Monday, September 9, 2013

"Hey Kids, What Time Is It?"

Lao Loum Women Making Popped Rice
Back in the 1950's in the USA, there was a children's program named "Howdy Doody" which starred a puppet of the same name.  Each show would start with the host, "Buffalo Bob" saying "Hey kids, what time is it?"  The live audience of children would scream out "It's Howdy Doody time!"

Well it has not been Howdy Doody time in the USA since 1960 when the show went off the air.  To be truthful, I never liked the show.  However it is now "Kao tawtek time" here in Isaan and I love Kao Tawtek.

I first encountered the Isaan specialty, kao tawtek, almost five years ago to the day (6 September 2008).  I refer to Kao Tawtek as "Thai Cracker Jacks"

Early September is the time, when Lao Loum families gather together to make Kao Tawtek.  Rice is one of the main components of the delicious treat.  Last year's harvest of rice was stored in small raised sheds adjacent to the house.  Large 50 kilogram (110 pound) recycled fertilizer bags, sugar bags, and rice bags are filled with sun dried rice kernels each October and November.  The bags are kept in the raised granaries and removed as needed to feed the family or opened to obtain offerings at special events such as funerals, bone parties, 100 day death anniversary, weddings, and Monk ordinations.  Families who are unable to make offerings of cash, make donations of rice.  The cash as well as the rice are then offered to the Monks in merit making rituals.

The stored rice has its husk in tact.  In order to eat the rice, the rice is brought to a local miller to remove the husk, rendering the rice to the state that most people in the USA are familiar with at their grocery store.  Many bags of rice are not milled in Isaan because they are the seed stock for next year's crop.  Other bags of unmilled rice are saved to make kao tawtek.

I suspect that it is not by coincidence that the time to make kao tawtek is a month before the harvest of this year's rice crop.  Families now know how much rice they have as surplus from the last harvest.

Yesterday we had a family funeral to attend in the village near Duang's home village of Ban Tahsang.  We had also been notified that some of the relatives in Tahsang Village would be making kao tawtek.  Our plan was to attend the funeral after first watching the family make kao tawtek.

A Metal Pan Is Used To Contain the Popping Rice
After walking across the main farm road through Ban Tahsang we ended up at one of Duang's relatives house.  Alongside of the house underneath the shelter of an overhanging corrugated metal roof, there was a stove made out of a modified steel barrel. The barrel had been cut in half with a large notch cut into the side. The barrel was then placed upside down on the dirt so that the notch served as a door to the interior of the barrel. A small wood fire was burning inside of the barrel using long pieces of fire wood. As the fire burned down, people shoved the unburned portions of the logs deeper into the barrel. On top the barrel was a large and heavy wok type iron frying pan. A woman was popping rice in the hot wok. She would take about a quart of brown rice seed from a woven wood basket and sprinkle it into the wok. She constantly stirred the seed inside the wok with a broom made with a wood handle and reed bristles. In no time at all, the seed started to pop. With snap, crackles and pops the white interior of the kernel burst forth - much like popcorn.  She continued stirring the seeds despite the updraft of hot rice puffs. When the wok seeds were fully engaged in popping, another woman grabbed a large metal bowl and placed it over the wok to contain the rice puffs.

The sound of the popping rice seed, the swirling smoke, the swishing sound of the stiff reeds on hot metal, the sight of white rice puffs bursting upwards, and the smell of a wood fire all created quite a sensory explosion.  The shelter of the overhanging roof ensured that the pending rain would not interfere with the activity.

Sweeping Popped Rice Into A Metal Tub

Occasionally another woman would stoop down and tend the fire. Most of the time tending the fire was adding just a couple more inches of the small pieces of wood into the fire. Other times tending the fire involved splashing some water on the coals to maintain a desired temperature in the wok - too hot a temperature would end up quickly burning the popped rice before it could be removed..

As the popping came to a conclusion, another woman would approach the fire to take hold of the large metal bowl that had been used over the top of the wok. She held the bowl as the cook swept the hot rice puffs into it.

Sifting the Popped Rice to Get rid of Unpopped Kernels
The puffed rice was then carried to another woman who was tending a woven basket suspended from the overhead beams. The hot rice puffs were dumped into the woven basket that she rocked back and forth by hand to sieve the product. Unpopped seed and smaller puff pieces fell through the basket onto woven reed mats. The rejected product will used to feed chickens and cattle. The acceptable puffs were dumped into metal pots and eventually placed into clean empty fertilizer plastic sacks.

Laughter Is Always Abundant Here - Or At Least When I Am Around
I had hoped to be able to photograph and, better yet, sample some completed kao tawtek.  Unfortunately the plan for the day was only to pop the rice and to wait until another day to cook in the sugar, millet, coconut and package the delicious treat.

Our time at the family home was not over  after I had packed away my camera gear.  Inside the house was a two month old baby boy that we had to meet.  It seems that no matter where we go here in Isaan we encounter children of all ages.  It is always nice as well as entertaining to meet the new generation.  After holding the baby, feeding him some water, and "talking" as well as "listening" to him, we left for the cremation ritual in the next village.

We were told that other relatives in Tahsang Village would be making kao tawtek today.  We left our home at 7:00 A.M. to get out to Tahsang Village early.  The work is hot so the family was going to finish in the morning before temperatures got too high.

Duang's relatives, who live across the street from the "inside" Wat of Ban Tahsang had set up their "kitchen" on the Wat's grounds under the shade of a large tree amongst the chedi which contain the bones of past villagers.

Processing Popped Rice for Kao Tawtek
This morning there was not a threat of rain so the process could take place in a more exposed location.

Popping Rice
Duang's uncle, aunts and cousins all took part in this effort - true family effort.  Their plan was to pop three bags, 330 pounds (150 kilos) of seed.  Unfortunately their plan for the day did not include producing a finished product.  They did promise to call us when they will assemble and package the kao tawtek.

Separating the Chaff From the Popped Rice

The work proceeded with a great deal of laughing and talking - very little transpires here in Isaan without a great deal of talking and gossiping.

Uncle Guhyoi (Banana) Winnows Rice Seeds to be Popped

"Chef" Yupin, Duang's Cousin Stirring the Pot
The Kao Tawtek will be finished for 19 September - "Kao Patducdin".  Kao Patducdin, my spelling of what Duang told me, is the Mid Autumn (Moon) Festival.  On this day, the Lao Loum people of Isaan make offerings to the hungry phii (ghosts).  In making the offerings to the phii, the people ask the ghosts to watch over and take care of this year's rice crop which will be harvested in October and November.  This close to the harvest, the people want to ensure that there are no problems with the crop.  The kao tawtek is a special treat for the spirits.  Kao Tawtek is also offered to the Monks as they complete roughly 60 days of the 90 day Buddhist Lent also referred as the Buddhist Rains Retreat. Families can make extra income by selling surplus kao tawtek to people who want and need it but are not able or willing to make it themselves.  During today's activities I heard and understood the family talking about how much money they expected to make this year.

Cousin Yupin Uses the Cover of Rainwater Collection Urn to Contain Popped Rice

I will be photographing the remaining steps required to produce Kao Tawtek when we get the word in the next week and one-half.  I am looking forward to ... providing QC feedback to the family cooks!

Of course I will be sharing the photos and writing a blog on the activity.

I am not planning on sharing any of my Lao Tawtek though.

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