Tippie the tour guide and I arrived in Nong Khai in Isaan province, literally the end of the line, after 14 hours on the train. Isaan is economically one of the poorest regions of Thailand, but agriculturally one of the richest, and the food here reflects the bounty of its surroundings. I’ll be exploring the town and markets of Nong Khai more tomorrow, but upon arrival, we drove an hour west to the Ban Wang Nam Mak village homestay.
Wan Nam Mak is a traditional community originally founded in 1959 in the outskirts of Si Chiang Mai province, surrounded by rubber plantations and sugarcane fields. In 1998, following the economic collapse in Bangkok, a Wan Nam Mak native named Tinanphop returned to his hometown and began to revitalize the village as a destination for tourists interested in seeing traditional Thai rural life. Today, the homestay program has over 100 families, who welcome mainly groups of domestic tourists into their homes, kitchens and cotton (a local crop) weaving studios. I am one of few Americans who’s made their way here, and I’m SOL when it comes to the English front, so Tippie—despite her insistence on calling the bathroom the “happy room” and her blaring Adele ringtone—has been an invaluable help.
After a few hours of socializing with the children and chickens, one of the village’s oldest residents, Pa (Auntie) Pon and her grown daughter, Peht, took me into the communal kitchen for a lesson in traditional Isaan cooking. Almost everything we ate was prepared using a mortar and pestle, and we took full advantage of the farmland nearby, picking fresh herbs and greens from the village’s community garden. As an independently-minded traveler, I’m usually wary of programmed activities, tour guides, or authority in general. But this meal was, to the best of my knowledge, no bullshit: just a family making a typical weeknight dinner, with the added annoyance of an American gnat [me] buzzing around taking photos and asking too many questions. There is no more intimate way to understand a food culture than by going into the home kitchen, and I feel [cheeseball alert] incredibly grateful that Pa Pon and Khun Peht let me in so readily. Below, dinner [apologies in advance the misspelling of any Thai words]:
Mam: Holy hell so goddamn delicious. It’s basically a dumpling wrapped inside of a flower instead of a carb. The filling is made from local onyx fish, pork, raw sticky rice, fish sauce, kaffir lime, chili, herbs and salt all pounded together into a paste with the mortar and pestle. Peht spooned a lump of the filling into the blossom of a local herbal flower (dok kae), sealed it with the leaves, and steamed a dozen of them at once.
Som Tum: Probably the region’s most famous dish: papaya salad, made from green papaya pounded with a kind of wild olive, tomato, garlic, lime, two kinds of fish sauce (homemade fermented and regular), chili and sugar. Incendiary and refreshing all at once, like Tiger Balm for your mouth.
Pon Plaa: kind of like seafood babaganoush, Thai style. Pa Pon fried up a base of aromatic [mild] chiles, shallots and mushrooms, then pounded that with filets of onyx fish that had been boiled with eggplant (eggplant apparently takes away the fishy smell of fish). A splash of cooking stock in the mortar and pestle and the resulting paste is light and refreshing, topped with cilantro for an herbaceous kick.
Also: tom yum soup made Northeastern style with tamarind sauce, steamed and raw greens from the garden, hard boiled eggs and about a bushel of sticky rice.
We ate on the ground, in a cotton lantern-adorned porch near the village’s small stream. Mangy dogs and cherubic children wandered in and around while we ate, and some elderly neighbors sat down and helped themselves to the food, too. Pa Pon ate slivers of ripe papaya for dessert and took a nap sitting up. I want to be like her when I grow up.
Coming up later this week: Exploring the Vietnamese-influenced cuisine in Nong Khai; witnessing the production and processing of fresh rice noodles in neighboring Tha Bo; my attempt to eat an entire grilled chicken [gai yang] in one sitting.