Tag Archives: sticky rice

Living, breathing, and eating Isaan

Grilled chicken, sticky rice & corn

My WorldTeach roommate Steph and I have a pretty sweet deal when it comes to living arrangements. Our Thai roommate, Pi Yok, prepares or buys our food every night so we never have to worry about where to find our next meal after a long day of teaching. This convenience does come with some setbacks (my mind wanders to the night we were served a chopped up and stir-fried frog, or when we were given raw lap, a popular Lao/Isaan meat dish with chilies and herbs) but most days the food is delicious; we even have a favorite dish we’ve come to look forward to, a savory vegetable omelet over jasmine rice, every Friday.

Yesterday we had a typical Isaan meal (pictured above) which was purchased from the daily market: grilled chicken, a handful of sticky rice, and an ear of corn (though the chicken doesn’t always come with feet sill attached!). Sticky rice and grilled meats are staples in the Isaan diet, as are fresh vegetables, soups, curries, eggs prepared in a variety of ways (omelet, fried, hard-boiled), and of course: som tam!

Som tam, rose apples, egg omelet and vegetables

Som tam, or papaya salad, is made with shredded green papaya, tomatoes, long beans, peanuts, chilies, lime, fish sauce, and sugar. It can be prepared with a variety of other ingredients and the papaya may be substituted with vegetables such as long beans or cucumbers. I eat som tam at least twice a week at school and usually once during the weekend. For me it was an acquired taste but I find myself craving it now; I’m also proud of the fact that I’ve graduated from the less-spicy anubaan (kindergarten) Thai version, teasingly named as such by Pi Tuk. I can now tolerate som tam Lao, though it still leaves my lips burning long after I’ve left the table!

One of my favorite things about the Isaan diet is the freshness of the fruits and vegetables. Second favorite thing: availability. Fresh markets are as common here as Walgreens and CVS stores are in the United States. I am also continuously amazed by the bright orange color of the beta carotene-packed egg yolks, a stark contrast to the washed-out pale yellow yolks found in the States. Food has been on my mind (more than usual) since reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and it’s hard not to draw comparisons between my diet here and in the U.S. It will be interesting as I navigate my way once again through the grocery store aisles after 1) having meals provided for me during the past year, and 2) living in a community where the closest thing to a grocery store is an open-air pavilion lined with local farmers selling their daily harvests. The transition will be note-worthy, to be sure.

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Community ties, an unexpected honor

Adorned wrists after a string-tying ceremony at Wang Yang Elementary School

This picture is a result of a string-tying ceremony I was a part of last Thursday at Wang Yang Elementary School. These ceremonies are an important ritual in Thailand, usually performed when someone enters or leaves a community, or when two people are wed. The ceremony I attended last week was to welcome the newly appointed principal to our school and say goodbye to the former; Teacher Bai-Khao was to receive strings as well, unbeknown to me until the ceremony was underway!

The ceremony started when the new principal lit a candle at the top of the banana leaf structure (see below) holding the strings soon to adorn our wrists. This structure is an intricate centerpiece of leaves folded into origami-like shapes and accented by flowers. Beneath this centerpiece is a whole, cooked chicken on a platter, numerous boiled eggs, and sticky rice wrapped neatly in banana leaves. I was seated in a circle around the centerpiece with principals from several surrounding schools in addition to the Wang Yang principals. Then a village elder offered prayers, and oratorical performance that, at the end, elicited shouts of jubilation from his audience, and a shot of whiskey from a principal. Then we began the actual string-tying; one of my favorite aspects of this part is how everyone in the ceremony connects to the receipent of the string, as everyone touches an elbow, forearm, or shoulder of another, until each person in the room is connected.

When it was my turn, I had to blink back tears as the village elders, students, and their parents circled around me and waited for a chance to tie a string and give me their kind words. Many wished for me to find a handsome husband, happiness, or good luck, though quite a few (from the limited Thai I was able to pick up) also wished upon me a quick return to the school, or to not leave them at all. With a hard-boiled egg and sticky rice in each hand, I looked around at the faces of my students, trying to imprint the moment forever in my memory as one of unconditional acceptance and appreciation. I noticed one of my third-graders wiggling back into the circle at least two more times to tie more string to my wrist, his face just beaming with what I thought to be excitement and adoration, the same look I get after giving him words of encouragement in class. As the ceremony was wrapping up, one of my co-teachers asked if I understood what people were saying, and when I replied “A little,” she responded by saying “Everyone loves Bai-Khao.”

Village leader tying his string to the new Wang Yang principal

For me this experience came at an incredibly important time, as I was struggling with (admittedly) self-centered feelings of under-appreciation, becoming extremely critical of my co-teachers’ styles of instruction, and having a hard time re-adjusting to my daily routine after saying goodbye to my latest visitor from the States. This experience put me in check and reminded me how lucky I am to live and teach in this community. I was so humbled by the ceremony and it truly could not have occurred at a better time. My life in Thailand has been surprising in that regard; no matter how confusing, disheartening, or impossible a situation may seem, things just have a way of working out when it’s least expected.

In other words: mai pen rai.


The secret life of fire ants

Thailand is gradually shifting from “hot season” to “rainy season” and one of the biggest indicators of this is the sudden increase in bugs. In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed a population spike in the beetles, moths, and most unfortunately, red ants, infiltrating our home. We’ve also had a surprise visit from a scorpion and a return visit from a domesticated mouse. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I am not really great with bugs. I usually get a little freaked out and squirmy around them, but if this year in Thailand has done anything, it’s squashed (excuse the pun) my fear of them. In fact, it has given me a deeper understanding of the term “coexistence.” However….

However, if there’s one invader I loathe to find within the walls of my abode, it’s red ants. They are everywhere. They get into our cereal, our peanut butter, our sticky rice, and even our water! They are constantly marching across all of our walls, so if I even brush up against one for a second or lean over the window sill to shout out to a neighbor, I’m quickly covered. I have to check my underwear every morning before I put it on because they’ve taken a liking to the cotton fabric, giving a whole new meaning to “crotchless panties.” Last month I had a horrifying experience when, unbeknown to me, the pesky ants had infested my bath towel and without my glasses on as I started to dry off…well you can fill in the rest.

I returned to Pla Pak to the relief that I’d finally be able to sleep comfortably in my own bed after bouncing from hostel to guesthouse to bungalow for a month. Every morning for the past week I was waking up to the sight of one or two little fire ants marching across my bed. I did my best to sweep the room of dead bugs (oh, because the bugs that do get into our house and night are promptly feasted on by these ants each morning-it’s quite cyclical) and ensure no food is in the room, but the problem persisted. Finally I decided to re-wash all my bedding in the hopes of ridding the ants; as I stripped my bed I saw, to my disgust, hundred of ants burrowed in my mattress pad, on my mattress, even in my mattress! That was the last straw. I was Caitlyn the Exterminator, ready to reclaim what was rightfully mine.

I did my best to spray the infested areas. I flipped my mattress. I changed my sheets. Now I suppose I will have to wait and see if my work is done, or if I too will fall into the cyclical struggle of a bug’s life.


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