Farm-to-table dining: Mok Het

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HOLY BASIL! HAS it been half a year since I last posted here?

I’m still eating and cooking as much as usual, but throw in a new house (yay! I finally have a fully equipped kitchen to call my own), a couple of overseas work trips (including a transcontinental one to the U.S.) and some personal developments, the second half of 2014 has been a pretty hectic period for me.

Hence it was with much anticipation that Mr. P and I drove back to Udon Thani in early December to visit his folks, for it meant that we could zone out from the bustling capital for a couple of days, sniff the fresher and cooler year-end air in the countryside and, best of all, tuck into unpretentious Isaan fare whipped up by my mother-in-law, whom I simply address as Mae.

Whenever we are back in Udon, Mae would ask what his eldest son, who has been living away from the family since he was 15, if he has cravings for any Isaan dish. His choices have varied from protein-rich bugs to spice-laden chilli paste, but mushrooms were what he requested for this time round.

One particular dish immediately came to mind, mok het (หมกเห็ด), a simple Isaan-Lao dish that centres on steaming mushrooms in banana leaves.

Once the menu was kitted out, we got to work. Again, just like when were making sup nor mai, Mae knew where to source the freshest mushrooms—it always has to be some neighbouring village—so across the sugarcane-lined fields we rumbled through as she gave the instructions to a shortcut traversing the rural dirt paths, kicking up a mini dust storm in our wake.

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(Side note: Mr. P still reminisces his childhood days in Udon Thani when the rural landscapes were dotted with ample rice fields. Many villagers have since given up farming or switched to growing cash crops like sugar canes, which have significantly altered the landscapes in the province; we noticed long queues of sugarcane-loaded trucks waiting along the AH12 highway to deposit their harvest at a sugar mill.)

When we reached the village, it didn’t look to me there were any mushrooms for sale but Mae insisted that it had to be one of the houses in the vicinity. Seeing two grandfatherly figures ambling along the road, we rolled down the car window to enquire for directions. They pointed us to a house we just past and we reversed back the way we came.

A group of women was gathered in front of the house; it turned out that they grew mushrooms in their backyard. While the owners went to prepare our order of Indian oyster mushrooms (het nang rom phuu thaan; เห็ดนางรมภูฏาน)—Mae wanted the pearl oyster mushrooms (het khorn khaao; เห็ดขอนขาว) for their crunchier, more refined taste but the current temperatures were too cold for their production—we started mingling and exchanged pleasantries with the rest of the womenfolk. By buying these fungal ingredients at their source, a 3kg pack costs us just 170 baht—what a steal! A 200g pack already costs around 30 baht in the supermarket.

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As we drove back home, Mae suggested that we stop along the way to pluck banana leaves and gather lemon basil (ใบแมงลัก; bai maenglak) at a neighbour’s plot of land. She had no problem plucking the desired leaves off the banana trees and ordered Mr. P to pluck some too. But Mr. P obviously hadn’t cultivated much experience in the art of plucking banana leaves elegantly, and as he tried his might to break a long stalk I captured a shot of him giving his classic wide grin, which made Mae and I break into laughter as we witnessed the silly him pulling the leaf with all his might.

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After cleaning and washing the mushrooms—not the entire 3kg batch of course, we kept the remaining half to steam them for another meal—Mae placed them in a big pot and added fish sauce, lemon basil and salt to flavour the mixture. Next, she lined three layers of overlapping banana leaves and scooped some mushrooms onto the plate, before folding them up into a rough tetrahedron and fastening the bundle with a stick. She reminded me that wrapping the mushrooms with several layers of banana leaves would seal the moisture in and prevent the content from being burnt. Then she repeated the same steps for the second bundle, before placing the pair on the charcoal grills.

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I was looking very much forward to savouring the fungal goodness in 15 minutes. To my disappointment, Mae informed, “No, we have steam them for about two hours.”

And waited we did. When the packets were unwrapped some two hours later, the moisture had dried up and the herby fragrance of the lemon basil had infused into the content, leaving mushrooms that imparted an aromatic, smoky chew when bitten into.

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While the farm-to-table food movement has gained popularity in the West in recent years, the practice of sourcing ingredients that originate within a 100km radius has in fact existed in many traditional communities in South-east Asia. For this particular dish, we got all the necessary ingredients within a 5km radius—how’s that for being a locavore?

