Fanfan also takes on a project during our year in Broken Road where she would document a cookbook with the favourite recipes of rural grannies. A project which proved trickier than expected given almost every granny gave the same answer. ‘Nam prik pak’. A simple meal of boiled veg with a side of chilli dip. They eat this for almost every meal of everyday, which maybe due to lack teeth through their lifetime of betel chewing. At the same time, they are always excited to cook for me, and it feels almost like they compete to feed me. It’s like having my own personal chefs. So I won’t say Yai Thip is the best cook, because I’d get into trouble with the rest, but what I love about her cooking is that she does everything the traditional way, cooking outside over a stove fired by coconut husks and kindling. Here I share one of the first recipes she cooked for me, in a pumpkin curry (Kaeng Fak Thong), which is easily replicated with any Thai curry. Just switch around the curry pastes. Again this is a good example of how we can live off the land here as almost every ingredient is sourced from the compound through trees, bushes, shrubs and roots. It is all made from scratch with no pre-made coconut milks or curry pastes.
Much of the time is spent with prep work which can take a good few hours for many dishes. With curries we begin with coconut milk using old brown coconuts which are found scattered around the compound. Brown coconuts are little more than ripe green coconuts that have fallen from the tree and been lying around for days, weeks, months, but they are still good for making coconut milk. Through the year it became my job to open the coconuts where I was tasked to pry open the outer husks using my superior leverage, rather than strength, before Yai Thip cracks them apart (the grannies are too small here to grip the pliers). So, once the coconut husk has been removed, it’s thrown to the side and later used to feed the fire for the stove. Now, with the inner shell of the coconut left, it is just cracked and broken in half using a machete. The inside flesh is grated by hand and mixed with a cup of hot water. The mixture is then squeezed through a simple sieve to make coconut milk. Next up is the the curry paste, which isn’t so much a paste as it is a blend of ingredients. Here it is called prik kaeng and it’s like a multi-purpose chilli mix made from dry chilli, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic and lemongrass. It can be used for flavouring all sorts of stir-fries, soups, and as here, curries. Finally the pumpkin is cubed, the pork is sliced with a cleaver, and we are ready to cook.
The coconut husks collected earlier are now used, along with charcoal and kindling, to heat the traditional fire stove. Over the fire we place a metal pot and cooking begins. First a cup, or so, of coconut milk is put to boil in the pot before the ‘Prik Kaeng’ curry paste is added. Next goes in the pork, and soon after the pumpkin. The remainder of the coconut is the poured into the pot and the curry is left to stew. The added coconut milk is actually only the first squeeze from the pulp, known as the ‘head of the coconut milk’, and it is rich in coconut oil and is always used first in curries. After a short time on the boil a second squeeze of the coconut pulp goes through the sieve, this time known as the ‘Tail of the Coconut Milk’. The pot top goes on and the curry is left to simmer. There are limitations of course in our abilities to ‘live off the land’. We don’t make our own seasonings, like fish sauce or palm sugars, and we don’t produce our own meats on the compound. We buy our pork from a nearby corner where a butcher sets up shop in the small hours of the morning. Anyway, we finally add palm sugar and fish sauce to taste, and our pumpkin curry is served with cooked jasmine rice. There is never scarcity in rice here where the backhouse is packed to the rafters with rice farmed from the family’s fields. Check our Yai Thip’s traditional Thai cooking below.
In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief.