placed in small plastic bags.  The crepes are made out of rice flour and water.  Unlike crepes that include eggs, salt, and vanilla, in a runny matter these crepes are a thick paste that is smeared on the hot griddle BY HAND.

The griddle is a typical propane gas open flame device - just like I have seen used in Europe to make crepes.  I watched in awe as the vendor grabbed a handful of rice flour paste and smeared three small circles on the hot plate.  Almost immediately after finishing the third circle, the vendor used a thin pastry scraper in his other hand to remove and stack the one millimeter thick crepes on a table near the stove.  After creating a stack of around one centimeter thick, the stacked crepes were carefully placed in a small plastic bag after the vendor washed his "paste" hand in a nearby tub of water.

We bought two bags of Sai Mai and associated bags of crepes for 50 baht ($1.50 USD).

Upon arrival in Tahsang Village we were enthusiastically welcomed by Peelawat, Kwan, Tey, Mai, Phere, and Phu.  We sat upon the raised platform outside of the home and laid out the Sai Mai. components.  In a process very much like "rolling your own", the children carefully separated a crepe from the stack, laid it flat in their hand, grabbed some of the sugar product in their other hand, sprinkled the sugar fibers across the center-line of the crepe, folded the filled crepe in half and rolled it into a tube.  The completed treat was then consumed in two to three bites.  Duang and I joined in the feeding frenzy.  In very little time, the treats were completely consumed.

I suspect that we will be enjoying some more Sai Mai before the season is over.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Kao Tawtek - The Rest of the Story; Final Process

Popped Rice Is Added to Other Ingredients
Last Thursday, as promised, we received the phone call from the family out in Tahsang Village that the next day 13 Friday, they would be finishing up making their Kao Tawtek (Thai Cracker Jacks).  Once again Duang and I drove out to her mother's home to help, and photograph the last steps of the process to produce the special treats that are used to mark the Mid Autumn (Moon) Festival on 19 September (yes, yet another trip out to the village).

In my previous blog regarding offering the treats to the Monks, I stated that the ritual was part of Kao Patducdin.  In speaking with her mother, Duang realized that she had given me the wrong information.  Although the date is the same and the purpose is the same, the day is actually Bun Kao Sa rather than Kao Patducdin.

The previous day the family had grated mature coconut meat and cooked the shavings over an open outside fire in water, and sugar.  When we arrived at Duang's mother's house.  The family was assembled next door under the protection of the covered porch area.

Duang's Aunt Adding Margarine to Kao Tawtek Mixture
Open pots of cool cooked coconut and sugar water mixture lay on the ground next to bags of the popped rice that we had seen prepared earlier in the week.  There were also several cans of sweetened condensed milk awaiting to be opened.  On the raised wooden platform that serves as a combination table, couch, bed, playroom, and food prep area, there were clear plastic bags of "Kao Pong" and bags of roasted peanuts. Unlike my previous experience with another aunt on the other side of the village, there was no millet to add to the kao tawtek. I guess family recipes can even vary amongst family members.

Kao Pong is a rice product very much like "Rice Krispies" - a sort of puffed rice as opposed to "popped" rice which is more like popcorn.  The family did not make the Kao Pong .  They purchased it at a local market.  According to Duang, Kao Pong is produced by cooking rice seed in water and some coloring.  The Kao Pong was beige and yellowish in color.  When we arrived, a cousin was sifting the Kao Pong with a fine fish net to separate powder and fine fragments from the product that would go into the Kao Tawtek.

Sifting Kao Pong To Get Rid of Fine
The fines that ended up on the ground did not go to waste.  Both local dogs and the village "free range" chickens made periodic forays amongst all the  family workers to feast upon the unexpected treat.

Mixing Up the Sifted Kao Pong
A caramel type sauce was made by heating industrial strength margarine (I call it "industrial strength" because of its color.) and, the coconut mixture, and cans of sweetened condensed milk.  No attempt was made to confuse anyone into believing this margarine was butter!  It hearkened back memories from my very young years when a deep yellow capsule had to be mixed into Oleo to make margarine).   The margarine and sweetened condensed milk mixture was stirred with a wood paddle that typically is used to propel the family steel pirogue in the nearby flood plain.

Stirring the Caramel Base With Pirogue Paddle
Occasionally, Duang's aunt, using the paddle, would take some of the hot bubbling caramel mixture and drop it into a small bowl of water to determine if the mixture was ready for the next step of the process.  When the sauce had been heated to the proper temperature and reached the desired condition, other workers came over to the large wok with the bags of popped and bags of puffed rice as well as the peanuts.  They poured the ingredients into the bubbling brown sweet liquid using large metal serving trays to direct the cascade of dry ingredients into the wok as well as to immediately commence mixing all the ingredients together.