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Raising a stink with sator

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It was 2005, and I was assisting a bunch of geography professors to study the impacts wrecked by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami on the Andaman coast of Thailand, some six months after the disaster. For two weeks, we moved around Khao Lak and Koh Lanta in a rented van, visiting sleepy coastal villages to interview inhabitants of their experience when the big wave came—accounts range from harrowing to sad, with occasional funny anecdotes weaved in.

During one of these trips, while driving along rural roads flanked by rows of rubber trees that typically characterise the landscapes of southern Thailand, we pulled up by the roadside for some reason I can’t quite remember now. Perhaps someone wanted to take a leak, maybe the smokers wanted a puff, or maybe the driver wanted to check on his vehicle. But when the van stopped, a few of us tumbled out of the vehicle.

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And that was when Ajarn May spotted wild sator (สะตอ) pods hanging from a tree. Her eyes lit up and her fingers reached out to pluck a pod from a cluster of slightly twisted ribbons. “It’s my favourite food in Indonesia when I was doing fieldwork there,” I recall her saying. “It’s stinky but I love it,” she went on, trying to explain her fondness for the stink bean to a horde of farang academics.

When everyone was ready to roll, the sator pod followed us into the van. By then Ajarn May had begun to peel off the almond-shaped beans from the pod, popping them raw into her mouth. She proceeded to ask if anyone would like to try the beans, but her invitation was met with polite declines. Although my Thai was already at an intermediate level then, my understanding of Thai culinary culture was still in its infancy and I hadn’t mastered the act of imbibing vegetables in their raw forms yet. But I did remember a peculiar smell that followed us throughout the journey.

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Sator isn’t unique to Thailand though; it’s also a common culinary ingredient in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. In fact, petai—as what sator is called in Malay—is often found stir-fried with sambal at Malay food stalls in Singapore too but my interest in these stinky beans was only roused following Ajarn May’s induction. Till today, I can’t look at fresh sator pods or eat these beans without reminiscing that particular roadside stop or that one great inspiring figure during my undergraduate days. And I’m also quite pleased to declare that a decade later, my appetite for Thai food and culture has grown to a voracious level and sator also makes a regular appearance in my kitchen.

A note of caution: sator highly lives up to its namesake and will make its mark as it passes through a human body—the beans leave a lingering smell in the mouth and expect weird-smelling urine for a couple of days. It’s no wonder why flatulence jokes often abound between Mr.P and I following a sator meal…

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สะตอผัดกุ้ง | sator phat kung | stir-fried stink beans with shrimps

Ingredients:
2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
3-4 garlic cloves, sliced
3-4 shallots, sliced thinly
3-4 bird’s eye chillies, sliced
1/2 cup sator, sliced into half
300g shrimps, deveined and cleaned
A dash of kapi (or belacan)
Fish sauce to taste

Method:
1. To a wok of vegetable oil on high heat, add garlic and shallots, frying them until fragrant.
2. Stir in kapi and chillies, followed by a bit of water to ensure the mixture is well-mixed.
3. Add shrimps and when they start to turn pink, toss in sator. Continue frying the mixture for a few minutes. Add fish sauce to taste.

สะตอผัดกุ้ง, stir-fried stink beans with shrimps

Fishy business at Paknam Market

ตลาดปากน้ำที่สมุทรปราการ | Paknam Market, Samut PrakanIn our quest to acquire good-quality dried squid for Mae, we decided to check out Paknam Market (ตลาดปากน้ำ) in Samut Prakan, just a 30-minute drive from our place and where the Chao Phraya River meets the Gulf of Thailand. Although we arrived quite late (around 10am) and activities were already winding down, hordes of workers were still hard at work at the unloading area; some workers were selecting and picking fish into baskets as fast as the catch was transferred to land, while a couple others were mending fishing nets.

We then popped over to the fresh market and I became more excited with each step I took. Outside, cars, pick-ups, taxis and the occasional tuk-tuk thronged the narrow one-way street, while inside the entire market was abuzz with sellers and buyers, and trucks and trolleys piled high with styrofoam boxes constantly barreled down the wet corridors (note: non-slip shoes are a must here). Much bigger than the usual fresh markets in Bangkok, the vast market was filled with an extraordinary array of fresh produce and seafood. Sellers were all smiles and quick to sing praises of their produce whenever we stopped to peruse the items on sale or take photos with our mobile phones.

