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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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?