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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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!

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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