Among the warrens of stores, there were fist-sized promfret lookalikes, which a vendor insisted make yummy dishes when deep-fried; crystalline crayfish lined up in neat rows; gleaming fish roes, a stall that sells only squid and octopuses, and even stingrays made an appearance here. I also learned more specific names of the various seafood types on display—whisker squid anyone? Furthermore, prices were clearly displayed and cheaper than the fresh markets I usually frequent, so I foresee we will be making more trips to Paknam Market to stock up our fridge in future. Meanwhile, I’m already dreaming of seafood grilling sessions in the great outdoors!

ตลาดปากน้ำที่สมุทรปราการ | Paknam Market, Samut Prakan

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The bitter truth about ageing

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As a kid, bitter gourd was one of my least favourite vegetables. Conversely, eggs were top on my list. So whenever my mum cooked stir-fried bitter gourd with eggs, it became a bittersweet dilemma for me. Should I eat or not eat? My young taste buds abhorred the taste that the astringent vegetable left in my mouth, yet on the other hand I craved for the egg bits.

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“Eat! Bitter gourd is a cooling food,” my mum would command. “We’ve been eating too much heaty food lately, bitter gourd will help to balance our system.”

In the end I would muster up the courage and pick out the smallest possible pieces of bitter gourd, quickly popping them into my mouth followed by a big spoonful of rice to lessen the bitter taste.

Some years later, I would read that women’s ability to taste bitterness diminishes with age—aha! So that’s why Mummy could take bitter food much better than I do, I thought.

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And interestingly, nowadays seeing the pale-green melons stewed with pork ribs at Teochew khaaotom (porridge) stores in my neighbourhood always make me crave for them. Thankfully, like the rest of Asia, bitter gourd is commonly found in fresh markets in Thailand, giving me the chance to bag one of these oblong beauties home for dinners. And hence I conclude that I’m indeed starting to go over the hill and down the slope to less sensitivity to bitterness.

After learning that dabbling salt on bitter gourd will reduce its bitterness, it has been a technique I will deploy each time I cook with this vegetable. If it’s bitter gourd stuffed with minced pork, I’ll rub salt on the exposed flesh for some 30 minutes; if it’s stir-fry eggs thar I’m cooking, I’ll soak the sliced bitter gourd pieces in a salty solution.

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One day, I told myself, I shall eat bitter gourd in its pure bitterness and be on my way to ‘吃得苦中苦方为人上人’ (chi de ku zhong gu, fang wei ren shang ren), a Chinese adage which means that one has to ‘eat bitterness’, i.e. endure adversities, to become a better person.

The ability to imbibe bitterness must be a prized trait, for Thai culture also has a proverb, หวานเป็นลม ขมเป็นยา (khwaan pen lom waan pen yaa), which literally translates as ‘sweetness leads to faintness and bitterness is a medicine’, but actually means praises make one happy but frank advice serves as a good reminder.

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[Recipe] Stuffed bitter gourd in clear soup | แกงจืดมะระยัดไส้

1. After cutting both ends of the bitter gourd, slice it into pieces of about 1.5 inches thick each. Scoop out the seeds in the middle. If you wish to reduce the bitterness, rub salt on the rinds and keep aside for 30 minutes before rinsing off the salt.

2. In a bowl of minced pork, add optional ingredients of diced carrots, mushrooms and vermicelli to season the meat. Usually I will also add some corn flour and soy sauce, plus a dash of sesame oil, Shaoxing wine and pepper to enhance the flavours. Mix well. Stuff the seasoned minced pork into the cavities of the sliced bitter gourds, ensure the meat fit the hollowness snugly.

3. Bring a pot of water/chicken stock to boil. Add the bitter gourd, sliced shiitake mushrooms and carrots into the water, turn down the fire and keep the pot simmering for at least 20 minutes until the melon turns yellowish-green and soft. Garnish with spring onions and cilantro. Serve with rice.

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Noodling around khanom jiin

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Making khanom jiin used to be a norm during festive periods in Mr. P’s home village when he was young. The process of making these thin, capellini-like strands was rather labourious (as illustrated by this post and the other), hence it was not an activity that the villagers engaged in on a regular basis but reserved for bigger occasions.

