Saturday, January 10, 2015

Khao Poon, Khao Pun - Where Does It Come From?






Worker Gathers Fresh Khao Poon to Place In A Tray for Market

Visitors to wet  markets in Southeast Asia can be assured of finding rice noodles artistically placed like skeins of yarn atop a layer of banana leaves in a woven bamboo tray.  My wife, an ethnic Lao from Thailand, calls the rice noodles "Khao Poon" ("Khao Pun"?).

Khao Poon resembles cooked pure white vermicelli much like No. 7 Spaghetti except for color.  The pure white of Khao Poon is due to it having rice rather than wheat and no eggs as ingredients.  Khao Poon is used in various soups and salads in Asian cuisine.

I have seen tons of Khao Poon for sale over six years in Thailand, Lao, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Cambodia.  I had never thought of where all those trays of soft wet noodles came from.  I guess that I had assumed that they came from the Khao Poon factory - some large industrial building where raw ingredients arrived at one end of the building by rail car, 18 wheel tractor trailer rig, or lorry.  Finished product would exit at the other end of the building by large trucks to distribution outlets and eventual to the local outlets. Undoubtedly my assumptions were based upon my experience and perspective as a long time resident of the United States.

When I was a young boy in the United States, I enjoyed a television program entitled "Industry On Parade".  The fifteen minute program ran from 1950 to 1960.  In addition to being on television, films of the programs were distributed to schools. Episodes showed how various products such as hot dogs, cars, steel, light bulbs were produced in America.  I honestly do not remember if there was an episode regarding rice noodles let alone Khao Poon.

I have maintained an interest in how things are made and done over the years - just ask the dentist doing my current root canal.

For our recent trip to Cambodia, one of my objectives was to take photographs of people; more specifically documenting the daily life of the people.  I had conveyed that objective and sent samples of the type of people photographs that I prefer to take to the tour company that I had selected for us.

On the third day of our stay in Siem Reap, we got up early to catch the sunrise at Pre Rup.  From Pre Rup we drove and toured Banteay Srei before heading to Banteay Samre.  We travelled along a country road bounded by rice fields, grazing lands, and small villages.  The rural scenery was dotted with many houses elevated on stilts with children as well as domesticated animals wandering about - great photo opportunities.  I mentioned to our guide that I would like to stop up somewhere up ahead to photograph some typical Cambodian homesteads.  He acknowledged my request and we continued on our way passing many locations.  We passed so many locations that I was considering reminding the guide of my wishes.  I held off, trusting not only that he was not only a man of his word but also was much more knowledgeable than me. After a while, the car slowed down and pulled off to the side of the road and stopped.

A Homestead Along the Road to Banteay Samre
We had stopped at one the typical homes along that country road. The home was a small structure raised above the ground with a corrugated metal roof.  The exterior walls were rough cut lumber and woven bamboo panels.  There was quite a bit of activity around the home - in the open air space next to the structure and underneath a roofed area in front of the home.

Disembarking from our vehicle, I immediately realized that my trust and patience with our guide had been vindicated.  The people were all busy making something.  This was  just what I was hoping for in my goal.  Duang realized immediately what was going on - the people were making Khao Poon, rice noodles.  We ending up spending one hour at the location.

Neighborhood Children Checking Things Out
With our arrival, more people, local children, arrived to investigate what was going on.  My wife and I do not object and are not embarrassed to be objects of curiosity by the local people of areas that we visit.  We consider it to be great opportunities to share, share bilaterally, with the people we encounter.  As much as there is to learn about others and their life, there is a great deal of ourselves and our life that we can share with them.

At this stop we were learn where Khao Poon comes from and how it is made. Here in Cambodia the rice noodles were not produced in some large industrial complex with heavy machinery.  The product was manufactured or rather crafted as part of a cottage industry.  The rice noodles were crafted by family members at their home.

Grinding Rice to Create A Slurry - the First Step
The first step in making Khao Poon is to produce a rice slurry.  The production of the rice slurry took place off to the side of the house.  No electricity was required in the production of the slurry required for this cottage industry in Cambodia. Rice kernels were fed by large spoon into a small grinder that was powered by hand utilizing a trapeze mechanism.

While seated on top of a low rustic platform, one woman fed rice into the mill along with the necessary amount of water, as another woman pushed a horizontal wood beam forward and backward.  The beam was suspended by two cords from a wood overhead frame.  At one end of the horizontal beam additional pieces of wood with a swivel joint at the end connected swing device to the mill.  The horizontal rocking motion of the second woman was mechanically translated into rotational movement of the top milestone of the rice grinder.  After 44 years, I was looking at the practical and ancient application of those mechanisms that we studied back in Machine Design class in college.  It was fascinating to see the mechanisms in action and appreciating them for what they could do rather than looking at colored diagrams on a sheet of paper.

