Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Bpoo Naa

Young Man Joking With Bpoo Naa In His Mouth
Back in May of this year, I got the inspiration for a long term project.  During the Bun Bang Fei Festival in the sub district, Tambon Nongwa, we had witnessed several Muay Thai boxing matches - most of them involving children younger than 15 years old.

The career of a Muay Thai boxer is typically over before they are 30 years old.  However their career starts early - sometimes before they are even five years old.  The song, "The Boxer" from the 1960's rattled around in my brain after watching the matches, especially the ones involving very young boys.

"I am just a poor boy  Though my story's seldom told ..."  The lyrics motivated me to embark upon a long term project photographing and writing blogs about the life and development of young Muay Thai boxers - hopefully focusing on one boy.

I asked Duang to call the people associated with the matches at Tambon Nongwa and determine if I could visit where the boxers train and perhaps meet a young boxer.  She obtained the phone number, called but nothing has materialized ... yet.

Recently, entirely by chance, Duang became friendly with a friend of a friend - a woman whose son and grandson are Muay Thai boxers here in Udon Thani.  Duang remembered my wish to start the long term project and spoke to the woman about it.  The woman was very supportive of the idea.

Four days ago we made arrangements to meet with her and go to some Muay Thai matches at the Udon Thani Fair.  On Saturday morning got a call from the woman inviting us to meet up with her family on their land where they had a pond.  The family had drained the pond and were harvesting fish out of the mud.  We ended up meeting with them at 2:00 PM rather than 4:00 PM.

The Party Next to the Pond
Duang ended up driving which was great - we got lost many times - three phone calls and finally her son, the boxer, found us on the wrong side of the airport to lead us the correct way.  I can deal and handle getting lost when Duang is driving much better than when I am driving and following her directions.

The family had finished hauling the fish out of the pond - a very small pond more like a large puddle, but had pulled some good fish out of the mud.  They were cooking two of the fish over small charcoal fires.  A grand picnic had been going on for a while.  We were immediately welcomed, offered food and beer.  We gave the beer that we had bought for our visit.

Digging for Bpoo Naa

I took some photos of the various activities.  For some reason two of the men decided to catch some crabs.

No, they were not planning to drive 8 hours down to the ocean.  They were going to capture some crabs hiding underground in the dried up rice paddy where we were.

My first introduction to rice paddy crabs was almost exactly six years ago outside of Kumphawapi while visiting our infant grandson, Peelawat.

I had seen very small crabs getting crushed in large mortars as part of the preparation of the ubiquitous Lao Loum culinary specialty - "Puak Puak" also know as Som Tom - green papaya salad.  I had assumed that they were salt water crabs until my chance encounter with the old lady harvesting them in Juanuary 2009.

My research on these crabs did not completely confirm my observations regarding the crabs.  I checked with my wife to verify my observations about the crabs.  What you are about to read is different from some web articles but it is the truth as confirmed by a local person - someone born and raised in Isaan - someone who has eaten her share of bpoo naa over the years.

The crabs are called "bpoo naa".  Their scientific name is "paratelphusa hydrodromus".  Bpoo naa is a freshwater crab that is actually a nuisance for the rice farmers.  In the planting season, our rainy season. starting typically in June the crabs feed at night upon the tender seedlings - cutting them off at mud level and chopping them into small pieces that the crabs haul back to their hole to have their meals.

I have seen Isaan farmers time to time spraying a liquid from small back mounted tanks over the surface of the water in paddies where rice seed is germinating.  The chemical is to destroy the rice paddy crabs.  In older times, the crabs were removed from the paddies by attracting them into submerged earthen pots or jars baited with smelly fish, cooked coconut, or shrimp paste.  The crabs attracted by the smell of the bait would go into the submerged jar but because they are not great swimmers and are unable to walk up the steep walls of the hard container, they would be trapped.  The farmers would then empty the traps of crabs each morning - just in time for breakfast or to have some fresh pauk pauk in the afternoon.

During the rainy season, as you walk along the rice paddy bunds, the narrow low mounds of compacted earth that surrounds the paddy to contain the water for growing the rice. you will encounter many dirt cones.  The dirt cones are about 4 to 5 inches high  and about 2.5 inches in diameter at the base. It appears that the cones are constructed of many small balls of mud.  These cones are constructed by the crabs as they dig into the moist ground to construct their homes. The burrows are approximately 18 inches deep at this time.

As the growing season advances, the crabs cut through the outer layers of the rice stalk to get at the tender insides for a meal every night.  As the growing season continues the ground becomes progressively drier. Later in the season, the cones become less prevalent on the bunds and appear more often inside the actual paddy where water remains.

By the time of the rice harvest in November, the crab burrows have become deeper and deeper.  The crabs dig deeper to keep moist and prepare for the stifling hot days in January, March, April, and May before the rains reappear in May or June.  The rice paddy crabs hibernate in their burrows from approximately January to May.  People consider the crabs to be most flavorful during their January hibernation.

Quickly Excavating A Suspected Crab Burrow

Last Saturday, there were no longer any dirt cones to be found on the floor of the rice paddy.  Since we have not had substantial rain since the end of September, the cones have turned to dust and scattered by feeding livestock, the activities of harvesting the rice crop, and the action of wind.  However if you look carefully you can find the entrances of the crab burrows ... as well as snake holes.  Fortunately there are many more crabs around here than snakes but you still have to be careful.

Scratching Around For Bpoo Naa
Because it is getting close to hibernation for the crabs, their burrows are now about 36 inches deep.  When the crab hunters have gotten close to 36 inches (one meter) below the dry paddy surface, the men reach down into the hole, scratching around and feeling for a crab.

If the hunter did not find a crab, he carefully looked into hole for some sign and would commence once again to dig deeper with his hoe type tool.  After a short while, he or his helper, would stoop down on the ground and shove their arm down the hole to repeat the process.  After two or three tries, the hunters, they would pull a 2" to 2.5"crab out of the hole.

Bpoo Naa Fresh From the Burrow
The harvested crabs were placed in a bucket and brought back to the other people of the group.  Bpoo Naa have to be eaten before they die.  I read that shortly after they die, they smell very bad.  Smell bad?  I have yet to find a Lao Loum person that was put off from eating something because of the smell - after all they use 6 month to 12 month old fermented fish to season their food like we use ketchup in America.

There have been many times that I was in the process of throwing some meat into the garbage because of its smell, when Duang would stop me and ask what I was doing.  I would tell her that it was bad and did not smell good.  She would smell it and tell me that it was Ok, Good - good for Isaan.  She would end up taking it to Thasang Village  for her family to eat.

Even in my days as the Steward of my fraternity back in college, I was quick to discard any food that had a hint of not smelling exactly right.  I take pride in knowing that in my three years there was not a single case of food poisoning.  Old habits are hard to break, I guess.

I asked Duang about having to eat the crab while it was alive or very shortly after it died.  She said yes because some people eat it when it is too old and they throw up and have diarrhea.  All good reasons to not it after it dies if you ask me.

One of my new buddies had a great time clowning around and posing for me with a crab.

At 4:00 PM as originally scheduled we set off for the start of the Muay Thai project.

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