Like any other kid, the khanom jiin preparations would thrill Mr. P to no end; he liked to tag along female relatives who would join other ladies to make the noodles. Uncooked rice is first soaked in water to ferment for over three days, and the soggy batter that results will be vigorously pounded in big wooden krok (mortar). The dough is then pushed through a tin can with holes, which will be moved in a circular motion to collect the strands in a pot of simmering water; once the strands float to the water surface, they will be scooped up and shocked in cold baths. Sometimes, during the process, the adults would pinch a bit of the dough and grill it for kids to savour as a slightly sourish snack first, Mr. P recalls.

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Not every household possessed a huge wooden krok though, and any family with one would be guaranteed reservations from neighbours prior to the festivals. Several families would often come together to pool resources to make khanom jiin, awaiting their turns to use the rice flour pounder. Owners who rented out their krok would get a batch of fresh noodles in return.

But alas, as “modernisation” marches across Thailand—and any other village on earth—such food-making practices are increasingly rarer as machines and vehicles make inroads into villages and younger folks head to urban areas for work, according to Mr. P. Along the way, the art of making khanom jiin also fell into disfavour as mass-produced or commercially made versions become readily available.

A staple in many Thai dishes—from being a carb alternative to sticky rice to tam sua (rice noodle papaya salad)—these fermented rice noodles shine brightest in khanom jiin naam ya, which pairs these soft strands with various Thai curries. At such stalls, vendors will place the accompaniments—typically hard-boiled eggs, shredded cabbage, raw beansprouts, pickled mustard, lemon basil and long beans—on a communal table. Once your order arrives, add the desired sides (tongs are usually provided) on top of your bed of noodles, mix them up and tuck into the noodles. (Note: the greens are usually free, but eggs will be charged separately.)

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Whenever we head to the fresh market at Ramkhamhaeng 2, a suburban neighbourhood Mr. P used to stay in when he first moved to Bangkok, we will hit the khanom jiin store at the adjacent open-air food market too. This stall serves various naamyaa, from kati (coconut milk) and kaeng khiaow waan (green curry)—popular versions in central Thailand—to naam ngiaow—favoured among the northerners. Of late, I’m starting to develop a fondness for khanom jiin kaeng tai plaa, the southern version (below) served in a pungent and robust curry made from fermented fish entails.

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But when it comes to home cooking, I would opt for green curry to pair with khanom jiin since the former can be easily whipped up with ready-made paste. (After trying a few brands, my favorite is Roi Thai.) Prepare the green curry as per package instructions, but make sure to have vital vegetables such as galangal, lemongrass, eggplant, pea aubergines, kaffir lime leaves and bird’s eye chillies to yield a more authentic taste.

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However, the dish name khanom jiin is kind of a misnomer in Thai. Khanom usually means snack or dessert and jiin means Chinese, but khanom jiin is neither a dessert nor Chinese in origin. In fact, khanom jiin is believed to originate from the Mon people—an ethnic group from Myanmar—with its name meaning twice-boiled in the Mon language.

The flavours of time

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Nothing marks the passage of time better than an aged teapot. I was halfway through an enjoyable dim sum meal on Hong Kong’s Temple Street when the middle-aged stall owner stepped out and placed a worn-out tea flask to brew, on an equally worn-out gas burner, right by the roadside in a crowded Kowloon. I wasn’t the slightest perturbed by the shabby appearance of the flask, in fact after observing the owner strain the steaming brown liquid with deft actions, it dawned on me that the tannin coating accumulated on the vessel over time must have imparted extra seasoning to the cup of tea I was sipping. And, like a vintage teapot, I hope my culinary journey in 2014 will be one infused with strong flavours and immense appreciation.

Egging on for weekend breakfasts

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Tomorrow morning I’ll have khai krata for breakfast, right?’ will inevitably pop up on Friday nights, more like a directive disguised as a question by Mr. P. I’ll always feign indignation, arguing why I should be tasked to cook on weekends when both of us are equally adept in the kitchen, but Mr. P knows he has hit a soft spot. The feeling of being able to cook up a simple breakfast of eggs and coffee for a loved one is especially gratifying, bringing a cheery start to weekend mornings.