A milky mixture of rice flour and water flowed by gravity from the rice mill into a recycled plastic bucket placed on the ground next to the low platform.  A piece of fine mesh plastic net, the type used to cover the ground when threshing rice, covered the top of the bucket to strain the slurry draining from the rice mill.

Buckets of the milky mixture are covered and set aside for one week to work.

The second step of the process that we witnessed involved "kneading" the thick and heavy balls of dough created from the one week of the milky mixture working.  Once again heavy electrical equipment was not utilized or necessary to further process the dough.  Heavy equipment, albeit basic mechanical mechanisms were necessary and utilized.

Kneading the Dough
At the edge of the property closest to the road, the dough was kneaded using a lever mechanism.  The dough was placed into a heavy stone mortar located on the ground underneath a heavy pestle created from a heavy log.  A woman in coordinated conjunction with the up and down motion of the log pestle kneaded and worked the dough.  To get the mixture to the required consistency, she would add water.  The up and down motion of the pestle was created by children and for a very short time a foreign tourist stepping down and off on the end of a heavy lever that the pestle was attached too.

Driving Mechanism for Kneading the Dough
After the dough was properly kneaded and at the required consistency, the large balls were relocated to a bench next to the covered work station.

Loading Up the Noodle Die
At the work table, the die for a primitive but very effective extrusion machine is loaded with dough.  The rice noodles are formed by an extrusion process - the same as spaghetti produced in large industrialized factories. However at this cottage industry, no electricity or hydraulic power was required to make the product.  In Cambodia, the power and wonder of the lever was once again employed.

The extrusion machine, a simple mechanical press, in Cambodia was basically like a huge wood nut cracker.  At the small end of the nut cracker there was a metal cylinder that was filled with the dough.  One end of the cylinder had a die - a metal disk with holes in it.  Dough forced through the cylinder and across the disk came out in long individual strings.  The dough was forced through the cylinder, and extruded from the die by a ram, solid tube only slightly smaller in diameter than the dough container.  The ram was forced (pressed) through the open end of the cylinder holding the dough by forcing down the long lever at the large end of the nut cracker. The combination of the cylinder and ram acted as the fulcrum for the lever.

People Operating the Primitive Press to Extrude Rice Noodles

All that was required to operate the press (extrusion machine) were people to sit on the end of the lever.  The weight of the people applied at the end of the long lever created sufficient force to drive the dough through the die and into the vat of boiling water beneath the press.

Rice Noodles Extruded Into Vat of Boiling Water
After cooking in boiling water over a wood fire, the rice noodles were removed and placed into a tub of water to stop the cooking process as well as to cool off for handling.

Finished Khao Poon Being Packaged
The tub of cooled noodles were then carried back to another low raised platform to be packaged.  Packaging consisted of removing the noodles from the tub, twisting them into skeins and placing them on top of banana leaves in a woven bamboo tray.


The people did not even need electricity for water.  In the front yard, there was a small diameter PVC pipe that came out of the ground. That pipe entered into more pipes that were at an angle to the ground.  A long sliding piece of PVC pipe was located inside of sloped pipe.  One of the men stroked the sliding pipe back and forth to pump underground water to the surface - water without electricity

We had spent an hour at the home and we wanted to show some appreciation to the people for allowing us to experience some of their life and for being so kind as well as patient with us.  Duang and I decided to buy some rice noodles that we would give to our guide and driver to take back to their homes.  We spoke with our guide to make it happen.  He determined that we could not buy any noodles.  It turned out that the family had contracts to middle men who sell to the vendors at the wet markets for a certain amount of noodles each day.  They did not have extra product to sell.  I ended up paying the woman a little bit of money for the children and to demonstrate our appreciation.

As we were leaving, one of the men ran up to our vehicle.  He had two cold coconuts from an ice chest next to the house.  He thanked us and apologized for only having two coconuts for us to drink.  We headed down the road for the next location of our itinerary - Duang and I enjoying one coconut, our driver and guide enjoying the other.

Our stop at this location had been extremely entertaining, instructive, and memorable.

We had learned something of rural life in Cambodia. I had a better understanding and appreciation for the mechanical principles, that have existed for thousands of years - principles that I was taught back in college. The same principles exist today and allow people to live off of the grid. I also once again was impressed at man's ability to survive and often thrive with few of the amenities of the world that I am so comfortable with.

The ability of the rural peoples of Southeast Asia to adapt and survive with so much less than I am accustomed to gives me comfort and inspires me.  They are proof that I can do with less.  They demonstrate how life can go on and go on happily in the world and not just in "Allen's World".

Our guide once again had done a great job - something that he did for entire trip.

















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