Time to Mix The Kao Tawek
After the ingredients are quickly and completely mixed in the hot wok, the amalgamated kao tawtek is scooped out of the wok using the same metal serving trays used for mixing.  The Kao Tawtek is placed into a large plastic tub and placed on the elevated platform where the majority of the workers sat.

Kao Tawtek Packaging Circle
Most of the workers have the responsibility of filling small plastic bags with the still warm Kao Tawtek. There are two methods used to fill the individual bags.  The first method is to grab the appropriate amount from the plastic tub with a bare hand and shove it in the bag.  The other method is to invert the plastic bag over your hand and grab the required amount of kao tawtek with the covered hand - just like selecting pastries or donuts in a bakery. The selection of method is an individual choice.

The bags are stuffed with the warm mixture and are formed into uniform bricks of sweet treat by squeezing and pressing with the hands.

Duang Seals A Bag of Kao Tawtek Using Heat From A Candle
The remainder of the seated workers are occupied sealing the filled bags of Kao Tawtek.  There is no need for specialized equipment such as electron beam sealers or even heated metal plate sealers.  The workers use a lit candle to seal each bag. A thin yellow candle that is used in rituals at the Wat is set on top of the platform and lit to provide the heat to seal the bags. The top of the plastic bag is folded over and the resulting seam created between the body of the bag and folded flap is melted with the candle.  Sealing the bag helps to keep the treat fresh and just as importantly - keeps the ants out.

All the activity is not performed in silence.  Everyone seems to be talking, talking loudly, all at the same time.  The din is often punctuated by laughing and exclamations of "Ugh Ugh".  Canadians are well know for incorporating "Eh" into many of their sentences.  Well the Lao Loum are even more apt to use the ubiquitous "Ugh Ugh" into just about every sentence.  "Ugh, Ugh" is an extremely versatile phrase - it means "Yes", "I agree". "For sure", "Definitely", and used to emphasize the previous statement.

QC Dept, Phere and Peelawat, Testing the Sweetened Condensed Milk
Periodically the workers would change jobs.  Duang helped out filling bags as well as sealing bags.  Her cousin stirring the pot, well actually "wok" and dumped ingredients into the caramel. Duang's aunt, Kwan's grandmother, concentrated on stirring the wok and mixing.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Little Packages Placed In Bag to Make A Bigger Package
The small packets of Kao Tawtek were placed into larger plastic bags to form big blocks of the treats.  Besides offering Kao Tawtek to the Monks, and the hungry spirits, the treats will be given to elderly family members as gestures of appreciation at this time of the year.  Besides donating their time and labor to produce the Kao Tawtek, family members also donate some of the ingredients such as rice and coconuts.

Cousin Youpin Gathering Somme Greens Alongside the Street for Lunch
After three hours it was break time - betel nut chewing and eating time.  Cousin Youpin went along the village street collecting some greens to add to the lunch of sticky rice, fish, and vegetarian curry.  Now that there has been so wet for so long, it is not uncommon to see people gathering food from the plants that grow wild along the roads and, in this case, village streets.  The Lao Loum people, long ago, learned to live off of the land - often making do with what is readily available.

Lunch Time!

Betel-nut Chewing Time
I had gone off to another outdoor raised platform to rest and cool off.  It was less "confusing" there and there was more room for my camera gear. Our days are still hot - 90F to 95F for high temperatures. All the stooping and squatting to get different perspectives for the photos had made me very sweaty, tired, and thirsty. Soon I looked up to see a common sight - Duang bringing me some Pepsi to drink.  I never have to ask, she just seems to intuitively know when it is time.

Nothing Like Ice Cold Pepsi to Drink on a Hot Day!
Duang donated 1,000 baht to help pay or most likely pay for the store bought ingredients such as sweetened condensed milk, sugar, peanuts, plastic bags, and Kao Pong.  We left with four bags, little bags, of Kao Tawtek.

Like the fisherman who goes to Alaska to catch salmon, has it canned or frozen, and shipped back to their home, I realize that it would have been much cheaper to just buy some Kao Tawtek at the store (market). Just like that fisherman, I realize that buying it is not the same - not the same pleasure or experience that has been enjoyed.

For me there is also the added sense of being part of a family as well as community along with seeing the joy of my wife in her being able to make these things happen..


This content is not yet available over encrypted connections.