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Thai Rainy Season: How to Catch a Fish With Your Hands

In Chicken in the Mango Tree, bestselling food writer Jeffrey Alford gives unique view of rural Thai food culture. 

Book Cover Chicken in the Mango Tree

In the small village of Kravan in rural Thailand, the food is like no other in the world. The diet is finely attuned to the land, taking advantage of what is local and plentiful. Made primarily of fresh, foraged vegetables infused with the dominant Khmer flavours of bird chilies, garlic, shallots and fish sauce, the cuisine is completely distinct from the dishes typically associated with Thailand.

Bestselling food writer and photographer Jeffrey Alford has been completely immersed in this unique culinary tradition for the last four years while living in this region with his partner Pea, a talented forager, gardener and cook. With stories of village and family life surrounding each dish, Alford provides insight into the ecological and cultural traditions out of which the cuisine of the region has developed. He also describes how the food is meant to be eaten: as an elaborate dish in a wedding ceremony, a well-deserved break from the rice harvest, or just a comforting snack at the end of a hard day.

We're pleased to feature an excerpt from Chicken in the Mango Tree as the next stop on our Writing the World tour. 


Rainy Season

Chicken in the Mango Tree Mae's Kitchen

This is the kitchen at Mae’s house. The large earthenware pot on the left, called an ong, collects rainwater used for drinking and cooking.

This is my fourth harvest (fourth year) in northeastern Thailand, and gradually I feel as if I’m understanding more about the agricultural cycles unique to this place. One of the big mysteries, specifically at harvest, was how quickly the fields change from lush green to golden yellow and from post-harvest yellow to brown. In North America I was used to fields of wheat and barley that slowly change color as the grain matures. I’m used to autumn, to the slow, almost idyllic transformation between summer and winter: leaves changing colors, days getting shorter, the light ever more angled.

Here the months of October, November and December are very different. This year in late October and early November there’s been severe flooding, especially in central Thailand. People say that it’s been the worst flooding in 100 years; over 600 people have lost their lives. In our region the flooding hasn’t been so bad, and the rice fields are still in good condition.

"Rainy season" lasts from late May and early June through until November. But early rainy season and late rainy season aren’t the same. Here the early rains come from the southwest monsoon, similar to the major rainy season that predominates in the Indian subcontinent. Every morning the sky is crystal blue, and around mid- to late afternoon big cumulus clouds start to build.

If all goes as it should (which isn’t always the case with the fickle monsoon), by late afternoon the rain comes, life returns to the parched earth and everyone is happy. June, July, August and even into September, the southwest monsoon is in control and life is good.

Chicken In the Mango Tree Mortar and Pestle

Very few essential kitchen items are needed to get started—a large mortar and pestle is one of them 

But late September, October and November are not the same. As the southwest monsoon starts to taper off, in its place comes typhoon season, cyclone season. Northeastern Thailand is too far from the coast to get hit directly, but as with hurricanes in Florida that hit eastern Canada several days later, the tail end of a tropical storm can bring a rainfall of 5 or 6 in (12.5 to 15 cm) to northeastern Thailand in one day. When there’s flooding here, it’s generally at this time of year, even though the overall level of rainfall is lessening. The flooding is not because of the rain, but because the level of the groundwater has reached a saturation point.

A few days ago we got hit with the tail end of a tropical storm. We have a drain in the culvert at the front of our house, but instead of the water going down the drain, the drain was like a fountain with water blasting up a foot and a half into the air! The road (which, like almost all roads here, is built up to prevent flooding), was flooded, but not badly. The situation wasn’t dangerous, but just the opposite. In the fountain of water there were fish—fish everywhere. There were freshwater eels, small snakes, frogs and serpent-head fish. Up from the other side of the road came pla mo, small perch famous for their ability to climb up steep inclines of earth.

Pea was in heaven, catching fish by hand from early morning until well after dark. So too were all the neighborhood kids and eventually their parents. Everyone was soaked from head to foot, but nothing could deter anyone from chasing the fish, shrieking every time a fish was caught. Pea was particularly thrilled because we have a fishpond, and everyone was happy to throw fish they caught into our pond.

On the second day I finally got up my courage and joined in. I’d never caught a fish by hand, and that was immediately apparent. I was big entertainment, with everyone watching and laughing. Every time I’d reach down to try to catch a fish, the fish would jump away. I couldn’t understand; it looked so easy for everyone else. Finally Pea came out, barely able to talk through laughing, and explained that I needed to use two hands, to go under the fish and to scoop the fish, not to grab at the fish.


