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

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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.

Cha-om: leaves with an offending smell, but the power to please

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THAI cooking has no lack of pungent (note: this is subjective) but yummy food items. I don’t even classify durians—and especially Thai durians—within this category yet. Sator is one classic example, although the culinary use of these stinky beans is not restricted to Thais only as the Malays and Peranakans are also known to whip up superb stink-bean dishes (think prawn and petai sambal).

Another strong-smelling favourite of mine is cha-om (ชะอม) or acacia leaf. The tropical variant (Acacia pennata) of the acacia family, the leaves are commonly used in Thai, Lao and Burmese cooking. And these leaves can be quite a stink bomb indeed. When I brought them home from the market, the leaves stank up my kitchen and fridge, as though someone let off a vicious, lingering fart.

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But offensive smells aside, the fresh acacia stalks mesmerised me to bits. The way Thai vendors handle their greens are often a showcase of ingenuity. For this cha-om bundle, a banana leaf was folded and wrapped around the stalk ends as a base, with a thin bamboo strip securely tied around as a clip.

However, closer inspection of these feathery bundles would reveal tiny thorns on the cha-om stems, so do exercise caution when plucking the fronds off the stems.

One of the best ways to taste the inherent goodness of this vegetable is through khai jiao cha-om (ไข่เจียวชะอม) or acacia omelette, which is very easy to make; the steps are similar to how one would cook minced pork omelette, for example.

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[Recipe] Break the eggs into a bowl, add the plucked cha-om leaves and whisk the mixture. Add a pinch of salt and few drops of soya/fish sauce. Heat up some oil on the skillet on high heat, then pour in the egg mixture. Unlike typical omelettes which require a rather thin film to cook well, cha-om omelette should be rather thick and the mixture should come to a height of, say, 1/2 inch from the base. When one side of the the omelette is golden-brown, flip it over. When both sides are evenly cooked, remove the omelette from the skillet and place them on a piece of kitchen towel to absorb the excess oil. When the omelette is sufficiently cool enough, use a knife to cut them into square chunks or slices, depending on preference.

The offending smell would have disappeared by now, leaving a fragrant omelette of yellows, greens and browns. Serve the omelette on top of steamed rice, dunked into kaeng som (Thai sour curry) or dip them into naam phrik kapi (chilli dip). Whichever way it is, the omelette is guaranteed to be potent yet pleasing.

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An addictive salad: khaao yam and naam buuduu

khao yamKhaao yam (ข้าวยำ) and naam buuduu (น้ำบูดู), now where should I begin? It goes back to 2008, when a Thai colleague mentioned in passing that khaao yam, a Southern Thai rice salad, was her favourite Thai food. At that time I had just started living in Thailand and I was beginning to taste my way around Bangkok and Thailand. I didn’t manage to try the dish then, but the name stuck in my head.

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