The rice harvest has started in Isaan. The vivid photogenic greens of the paddy fields have been replaced with the soft yellows and browns of rice at the time it is ready to be harvested. I wrote about the whole process of growing rice on the family farm in detail HERE if you are interested in reading the background. A lot of stages and work go into that packet of rice you put into the shopping trolley.
My focus today is not the growing of rice but one of the important rituals behind the harvest – food! On smaller farms, like the one the family own, rice harvesting is done by hand. With small fields divided by low earth walls it is impractical to use mechanical harvesters The family also feel that you get a better yield from hand harvesting. Whatever the reasoning, today 13 people were out in the heat slowly but steadily moving down the fields cutting the stalks about halfway up and laying them in neat rows behind them for collection later.
Part of the deal for these workers is that lunch is provided and it has to be substantial as they build up quite an appetite. I thought it would be interesting to show you what’s involved in feeding a bunch of Isaan farm workers and what the resulting feast looks like.
Firstly real Isaan food is nothing like what you have ordered from your local Thai takeaway on a Friday night. It is mostly a rough, unsophisticated food designed to be quickly assembled with whatever is freshly available from the markets, the farm and what’s growing at the side of the road. A lot of it uses animal parts that we throw away and very little is wasted. These are people who have a history of pretty basic farming life with neither the time, energy or money to develop a sophisticated range of recipes. It is only more recently Isaan has started to enjoy higher incomes but their natural instinct on the food side of things is to stick with what they know best.
I am no expert but if I had to generalise the flavour of Isaan food “sour” and “hot” would pretty well cover it. For westerners like me more used to the softer and sweeter tastes of Thai food from “home” I find Isaan food to mostly be outside of my comfort levels! However for many, including my brother and my sister-in-law, some Isaan food is at the top of their dinner menu. Sam, my sister-in-law even asked Gaun, my wife, to send a kilo of her special chilli paste to Sydney and it has been in constant use ever since.
I am in no way putting down Isaan food here and you’ll see what’s great about it as you read further.
All the cooking for the lunch was done at the family farmhouse on the edge of the rice fields. I have mentioned in previous posts that the term farmhouse is a little granduous for what is a open tin shed, but it acts as the central point for the farm and also as my brother and sister-in-law’s bedroom at night.
It is here that a large meal for 16 people is efficiently produced only using two wood fired stoves. The main chefs for the last two days have been Yuan, Gaun’s younger sister, and Apple, a niece. Gaun got involved in a minor way today as you’ll see.
The menu was a hearty beef soup, Laab or Larb Moo, which is actually a pork dish, a pappaya salad, fresh vegetables both cooked and raw, sticky rice of course and sweet pappaya.
I thought the best way to have you over for lunch today would be to walk you through the preparation of the Laab Moo in photos. It is a classic Isaan dish, simple and quick to make. This version used four different parts of the pig. Minced pork, the mincing is done by finely chopping the meat here, the skin, liver and some other internal organ – kidney? Vegetarians please skip the next bit.
The secret ingredient to Isaan cooking and Thai cooking in general actually – super freshness.
Salt and the chopped vegetables were now added, everything stirred together and simmered. Sugar is often added but not in this case.
Gaun then moved onto the pappaya salad made from finely chopping unripe pappaya growing everywhere in Isaan at the moment. You can’t get them in the markets because everyone has a tree or three.
The final addition to the pappaya salad is what Thais called “fish dead long time!” and that’s exactly what it is. A commercial fish sauce pales into tasteless insignificance next to this concoction. It is the output of fish fermented for at least 12 months. Best used in open spaces!
The end result. A happy bunch of farm workers tucking into an Isaan feast.
I hope you have enjoyed this post. It is my first attempt at the cooking side of Thai life and one of the “small” stories that gives an insight to living a real life here.
Thanks for reading.