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Khai krata (ไข่กระทะ) refers to pan-fried eggs served in mini aluminum pans. Available throughout the country, these sunny side up eggs are topped with the ingredients of Chinese sausages, muu yor (หมูยอ; Vietnamese-style boiled pork sausage), minced pork, scallions and fried onions. Unlike higher-end hotels that typically have egg stations in their all-day dining areas, it’s not uncommon for egg services—if they exist—to take the form of khai krata for guesthouses or local hotels in upcountry Thailand.

The khai krata obsession has gripped us both since we came back from our Isaan road trip in September. We had a delightful breakfast of khai krata at a local boutique hotel, Pen Ta Hug, in Ubon Ratchathani, sparking off the desire to get our own mini krata sets. Our chance came when we visited the Indochine Market at Mukdahan, a border trading town along the Mekong River with Laos’ Pakse on the opposite bank. At this riverside market stocked with cheap household items, toys and packaged snacks imported from China (which border market in Southeast Asia isn’t flooded with Chinese goods?), we browsed the stalls and found the aluminum pans that we were looking for. These pans were cheap—somewhere between 25 baht and 35 baht each—and now I regretted getting only a pair.

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The kratas are such a darling to work with. Light and thermally responsive, the aluminum pans heat up fast and any knob of butter spooned onto it will start sizzling in no time. Crack an egg into the pan, followed by generous sprinklings of diced muu yor and Chinese sausages, before adding chopped scallions and fried onions as garnishes.

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Of course there’s no fast and fixed rule that only these sausage duo can go into the pan with the egg. I ran out of muu yor one weekend and used ham to substitute the pork sausage, but it just tasted different. Ham is more suited with cheese just as muu yor is more suited with Chinese sausage. But it’s entirely up to one’s preferences.

The next step? Make yourself a nice, warm cup of thick coffee and you’re on your way to a great weekend.

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Finding comfort in Mae’s bamboo shoot salad

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Isaan, or northeastern Thailand, is full of dishes that are very strong and fiery in flavours. Most new inductees to Thai food may not take to this regional cuisine that well, as plaa raa—the Isaan equivalent of naam plaa (Thai fish sauce) but more overpowering and pungent—is a staple for many of its iconic dishes. But once the plaa raa “barrier” is surmounted, discerning palates will be rewarded with a smorgasbord of flavours. Seriously.

Having went down the path of pungent Thai sauces, I now see beauty in food like sup nor mai, or Isaan bamboo shoot salad. While it’s quite common to find this dish at mixed food stores in Bangkok, the versions served at these roadside or makeshift stalls often resemble strips of used rags soaked in dirty mop water, which tend to reduce the dish’s visual appeal by several notches.

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But put a dish in the right hands and it will shine. During a recent visit to Udon Thani, my mother-in-law (whom I simply call Mae) welcomed our arrival with sup nor mai. After the first few morsels Mr. P and I were hooked, and by the end of the meal we were craving for more bamboo shoots. Before returning to Bangkok, we requested for sup nor mai again, which Mae happily obliged.

But to make the best and freshest possible version, we have to drive five kilometres to the next village nestling at the foothills of Phu Foilom. Why? According to Mae, the villagers there gather wild bamboo shoots from the mountains and grill them before selling, which will enable us to save a step in the preparation process.

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After coming home, Mae starts the process. With deft movements, she peels off the grilled outer leaves from the bamboo shoots, then slices off the base while keeping the more tender parts. The shoots are then dunked in a bowl of water to remove any dirt.

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Now, don’t these “naked” bamboo shoots look like wax crayons?

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Mae then uses a bamboo stick to shred the tender bamboo shoots into strips. I pick up a stick and start to mimic her actions, which draws chuckles from her as she keeps her shredding momentum. But she takes a quick look at my progress and gives me the thumbs-up for creating passable-looking strips.

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The bamboo strands are then sliced and caught in a bowl. Mae’s actions are so swift that several times I have to request for her to pause in her actions in order for me to photograph the process.

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At this point, a spotted, tri-coloured dog trots over to the bamboo hut where we are seated, curious to see what the fuss is all about. Our eyes meet for several seconds, but I think to myself, sorry dude, sup nor mai’s not for you.

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Mae then beckons me to follow her to the side of the house to pick bai yanang (ใบย่านาง). These leaves help to tat khom—which literally means ‘cut the bitterness’—as fresh bamboo shoots have a bitter, acrid taste.

