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..

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