Kha: Steamed Fresh Galangal Shoots

Chicken in the Mango Tree Chong Chom Market

Chong Chom market is a short drive from Kravan and is always a fun place to be. At dawn on a Saturday it’s packed with Cambodian vendors from the jungle just across the border selling wild mushrooms, orchids, crickets and grasshoppers, and red ant eggs. 

I will never forget the very first day I came to live with Pea in Kravan. We’d traveled 15 hours by bus from Chiang Mai in the far north of Thailand, the city where we’d first met. It was a long trip, and we didn’t talk all that much. Looking back, it felt a bit like being 21 years old and moving in with a girlfriend, finding an apartment, scraping together some furniture. We both had little idea of what to expect, but we trusted each other enough to go forward. After many a long conversation, we’d agreed that we wanted to try living in the country, not in a city. Kravan, Pea’s home village, made the most sense.

We arrived at Surin bus station, got off the bus and retrieved our baggage. Pea was immediately on the phone, anxiously looking around through the crowd. I knew it was no use for me to participate, or to ask any questions; I knew that somehow we would get to the village. The crowd started to thin out, and Pea kept looking, searching in all directions, no longer on the phone. At last an old red pickup drove up adjacent to the bus stand, an older man looking intently out from behind the wheel. Pea waved so that he could spot us, and then we carried our bags over to the truck. We greeted in Thai style, putting our hands together and sayingsawatdee kap,then threw our bags in the back and climbed in.

Chicken in the Mango Tree Chong Chom Market Chili Truck

The Chili Truck at Chong Chom Market

Kravan is about 30 mi (48 km) from Surin, but 30 mi here can seem a lot longer than 30 mi in North America, especially in an old pickup with one door almost falling off. I had no idea where I was, following one bumpy potholed dirt road after another, weary from 15 hours on a bus, yet excited. Again, no one spoke much. The driver was a cousin (who I now know as Tat, a brilliant musician who plays thekhaen, a large bamboo mouth organ). We drove along looking out at parched earth (it was March), meandering our way through village after village. Finally we arrived in Kravan, unceremoniously, which I think is the rural Thai-Khmer way. We pulled up to Pea’s mother’s house and took out our bags. I paid Tat 400 baht (roughly 15 American dollars) for coming to pick us up, and he headed off. We walked up beneath the shade of the overhang where there were (as there always are) half a dozen older men and women, most everyone chewing betel. Pea introduced me to Mae (“Mae” is the word for “mother,” and it is also the name by which I have come to know her), and we greeted sawatdee. Pea then told me that we should carry our bags up the steep wooden stairs, and so we did. She opened the door to one of the three rooms and in we went.

“I take care here,” said Pea. “You want shower?” She didn’t wait for a response, already opening a bag and looking for a towel and a sarong. She found them quickly and handed both to me. “You shy?”

“A little bit,” I replied, laughing.

“I will show you. Don’t be shy.”

Chicken in the Mango Tree Interior Yard With Chickens

Oie and Oat and their baby, Off, live in this bamboo hut just across the street. At night they have a large mosquito net that comes down to protect them. 

Thirty minutes later, refreshed from a cold shower, I was sitting with everyone else in the shade, drinking a cold Leo beer. Pea appeared, her arms wrapped around a large bundle of what looked like very thick grass. “You know these?” she asked. “Kha—these are kha.”

Kha is galangal; I knew galangal. But I only knew galangal as a rhizome, a part of the ginger family. These were obviously the stems, the shoots, but they were a good 3 ft (1 m) long, and longer.

“Help me,” Pea said, sitting down, putting down the bundle. She took one stem at a time, and starting at the top, peeled off the outside harder leaves, leaving a long tender shoot as if peeling a green onion. I started to help, happy to have a job. It took a long time; there was a lot of kha.

When we finished, Pea disappeared with the tender shoots. Thirty minutes later she reappeared, the stems all freshly steamed and wound together into small bundles. There was a bowl ofnam prik.She showed me how to pull out a stem of kha from a bundle, gather it together and dip it into the chile paste. The stems were tender and delicious, and the nam prik unbelievably hot.

She disappeared again, this time coming back quickly with another cold beer, and a glass for herself.

Excerpted from Chicken in the Mango Tree: Food and Life in a Thai-Khmer Village, ©2015, by Jeffrey Alford. Images by Jeffrey Alford. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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