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|
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|
|One of many fish eviscerated over two hours|
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|
|Removing the Cooked Fish|
|Moving A Support Into Place|
|Steaming Hot Pla thu|
|Pla thu Ready for Market|
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.