Jaew bong: a mother’s burning love for her sons

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JAEW bong (แจ่วบอง), the spicy chilli dip of Northeastern Thailand, is the best culinary representation of Mr. P’s mum’s love for her sons. A type of chilli relish in Thailand, jaew bong is what naam phrik num is to the northerners and naam phrik kapi is to the central Thais, and somewhat like what sambal is to the Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians.

Whenever Mr. P is back home, his mum never tires in whipping up her son’s favourite dishes. Like maeng kork—it isn’t Mr. P’s favourite though but he had a sudden craving and the parents obliged—MIL whipped up her version of jaew bong during our recent visit back to Mr. P’s hometown in Udon Thani. When Mr P’s brother lived apart from the parents, he also requested for their mum’s jaew bong whenever he was home.

Plaa raa, the fermented fish—fragrant to some, pungent to others, but definitely intense—is a vital component. Chopped shallots, lemongrass, kaffir leaves and bird’s eye chillies were first roasted over a slow fire to release the fragrance and increase their brittleness before combining the mixture with minced plaa raa to be pounded in a mortar to create the paste, according to MIL’s recipe. Just as how naam phrik differs from region to region, the ingredients and steps of making jaew bong also vary from mother to mother.

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On the morning we departed from Udon, MIL handed over her special concoction, reminding me at the same time to store the paste in the fridge. “It can last for several months,” she said.

Back in Bangkok, we assembled a raw vegetable set of cabbage, winged beans, string beans and cucumber, blanched bai tamlueng (ivy gourd leaves), together with sticky rice, to eat with jaew bong. The ideal way is to dip the greens into jaew bong, while interspersing the fiery flavours with knobs of sticky rice kneaded up from the woven bamboo basket. I especially liked the slight smoky flavour of the jaew bong, the result of grilling the ingredients over a slow fire.

And now whenever hunger pangs strike, Mr. P just have to reach into the fridge for doses of his mum’s love, all across the 500km of physical distance.

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In Isaan, a bug hunting season begins

a plate of deep-fried beetles

THE night was sweltering, the air exceptionally still and humid. Nary a thing moved, and neither the leaves nor wind. Sprawled on the bamboo swings outside the house, Mr. P and I each nursed a can of chilled beer, hoping the coolness would banish the hot spell. The heat was unbearable; I tore the cover from a magazine and started fanning myself with that piece of paper.

A couple of steps away, Yai Canton (or Grandma Canton, nicknamed by me because her father came from Guangdong province eons ago) had perched herself on a foldable chair under the lamppost. On the ground, she had placed a rice-cooker pot half filled with water. Palmy, her three-year-old granddaughter, and my eight-year-old niece, Pin, were busy trailing the maeng ii-nuun (แมงอีนูน; chokchafer beetle) that fluttered awkwardly around the fluorescent light beaming from the lamppost. Each time any of the girls caught a bug, they would squeal in delight and proceeded to place it in the pot.

I was curious as to why the pot was filled with water, but Pin, ever the inquisitive one, beat me to it. “Yai, why did you fill the pot with water?” she enquired.

“If I don’t put water inside, the beetles will escape and fly off after you put them into the pot.” Why didn’t yours truly think of that before, I thought to myself, the silly urban dweller that I am.

Yai Canton was catching these bugs to eat them. Insects are commonly eaten throughout Thailand, but it is a culinary preference most symbolic among the Isaan people. Insects might once be an additional source of protein, but it’s now more commonly eaten as a snack among the Isaan natives, according to Mr. P. When his mum asked if he missed any food, he replied maeng kork (แมงกอก; I haven’t found the English name and would appreciate any information on this) and a big plate of these deep-fried beetles (pictured above) surfaced the following day.

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Sweat trickling down our backs, we continued to sit on the bamboo swings. A motorbike with two riders zipped past us. One of the them donned a head torchlight while the other was clutching an empty bottle. They sped into the darkness, where the sugar cane fields lie.

Then an engine hummed and a pick-up turned into the lane. It was Det, Mr. P’s brother. After parking the vehicle, he joined us at the little bamboo hut outside the house. He exclaimed, “I saw so many lights among the field as I drove in. It’s like a festival out there.”

Moments later, Tom, a childhood friend and neighbour of of Mr. P, rode past us on his motorbike. Mr. P shouted after him in the Isaan dialect, “Where are you going, Tom?” “To catch maeng kork!” he replied, with a bottle clutched in one hand and the other controlling the motorbike handlebar.

Then another motorbike crossed the road. And another. All of them rumbled down the lane leading into the fields, away from the houses in the village.

Yet another motorbike sounded, but this time toward us. It was Apple (pronounced Ap-pern), another of Mr. P’s childhood friends. After a day of work manning his mini mart, he dropped by to chat with Mr. P. He swung himself off the motorbike and seated himself beneath the bamboo hut.

Observing the continual string of motorcycles advancing into the darkness, Apple remarked, “Maeng kork can only be caught during these few days only, just before the rainy season begins. This is the time when the maeng kork go in search of spots to lay their eggs.”

Like Yai Canton, these villagers had caught the insect-hunting bug (no pun intended) that particular night, and everyone was using their own means and ways to ensure a meal of beetles.

Soon after, Tom was back.

“How was your catch?” Mr. P asked.

“Just a few only. There were as many humans as there were bugs in the field!”

Everyone laughed. And the sultry night wore on.

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Just stir in the oats

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The best thing about travelling, in my opinion, is the culinary inspiration that can spring forth anytime during a trip. I got the idea of whipping up my own yoghurt with muesli after indulging in German-style breakfasts at Berlin cafes, so I lugged a one-kilogram muesli pack over thousands of miles back to Bangkok. Now I love to enjoy this hearty combination as a mid-morning snack, which acts as a tummy filler when I need to meet deadlines.