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After collecting and washing the yanang leaves, Mae gives them a vigorous rub to release their juices, a process which Mr. P likens to washing clothes. Very soon, the bowl is filled with dark green extracts – naam yanang.

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The julienned bamboo shoots are boiled together with the yanang water in a pot to reduce the liquid. Fish sauce and lime juice are added, followed by shredded ginger leaves, chopped scallions and crushed peanuts.

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The final dish is so yummmmmmy. I admit that it’s not a dish for everyone, but it’s so satisfying to dip balls of sticky rice into the thick sauce and bite into the bamboo shoots at the same time. Till now, more than a month since our Udon Thani trip, Mr. P and I are both still gushing over Mae’s sup nor mai. Well, we need to pencil in another trip back home soon!

Harvesting asparagus in Udon Thani

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The highlight of any trip to Udon Thani, Mr. P’s hometown, is the ability to taste freshly picked asparagus at its source. The family living beside the parents’ home runs an asparagus farm, so there is always an abundance of this vegetable during meal times.

This success of this family’s asparagus operation is founded on hard work and persistence, according to Mr. P. There was a wave of asparagus farming among the villagers a while back, but many had also failed and have since turned to plant other cash crops. Although Thailand’s climate makes it ideal to harvest asparagus year-round, this vegetable requires well-drained soil, which the dry, sandy soil in Isaan (northeastern Thailand) is not entirely suited for.

Mr. P’s mum works part-time as an asparagus picker, so she has to head out to the plantations at 6am. One morning, we popped by the farm to take a look at mum and other workers harvesting the spears. The fern-like plants looked particularly alluring with rainwater and dewdrops trapped among its wispy, feathery leaves. We wandered among the plots, peeked at asparagus tips poking through the soil and said hi to the other neighbours who were recruited to help with this operation.

When I saw mum walking towards us among the trenches, I quickly pointed the camera at her. How I love this shot of her (above) among the asparagus shrubs, with her twinkling eyes and warm smile!

More pictures of the asparagus harvesting process below.

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Lusting for the magical blue potion

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For the past few weekends, I felt like an alchemist in my kitchen. I had been boiling water, scalding flowers and tinkering with colours in a quest to achieve a desired potion.

Sounds too far-fetched? In reality, it’s just butterfly pea flowers that have piqued my interest in creating natural colour extracts. I bought a batch of butterfly pea flowers so I was very eager to try my hands at extracting colours from them. These blue extracts are often used in Malay and Peranakan cooking to dye rice and desserts—now I finally know where kueh salat got its colour from—while in Thailand they are commonly made into a blue/purple drink called naam dork anchan (น้ำดอกอัญชัน). I got the inspiration to brew my own blue potion following recent visits to several hotels in Thailand and Laos that served their welcome drinks made from butterfly pea flowers.

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The common names of this tropical Asian plant—butterfly pea or blue pea—sound innocuous in English but its scientific name is way more blush-inducing: Clitoria ternatea. This herbal plant is so named because of the shape of its flowers, which, with vivid blue hues and light yellow markings, supposedly resemble a particular female anatomy, but you have to look at the flower from its front to get the idea. (I think whoever named this flower must surely be a man!)

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[Recipe] Extracting colours from butterfly pea flowers is easy peasy. Place the flowers in a bowl or container, add hot water and then wait for the colours to infuse into the water. Initially I used around 20 flowers to two cups of water, and an indigo-blue hue was yielded. I decided to go for a less intense blue so I soaked five flowers instead. This time round the colour created was a lovely cobalt blue, which reminded me very much of chemistry experiments during my schooling days.

After the colours have infused into the water, pass it through a sieve to remove the flowers and any loose petals. The flowers would have imparted a strong floral note to the water, so stir in some honey or sugar to the desired sweetness and your butterfly pea drink is ready.

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Now more fun—and magic—is under way. Adding a few drops of lime will increase the acidity of the water and change its colour to purple. I could see twirls of purple slowly spreading across the water after I squeezed some drops of lime juice. Serve the tea warm or chilled, with or without lime, but the lovely hues of blues and purples are sure to impress!

Butterfly pea flowers provide an inexpensive and organic way to extract natural colourings without having to rely on artificial food dyes and will certainly make good kitchen science experiments for those with kids at home, don’t they?

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