Sunday, September 29, 2013

Making Pla thu







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 "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.

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